Progressives secure party reforms at lengthy BK Dems meeting

Brooklyn Democratic Party
Reformers hold up signs at a 2017 Kings County Democratic County Committee meeting.
File photo by Julianne Cuba

Progressive activists secured a big victory over the Brooklyn Democratic Party leadership at a 13-hour Zoom meeting on Wednesday night, passing a slate of new rules aimed at making the borough’s party more democratic and transparent.

One freshman pol hailed the move as the result of more than a decade of organizing by progressive clubs like the New Kings Democrats to reform the Kings County Democratic County Committee’s Byzantine laws and power structures, and bring more ordinary Brooklynites into the fold.

“This is a huge milestone for 12 years of organizing for New Kings Democrats and Rep Your Block,” said Boerum Hill District Leader Jesse Pierce. “The engagement we’re seeing from County Committee members from across the borough — there are just so many people that get a piece of this success.”

NKD’s president Mariana Alexander put forth the set of rules at the end of the party’s chaotic virtual meeting on Dec. 16, after hours spent tabulating votes and alleged efforts by Dem leaders to keep the existing rules.

The motion, which included scheduling a new meeting for Dec. 23, passed handily with 110 out of 146 attending Democrats giving their thumbs up.

The new regulations will, for the first time, limit the amount of votes County Committee members can collect and wield on behalf of others — a controversial system known as proxy-voting, whereby Democrats can give up their vote and have other members vote on their at annual party meetings.

Previously, the system enabled party honchos to amass hundreds of votes for themselves and use them to overcome reformers pushing for change. Now, each Democrat can hold no more than 20 votes from other people, leveling the playing field, according to Alexander.

“When we showed up at [previous] meetings the party chair would have hundreds of votes in their pockets and would have basically been able to dictate the meeting,” she said. “It’s like reform 101.”

During the pandemic, the party added a questionable provision that automatically gave all votes within an Assembly District to that area’s two district leaders, unless members delivered a signed hard copy declaration to the party’s election law counsel Aaron Maslow in Marine Park that they wanted to hold onto their vote.

“It felt very intentional that they were making it very hard for people to take their proxy back from their district leader,” Alexander said. “We refer to it as ‘proxy stealing.'”

The rules also establish stricter oversight of the party’s troubled finances, which dwindled during the eight-year tenure of prior party boss Frank Seddio, who attributed the loss of finances to their denial of contributions from the real estate industry — a claim that progressives have disputed.

To ensure more financial accountability, the rules now require an annual budget to be approved by the party’s executive committee, a 42-member body consisting of the borough district leaders and a handful of elected officers.

A separate finance committee must ensure compliance with that budget and keep an accurate account of cash flow in-and-out of the party, while providing all that information to members and online.

“For there to be forced clear accountability for what money the party is getting and spending is huge,” Pierce said. “Just forcing the explanation and being accountable to Brooklyn Democrats and not just a few power players within the party.”

The Dems did form a finance committee in 2019 ostensibly to report back at a full meeting at the beginning of 2020, but the executive committee called off that gathering and reduced the annual full meetings from two to one, saying the party was broke and couldn’t afford to hold both.

The party leaders initially argued they couldn’t hold any meetings at all due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a Kings County Supreme Court Judge in October ordered them to in accordance with state election law.

The new rules also re-establish that second annual meeting. 

To ensure that these often raucous full organizing meetings don’t devolve into shouting matches and allow everyone a fair chance to speak, the new bylaws require the gatherings to follow parliamentary procedures under a system known as Robert’s Rules of Order.

The progressives already have a slate of officers they want to elect at the Dec. 23 meeting, including replacing the outgoing chair Carlo Scissura with Fort Greene public housing resident and activist Samantha Johnson.

Alexander says that while she expects pushback from the party in the coming days and weeks, Wednesday night’s meeting showed the power of the party’s rank-and-file membership. 

“It might have taken 12 hours, but we had a fair vote,” she said. “We want to move on and just be part of this party and do things that parties should do … We have to get the party to a point where it can do it but under the prior rules that wasn’t happening.”

A spokeswoman for the party did not provide comment on the rule changes by press time, but in an open letter sent Thursday to committee members, the group apologized for the messy meeting, and said it is “working hard with all sides to find out what went wrong.”

“We set out to have an honest, transparent and inclusive meeting, but what transpired did not meet that goal,” the group said in the statement. “We are working with organizers throughout our wonderfully diverse borough, including the New Kings Democrats, to assess what went wrong and find a practical solution before the meeting continues [on Dec. 23].”

Update (Thursday, 4:30 pm): This story has been updated to include part of a formal statement issued late Thursday by the Brooklyn Democratic Party.