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December 11, 2018

Fight the Democratic machines: Insurgents are democratizing the party; New Yorkers should join them

September 25, 2018
U.S. Representative Joe Crowley (D-NY) meets with the NY Daily News Editorial Board on Thursday, August 31, 2017. (Jefferson Siegel / New York Daily News)

If we’re lucky, the same progressive wind that swept away nearly all of the state senators of the former Independent Democratic Conference will keep blowing for a good long while — and rid New York of the shady dealings of the city’s Democratic machines.

No sooner had progressive grassroots groups unseated Sens. Jeff Klein, Jose Peralta, Marisol Alcantara, Jesse Hamilton and Tony Avella than the machines resumed their usual backroom B.S.




Party insiders instantly began steering court and government positions to favored insiders, the public be damned.

New York’s county organizations aren’t as all-important as they once were, but they still wield a great deal of power. About one-third of all state Assembly members and approximately 19% of the Senate first entered office through special elections after an incumbent died, retired or got indicted.

In addition to filling vacancies, the county organizations act as gatekeepers, sending lawyers to file challenges that result in insurgent candidates getting thrown off the ballot. And the parties exercise close control over the nomination and election of state judges, who earn six-figure salaries, serve for 10- or 14-year terms, and wield enormous power over civil and criminal cases of all kinds.

A special plum guarded by each county machine are the five Surrogate’s Courts (one in each borough), which handle the disposition of assets belonging to people who die without leaving a will.

So who controls the county machines and the courts matters a great deal. And the folks in charge squeal when activists and the media point out their shenanigans.

In Queens, boss Joe Crowley, who just lost his House seat in a party primary, called a meeting of the county’s executive committee at a diner during work hours, a time and place that few elected officials in the borough even knew about. Crowley was re-elected as chairman.

Dissenters noted that Crowley actually lives in Virginia and was turned out of Congress by voters. A recent New York Times article noted that the Queens organization regularly fills positions with the names of people who have no idea they’ve been nominated.

A reform group called the New Queens Democrats has launched a campaign to open the process and recruit new committee members. Interested New Yorkers should contact them at newqueensdems.org.

In Brooklyn, the Democratic organization led by Frank Seddio got some post-election heat when Yasmeen Khan, a reporter from WNYC, turned up a letter being circulated that asked committee members to give their proxy vote to Seddio. The letter bore the names of three reform-minded Democratic district leaders who had, in reality, not given permission to have their names used.

Join the New Kings Democrats (newkingsdemocrats.com) if you want to see change to one of the largest Democratic organizations in America.

Up in the Bronx, according to my NY1 colleague Zack Fink, the Democratic organization nearly pulled off a multi-stage seat-swapping scheme. A plan was hatched to deliver a judgeship to Klein, who was unexpectedly unseated by Alessandra Biaggi in the state Senate primary earlier this month and will be looking for a job come January.

But it turned out that the judgeship had already been slated to go to City Councilman Andy Cohen, whose vacated council seat was promised to Eric Dinowitz, the son of Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz, who apparently wants to go into the family business.

Media scrutiny scotched the deal for now. But it’s another reminder that progressives who want to see change are at the start of a long, difficult battle against insiders who have long treated public institutions like a private playground.

Louis is political anchor of NY1 News.







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