Young District Leader candidates look to challenge Democratic status quo

Kristina Naplatarski.
Photo by Sherri Daniels

Occupying an unpaid, obscure, and poorly understood position within the Brooklyn Democratic Party, the borough’s 42 Democratic district leaders represent the lowest rung of the Kings County political spectrum, exercising limited powers, which are often employed at the direction of more prominent party officials.

While individually weak, influential party bosses have proven masters at using the borough’s district leaders as a tool to exert considerable control over Kings County politics, and the practice of promoting candidates as a form of patronage, coupled with the expense of campaigning for the volunteer position, have allowed holders of Brooklyn’s most humble elected office to go years, if not decades unchallenged, according to one political strategist. 

“Most district leaders are involved in some sort of patronage position in one way or another, either through an assembly member or a judge,” said Jessica Thurston, the vice president of political affairs for New Kings Democrats, a progressive political organization. “It’s often too intimidating and expensive to run against an incumbent. It can cost anywhere from $15,000-$100,000 to run and lose a campaign in north Brooklyn.”

This year, however, there’s a shakeup in the works. Five young, upstart challengers are mounting campaigns for district leader seats across the borough, promising to energize Kings County Democrats, and use the obscure partisan position as a tool to rally locals and drive change. 

Their candidacies follow a recent vote by Brooklyn’s 42 district leaders — who together comprise the party’s executive committee — to enact a slew of controversial new rules at the behest of former party boss Frank Seddio, including eliminating one of the party’s two annual meetings, and restricting rank-and-file party members from introducing resolutions that address “any aspect of the internal governance” of the party.

According to one maverick district leader, Seddio was able to control his former executive committee thanks to a system that promotes members who follow orders, effectively centralizing power in the hands of the party’s leadership.

“They came up in a system where someone was in charge and they would obey orders,” said Nick Rizzo, district leader in the 50th Assembly District. “The watch words are loyalty and discretion.”

Rizzo added that, while district leaders occasionally show dissent during an annual vote to nominate supreme court judges, the party’s executive committee can be relied upon in all other circumstances to obey the reigning party boss.

“Other than [the supreme court vote], I’ve never seen more than about eight or nine people go against Seddio — and even that’s very high,” said Rizzo. “Normally it’s just me and maybe someone else.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Thurston, who said that if enough young, earnest Democrats challenge the establishment, a progressive block could emerge within the party to check the powers of the committee’s leadership.

“They should be public advocates at the district level,” she said.

The following candidates are asking for your votes during a statewide primary on June 23. 

Kristina Naplatarski

Kristina Naplatarski is running to unseat the 35-year incumbent female District Leader Linda Minucci in the 50th Assembly District.Photo by Sherri Daniels

A 24-year-old Greenpoint native and a communications staffer for Councilman Antonio Reynoso (D–Bushwick), Kristina Naplatarski is looking to unseat 35-year incumbent Linda Minucci to become district leader in the 50th Assembly District, which encompasses Greenpoint, Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and parts of Clinton Hill and Fort Greene. 

Naplatarski claims Minucci has developed a do-nothing attitude during her long tenure as district leader, and promises to use the position to liaison between local advocates and the Brooklyn Democratic Party. 

“My larger issue is not the amount of time, but what she’s done or more so fails to do, and that is simply to show up,” said Naplatarski. “She’s really been wholly absent from our community… It’s very clear to see that she’s not there.”

Jesse Pierce

Boerum Hill resident Jesse Pierce does not want to use the District Leader position in the 52nd District as a springboard for other elected office, but rather to get the community more involved in the Democratic party.Photo by Andrew Sloat

Pierce — a former chief of operations for New Kings Democrats — wants to take the seat once held by Anne Swern, before she ran for Civil Court judge in 2019 and the district’s assembly member Jo Anne Simon (D–Carroll Gardens) appointed former assembly member Joan Millman, who plans to vacate the seat.

The 36-year-old Boerum Hill resident claimed she wouldn’t use the position as a springboard towards higher office, saying her interests are confined to rallying locals and cleaning up the party. 

“I’m more interested in organizing my neighbors so we can push power down and be a part of the decision making,” Pierce said.

Julio Peña

Sunset Park community activist Julio Peña has set his sight on the male seat for the 51st Assembly District, held for decades by Assemblyman Félix Ortiz.Photo by Rob Thomas

Sunset Park activist, Julio Peña, is planning an uphill battle to unseat Assemblyman Felx Ortiz (D-Sunset Park), one of several Assembly members who serve as both state legislator and local district leaders. 

Peña claims that the practice of holding two elected offices not only prevents other young democrats from participating in party politics, it also divides the pol’s attention between Albany and the district, to the benefit of no one. 

“I think there’s a conflict of interest in Ortiz holding both roles,” Peña said.

The 36-year-old politico said he would use his position as district leader to oppose the Industry City rezoning by connecting local activists to the Democratic political machine.

“Particularly in Sunset Park, there are a lot of people doing a lot of good work around housing and immigration and connecting those groups together is definitely a role for the district leader,” Peña said.

Samy Nemir-Olivares

Bushwick activist Samy Nemir-Olivares is looking to take on longtime incumbent district leader of the 53rd Assembly District Tommy Torres.Photo by Ramon Pebenito

Samy Nemir-Olivares, a 28-year-old spokesman for LGBTQ civil rights legal advocacy nonprofit Lambda Legal, will challenge longtime district leader Tommy Torres for his position within the 53rd Assembly District, which encompasses parts of Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Torres, a politically-connected assistant principal at a violence-plagued Williamsburg high school, succeed the late Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Vito Lopez as district leader in 2013, after a state ethics panel found the disgraced politico guilty of sexually harassing his young female interns.

Nemir-Olivares accused party officials of failing to engage young voters, and believes that the party needs to better represent Brooklyn’s diversity of identity and experiences.

“The party has failed to organize and motivate a whole slew of voters who are interested in participating, but are not tapped into,” Nemir-Olivares said. “It’s about diversity for the sake of representation, but also bringing forward ideas that prosper within our communities based on our life experiences.”

He would focus his efforts as district leader on issues including affordable housing and school funding.

Shaquana Boykin

Shaquana Boykin wants to unseat Olanike Alabi in the 57th Assembly District.Courtesy of Shaquana Boykin

A 29-year-old resident of and secretary working at the Whitman Houses in Fort Greene, Shaquana Boykin is looking to unseat Olanike Alabi to become District Leader in the 57th Assembly District, which includes Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and Fort Greene, along with parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. 

Boykin claims a lack of diversity has also led the Brooklyn Democratic Party to not engage seriously with many of the borough’s low-income housing tenants, especially those living in New York City Housing Authority properties.

“A lot of electeds just come to our grounds and have a press conference and they think that’s it,” said Boykin. “It’s about people power, bringing back civic engagement in our communities and having some transparency in the things that are happening in our community.”