In late January, the members of the Four Freedoms Democratic Club, a neighborhood political group on the Upper East Side, gathered on Zoom to interview two candidates for Manhattan Borough President: Mark Levine and Ben Kallos.
Mike Shatzkin, 73, a semi-retired book publishing consultant, admired both men, who are popular City Council members in their last term. But pressed to choose just one, he planned to pick Levine. Then, something unexpected happened. After answering a battery of questions, Kallos had one of his own. He wanted to ask the club members for their wishlist.
"He listened to six people and answered six people," Shatzkin said. "It just impressed the hell out of me."
Afterwards, Shatzkin fielded calls from both candidates asking for his support in the club's endorsement vote. An animated Democrat who has been a member of the club since 2016, he was flattered by the attention. In order to be a voting member of the Four Freedoms Democratic Club, an individual only needs to pay $20 in annual dues and to have been a member of the club for three months.
"I don’t know if this is how it works in Topeka, Kansas, but here in Manhattan we have democracy and I think it’s fabulous," he said.
As the pandemic forces campaigns to move online, Shatkin's experience suggests a shift in New York City's political ecosystem. The quarantine era has ushered in an onslaught of Zoom forums, and placed newfound importance on political clubs, which have traditionally endorsed candidates. Despite their largely aging and dwindling membership, club leaders have been quick to adapt to the virtual times. As a result, many clubs are getting eager-to-please candidates to participate in lengthy Zoom Q&A sessions, and in the process, playing a prominent role in the election.
"In conditions of uncertainty, it’s almost like everyone has disproportionate influence," said Ester Fuchs, a public policy professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
She argued that courting the clubs made sense during tight races, especially in ranked-choice voting. "Those people by definition are interested in politics and will turn out," she said.
This year there are roughly eight viable mayoral candidates, and the race is still believed to be wide open.
Some candidate forums have found much larger audiences than their normal club membership.
The Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, a citywide club formed in 2004, hosted a mayoral Zoom forum in October, the first one of the election season. Even though the club has roughly 400 members, more than 1,400 people tuned in. The event was widely covered, earning a front page spread on the Daily News.
Allen Roskoff, the president of the club, credited both the timing and the online format.
"It caused a big splash in city politics," he said. Had the forum not been online, he added, "The club would not have gotten its due respect and acknowledgment from so many people."
On Saturday, March 6th, the club is hosting a forum for city comptroller contenders, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson who will appear as a candidate for the first time. The event has already generated interest and press.
Michael Heller, the president of the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club in the Bronx, said that prior to the pandemic, there was "no way" candidates could have attended so many forums in person. In normal times, Heller's club holds in-person forums on a regular basis. Their headquarters can fit about 45 people. On occasions where there is more interest, the club might host the events at either the American Legion or at a public school.
At the club's forum for mayoral and comptroller candidates last month, the candidates were permitted to float in at their appointed time. Around 80 people logged in, a respectable number for a neighborhood political club.
Heller noted that in the Zoom era, campaigning online is largely considered costless.
"It’s given candidates a lot of free publicity that they would not have in the past," he said, adding, "As the old saying goes, 'Any port in a storm.'"
As of 2014, there were over 100 political clubs in New York City. But clubs are still largely viewed as "vestigial organizations," Fuchs said.
In their heyday during the Tammany Hall era, political clubs were part of the patronage system, doling out jobs and services in exchange for votes. In the 1950s, the reform movement sought to break up clubhouse politics, which were seen as corrupt. Over time, with the advent of the civil service and social service agencies, the clubs lost influence.
But the clubs have nonetheless served as a launching pads for elected officials, who maintain memberships.
Scott Stringer, the city's comptroller and mayoral candidate, rose up with the support of the Community Free Democrats, a well-established political club on the Upper West Side. Last year, the club merged with two others to form a new club called the West Side Democrats. As expected, its members have endorsed Stringer for mayor.
Some, like the Jim Owles clubs, are known for their sophisticated campaign mailers, which they send on behalf of candidates. Neighborhood clubs, like Four Freedoms and Benjamin Franklin, often help with petitioning efforts.
Although some like Shatzkin, whose pick of Kallos wound up being the decisive vote in the Four Freedoms' Manhattan borough president endorsement, say the clubs are proof of democracy in action, Fuchs was more skeptical.
The clubs are often skewed toward white and older voters. "Do frontline workers have time to get on Zoom?" she said. Ultimately, "It is democracy working in its usual way where certain groups are better represented than others."
It's also not clear whether the clubs can sustain their new power into the future. Once the pandemic ends and in-person campaigning resumes, will candidates still come to them?
Heller said that he suspected the club might do a mix of in-person and online forums. Many club members have become adept at using the raise hand function on Zoom, as well as the mute option for longwinded candidates.
Still, Heller missed the face-to-face interaction. "We lose some of our cohesiveness," he said.
Even Roskoff, of the Jim Owles club, was uncertain whether the members would elect to forgo in-person forums.
"It’s debatable," he said. "So many people miss the Chinese food and pizza."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the number of members in the Jim Owles club. The club has roughly 400 members, 100 of which are voting members.