As a new generation of activists, electrified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tiffany Cabán, come of age, local lawmakers are already gearing up for 2020 primary challenges from the left.
And in Queens, ground zero for New York City's political insurgency, so too must dozens of Democratic district leaders—unpaid party functionaries who nevertheless wield a deceptive amount of power in the political and criminal justice systems.
“I just feel like we really need people, especially progressives, who care about changing the system to run for office themselves,” said Moumita Ahmed, a co-founder of New Reformers, a new organization dedicated to electing scores of rookie district leaders in Queens in 2020.
Ahmed, who co-founded People for Bernie Sanders and Millennials for Bernie Sanders, has been joined by four other Queens-based organizers to see this vision through: Vigie Ramos Rios, Ocasio-Cortez’s former campaign manager; Bright Limm, an attorney, activist, and Working Families Party state committee member; Martha Ayon, the campaign manager for Jumaane Williams's lieutenant governor bid and a Queens county committee member; and Richard Núñez-Lawrence, the executive director of the nonprofit Afro-Latino Association for Policy and Advocacy.
There are 72 district leaders in Queens County, four in each Assembly District, two male and two female. They serve two-year terms and rarely face competitive elections. At least 15 of Queens' district leaders are current elected officials, including councilmembers Karen Koslowitz, Rory Lancman, and Francisco Moya, assemblymember David Weprin, and state senator Michael Gianaris.
Together, they vote to elect the county leader, who is currently U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks. Meeks's predecessor was Joe Crowley, the powerful party boss who Ocasio-Cortez defeated last June. (Crowley remains a district leader, though he is now a Washington-based lobbyist.)
The district leaders also play another pivotal role: They help pick judges. When civil court judges are seeking a promotion to the State Supreme Court, they do not run in primaries. Instead, they attend highly choreographed judicial conventions where district leaders nominate judicial candidates for coveted supreme court seats, sending them straight to the general election in November as the party nominees.
Few judges sit on the bench in Queens County without the blessing of the local district leaders and the party boss. At a convention just last week, Queens Democrats nominated an attorney to the State Supreme Court after voters rejected him in a civil court primary election less than two months before. Almost every nominee at the convention thanked the district leaders who helped get them there.
The Queens Democratic Party is one of the most hierarchical party organizations in the city, with relatively little turnover among its elites. Crowley, until his defeat, had led the party for over a decade, and his predecessor, Tom Manton, had been in charge since the late 1980s. For more than 30 years, three attorneys—Gerard Sweeney, Michael Reich, and Frank Bolz—have run the day-to-day functions of the party, using their positions to get rich in Surrogate’s Court and occasionally off home foreclosures. Most recently, they attracted attention for performing tens of thousands of dollars' worth of free legal work for Melinda Katz, the winner of this summer's contentious primary for Queens district attorney.
The three lawyers serve at the pleasure of the county leader. They were close allies of Crowley and law partners of Manton. Despite living and working in Nassau County, they remain in power thanks to Meeks, who once told me, proudly, that they were the best election lawyers in New York state.
New Reformers would like to see the end of the Sweeney, Reich, and Bolz reign, which would only be possible if enough district leaders were replaced.
“It’s an effort to make the Democratic Party democratic,” said Limm. “If it’s truly democratic, then it will become racially diverse, geographically diverse, and generationally diverse. This effort is not about being against the machine as much as showing people what democracy actually looks like.”
The group has already backed the reforms pushed by a cohort of progressive county committee members, who called for term-limiting district leaders, abolishing the party’s ability to endorse in primaries, and mandating that county committee and executive committee members live in Queens—a clear shot across the bow at Sweeney, Reich and Bolz. Meeks and Reich recently met with some of these committee members, but stopped short of endorsing any changes to the way the party functions.
Compared to county organizations elsewhere, the Queens machine remains inward-facing. Until recently, it had no website. Important public meetings, like judicial conventions, are poorly publicized. In Brooklyn, county committee meetings happen twice a year; in Queens, they are once every two years. Party leaders will embrace insurgents who defeat incumbents, but will rarely recruit and train new candidates.
Meeks himself said progressives should just focus on defeating Republicans, not taking on their own.
“I am not convinced that challenging other Democrats just for the sake of it is the best way to use resources especially when our focus should be on defeating Trump and like minded Republicans,” Meeks said in a statement. “I continue to believe that unity is our power.”
New Reformers are modeling their revolution on one that took place over half a century ago, across the East River. In the early 1960s, reformers led a successful revolt against Tammany Hall, the Manhattan Democratic machine that had ruled politics in New York since the 19th century. A young Democratic district leader named Ed Koch twice defeated Tammany Hall’s fearsome boss, Carmine DeSapio, in Greenwich Village district leader races, galvanizing younger, newer residents—many from the bohemian set—against DeSapio’s old-line supporters. Tammany Hall collapsed soon after, and the Manhattan county organization has been mostly an afterthought since.
Queens, traditionally more conservative than Brooklyn and Manhattan, has rarely been fertile ground for such a reform movement. While both boroughs, for example, routinely feature competitive judicial elections, Queens saw its first one in several decades occur this summer.
New Reformers is still determining how much cash it will require for their efforts and which current district leaders will be targeted. The group estimates $5,000 to $10,000 will be required per race, since the turf involved is relatively small: just half an Assembly District. To field a large enough slate to impact county politics, though, a six-figure expenditure will inevitably be necessary. The group expects to create a political action committee or a fundraising vehicle that can better allow them to coordinate with a large number of campaigns.
“We’d love to have 72 people,” said Ramos Rios, who was optimistic Ocasio-Cortez herself could eventually bless the effort. “It’s about continuing to build a movement in Queens. If we have 48, we go with 48. It’s a continuing process. We do recognize numbers are needed to make fundamental changes. None of us are seeing this as a one and done.”
Some races will be tougher than others. There are district leaders who haven’t competed in difficult elections and aren’t well known. One, Anne Marie Anzalone, is Crowley’s former chief of staff and the sister of Surrogate Court judge Peter Kelly. She represents a gentrifying Astoria district that overwhelmingly backed Cabán, the democratic socialist newcomer in the district attorney’s race.
Other leaders loyal to the party will be tougher to dislodge. Archie Spigner and his wife, Leslie, are district leaders in southeast Queens, the African-American enclave that supported Katz over Cabán. Spigner, a former city councilmember who represented the area for almost 30 years, is still a revered political leader, with a post office named after him.
Patrick Jenkins, a powerful lobbyist and Democratic district leader in an Assembly District near the Spigners', was skeptical of the reformers’ intentions. “It would be interesting to know what the real goal is here,” he said.
“In most cases, these people don’t understand history and don’t know the history of the people they’re running against," Jenkins added. "History is important. A lot of the people who are in district leader positions today are people who fought against county to get here.”
Jenkins used himself as an example. Long before he was an ally of the county organization, he was a Working Families Party-backed candidate for City Council. And Meeks, now the party boss, challenged the machine’s pick, Juanita Watkins, in another council race. (Meeks lost, but won an assembly seat the next year with the party's support.)
State Senator John Liu, who is also a Democratic district leader, is another insurgent-turned-ally of the county organization. “Having primaries and contests is a good thing,” Liu said.
The veteran lawmaker, who has been a city comptroller and a city councilmember, was less sympathetic to arguments that the Queens machine required drastic reforms.
“I’ve seen this movie play out over and over again. People generally seek county support. When they don’t get county support, they become insurgents and criticize the lack of transparency of the county organization and the evil machine itself, which I’ve done in the past as an insurgent candidate,” Liu said. “The kinds of criticisms I’ve seen last year and this year with the county Democratic Party are no different than what I’ve seen in the past.”
None of the past insurgencies, however, have altered the underlying structure of the party or the reality of those who still wield power behind the scenes. Faces change. Policy and procedure does not.
“This project is not about what decisions are made by county and not about who is making the decisions, it’s about how they are being made,” Limm, a longtime Queens organizer, said. “Until the process is made truly democratic, the who and what are going to change and we’re going to always be fighting one battle at a time. If we change how decisions are made, we will have transformation.”