Brian Cunningham won the Democratic nomination on Sunday for the special election in central Brooklyn’s Assembly District 43, securing over 90 percent of votes in the County Committee nominating process after a grueling and at-times tense seven-hour meeting.
The Assembly seat, which includes all of Prospect Lefferts Gardens, along with parts of Crown Heights and Flatbush, was vacated last month by Diana Richardson, who is now serving as Deputy Borough President under new Beep Antonio Reynoso.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has scheduled the special election for March 22, with early voting set to begin on March 12.
Cunningham is a fixture of area politics, having served as a senior aide to State Sen. Kevin Parker and chief of staff to former Councilmember Laurie Cumbo before running an unsuccessful primary challenge in 2017 against Mathieu Eugene in Council District 40. Since then, Cunningham has worked at a number of jobs, including at the cure violence program Save our Streets Brooklyn and as social media manager for Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign. He currently works as director of operations for the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, according to his LinkedIn.
“I’m honored and humbled that the members of County Committee have put their faith in me to represent the people of District 43 and the Democratic Party in this special election,” Cunningham said in a statement. “Over the next several weeks, our campaign will continue speaking to voters across the district to ensure that every corner of every community has a chance to have their voice heard and to discuss the important issues we face.”
Cunningham won well over 90 percent of votes, consisting of those attending in-person and those who authorized others to vote for them by “proxy,” whereby a member who does not attend the meeting in person can authorize another member to vote on their behalf.
A significant majority of County Committee members’ proxy votes were claimed by the area’s two Democratic District Leaders, Edu Hermelyn (the husband of party chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn) and Sarana Purcell, a close ally of the party boss. While Cunningham received support from factions aligned with the party leadership and with reformers, the vote was something of a foregone conclusion once Hermelyn and Purcell began casting their proxy votes for Cunningham.
An embattled process
Proxy votes have long been a point of controversy between party leadership and reformers, as it causes County Committee members who show up to meetings to get outnumbered by those who don’t show up but sign over their vote to someone else, often but not always aligned with the party chair.
Reformers allege the problem has only gotten worse since the party appointed over 2,000 members in 2020, which was initially reversed in court, but ultimately went through.
“Those appointments just give them an unbeatable reservoir of proxy votes whenever they need them,” said Tony Melone, a spokesperson for New Kings Democrats, a reformist Democratic club frequently at odds with party leaders.
That came to a fore Sunday night when Hermelyn and Purcell, during roll call, claimed the proxy votes of a majority of County Committee members. The proxies held by the two District Leaders significantly outnumbered the people actually present at the meeting. While reformers have often alleged that the party gets disengaged members to sign over their votes, the party says that every proxy was gathered legitimately, and claims that the party has abandoned the oftentimes-sleazy manner that proxies were gathered under former leadership.
“[The District Leaders] know these people well,” said party spokesperson Sabrina Rezzy. “We stand by our District Leaders and that these signatures are genuine and beyond that, that they are actually very well connected to the people living at these addresses. Whatever this myth is from the former party leadership is is no longer the case today under current leadership, and we stand by every one of these votes.”
Cunningham, who had been endorsed by Councilmember Rita Joseph and State Sen. Kevin Parker, beat four other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination: Jelanie DeShong — who was supported by Richardson, State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, and US Rep. Yvette Clarke — as well as Tim Hunter, Pierre Albert, and Sharon Wedderburn. His win was bolstered by the proxies held by Hermelyn and Purcell, but he told Brooklyn Paper on Monday that he doesn’t believe his victory should be tainted by the process, as he won the support of both the proxy voters and those present in the room.
“I think what people missed was when you looked at the votes that were in the room, just the people that were in the room, even if there were no proxies, we still had the votes in the room to walk out of there with the nomination,” said Cunningham, who said he filed a Freedom of Information Law request to the Board of Elections to get a list of every County Committee member so he could then reach out and gain their support. “Over 90 percent of the people, both in-person and the proxies, voted for us. What you got a sense of is, the process needs work, but in terms of who we’re supporting, this is someone we’re supporting, someone we know.”
Seven hours later
The meeting, which was open only to County Committee members and closed to in-person press, started at 1 pm Sunday afternoon and trudged along for seven hours until finally adjourning a little after 8. The meeting was chaotic from the start, with Richardson, who has frequently been at odds with Bichotte Hermelyn, allegedly being denied entry by security since she’s not a member of County Committee, though she was eventually allowed to attend the meeting after it was clarified she was the seat’s former holder.
After an attendance roll call, Virginia Bechtold, a County Committee member affiliated with NKD’s Rep Your Block project (which encourages politically engaged Brooklynites to run for County Committee), asserted that one of the members claimed as a proxy by Purcell, Michael Lewis, was dead, leading to an argument between Bichotte Hermelyn and Myrie over Lewis’ being counted. Party leaders said that the reformers hadn’t presented enough proof that Lewis was dead, and Purcell ultimately cast his proxy vote in favor of Cunningham.
Reached for comment Monday morning, Lewis confirmed that he is indeed alive. “I am alive and well, praise the Lord,” he said, comparing false reports of his demise to a soap opera. The NKD-affiliated members ultimately retracted the allegation.
Lewis, who said he has been a County Committee member since 2019, told Brooklyn Paper that he was unable to attend the meeting due to work commitments, and said that he had signed over his proxy vote to Purcell after being reminded by his mother, Elisa Helligar, who is also a member of County Committee and is more involved in party politics than he is. Helligar was also not present at the meeting, noting that she was in class, but said the family members usually go in person.
“All I can do is give God thanks and praise that he is very, very much alive,” said Lewis’ relieved mother. “And I feel very sorry for the people who feel they have to kill him off to get anywhere. Only people who would do something like that would think someone else would do it, but we don’t operate like that in this house.”
Tensions continued to come to a head after the District Leaders claimed a majority of proxy votes during roll call, essentially making the actual vote little more than a formality and guaranteeing victory to their favored candidate (and, by extension, the one favored by Chair Bichotte Hermelyn). Myrie introduced two amendments to the committee rules — to lift a rule limiting debate to only 10 minutes, and to limit the number of proxies any one person could hold to 10 — in a last-ditch effort to prevent the District Leaders from dominating the vote. Both failed by substantial margins, owing to the fact that the District Leaders held the majority of votes by proxy.
“It’s really discouraging and disheartening to come here for hours on end and do all this organizing in the interim and have people show up with hundreds of proxies,” Bechtold said. “A lot of us have jobs! It sucks to be here and really have our vote not matter.”
‘The county pick’
The losing candidates also lobbed heavy criticism at the selection process. DeShong said that he left the meeting early to instead go knock on doors, hinting that he may be pursuing a third-party run. He added that he, like Myrie, believes there should be a limit on the number of proxies any one member can hold, and that he’s not alone in that.
“They want to see a more transparent Democratic Party, and definitely a more transparently-run County Committee process,” DeShong said by phone. “A lot of people who I spoke to already knew where the vote was gonna go, but still showed up on a Sunday at 1 o’clock. They still showed up and did their democratic duties, and I think it speaks volumes to the really active, engaged voters we have here. But most people already knew the process was, I don’t want to say rigged, but they already knew the outcome was what it was.”
In a written statement, Hunter — a former aide to Richardson and State Sen. Julia Salazar who now works for the advocacy group Citizen Action — also said that people should be limited in the number of proxies they can hold, and characterized the process as over before it even started.
“The candidate for the Democratic Line was already picked by the two District Leaders before the meeting even started,” Hunter said. “The two leaders held over 100 votes, and guaranteed the meeting would be one-sided the entire time. This undemocratic process is exactly why we need to organize and hold Kings County Democratic County Committee accountable by making real changes that limit the number of proxies that can be held by each person. I am very supportive of the efforts made by Rep Your Block, and hope to support their work throughout this campaign.”
Bichotte Hermelyn, for her part, curiously claimed that no one had complained about proxies during the tenure of former Chair Frank Seddio, and only started when she took the reins — speculating that her identity played a role in the grassroots activism against the proxy process.
“Quite frankly, before my leadership, there were many people I see here that were OK with the person who was in my position,” Bichotte Hermelyn said. “That’s just facts. Black woman, chair, all of a sudden, people are mad.”
Richardson, meanwhile, left a number of comments on Facebook Live characterizing the process as rigged.
“Brian is the county pick,” she said in one comment. “We have known this for weeks.”
If DeShong, an aide to Gov. Hochul, were to run on a third party line in the special election, he’d face an uphill battle similar to that faced by Keron Alleyne, who was nominated by the Working Families Party in this month’s special election in East New York’s 60th District after another whirlwind County Committee meeting. Alleyne lost the race against Democratic nominee Nikki Lucas by 60 points.
But he might face better odds in the 43rd District: Richardson herself was first elected in a 2015 special on only the Working Families Party, though in that instance, the Democratic nominee did not actually appear on the ballot. Nonetheless, he thinks the voters in the 43rd may be amenable to a progressive candidate even without the Democratic ballot line.
“This district is used to very independent advocates, very independent progressive leadership,” DeShong said. “I have in my favor that we have a very educated, active voter base in the community and we’re gonna go get it done.”
Cunningham, meanwhile, says he looks forward to serving his community in Albany, but he still has to win the special election and, later on, the June Democratic primary where he might face competition from some of those he defeated for the nomination. Notwithstanding the process at County Committee, he said he wants to see greater levels of civic engagement and said that he aims to always be transparent in all of his decision-making.
“What I am committed to always doing is always listen to folks, always understand how they feel and what they’re saying, committing to listening and understanding and responding, but always explaining why I’ve taken the position I’ve taken,” Cunningham said. “And why I do what I do.”