In 2018, Democrats scored a commanding victory in New York City’s reddest borough when Max Rose, a first-time candidate, upset Dan Donovan, the Republican incumbent who had represented Staten Island in Congress since 2015. A surge in turnout and activism lifted Rose to victory, reclaiming for Democrats the seat formerly held by current DA Michael McMahon.
But the Staten Island Democratic Party, despite the win, was quietly facing rising criticism from within about mismanagement. After pressure from elected officials and party activists, the party chair, John Gulino, announced this year he wasn’t seeking re-election. Behind the scenes, a fight is now brewing to replace him.
“There were a string of mishaps,” said Kevin Elkins, Rose’s district director and a former executive director of the county organization. “And a general sense the party infrastructure had aged and was no longer capable of supporting extremely competitive elections.”
Activists drawn to politics after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, as well as a number of political clubs, are backing Laura Sword, a longtime staffer and party operative, to replace Gulino. Sword would be Staten Island’s first female Democratic county leader. Her opponent is expected to be Michael Cusick, a veteran assemblymember who has yet to declare his candidacy but is eyeing the coveted post.
The Staten Island Democratic Party has never been especially robust. Traditionally, the borough was a Republican stronghold, and though it’s trending Democratic, Trump won convincingly there in 2016. The party under Gulino, however, has been particularly inept—as of the July filing period, it had less than $8,000 in its campaign account, where most party organizations maintain balances in the six figures.
Tensions between Gulino and elected officials reached a boiling point last year when the party failed to get two Democratic State Supreme Court candidates on the ballot. Helping endorsed candidates reach the ballot is the most basic function of any local party apparatus. Gulino’s operatives, however, could not properly file the required paperwork, and the candidates were booted, handing the seats to Republicans.
Some Democrats also took issue with Gulino’s failure to endorse then-assemblymember Matthew Titone, the borough’s first openly gay elected official, for Surrogate’s Court judge, backing another Democrat instead. Titone went on to win the primary and the general election.
Sword, an attorney who has been a field director on various local campaigns, including for former City Comptroller John Liu, told Gothamist her goal would be to recruit political talent from traditionally underserved communities and bring more transparency to how the party operates.
“For years, there had been concerns about the leadership that was in place,” said Sword, who currently works in the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Recovery. “It’s never been truly representative of what the Island looks like.”
“We have to do a lot of work to bring in people from the LGBTQ community, the black community,” she added. “We don’t have anywhere near the representation we need from the cross-sections of Staten Island.” (Until the election of Assemblymember Charles Fall last November, Councilmember Deborah Rose was the borough's only African American elected official.)
Sword’s concern is about a “lack of bench” on Staten Island—both for future elected officials and campaign workers. Her goal, if she becomes county leader, is to undertake a recruitment drive to lure new blood to party politics. She would also like to undertake procedural reforms, like giving more public notice before party meetings.
Sword is expected to win the backing of several political clubs, including the progressive Staten Island Democratic Association, and activist organizations like Staten Island Women Who March, a grassroots group born out of the first national Women’s March.
“Laura’s political knowledge, skill, and progressive passion has been recognized by every Democrat on Staten Island for over ten years,” said Tom Shcherbenko, a Democratic activist and county committee member who backs Sword. “She’s the person everyone wants on their campaign.”
Sword’s path to victory, however, is far from assured. Sometime in late September or early October, county committee members—there are over 500 in total—will come together to elect a new county leader. The borough’s Democratic elected officials are leaning toward backing Assemblymember Cusick once he declares his candidacy, local Democratic sources say, and many county committee members could follow suit.
An August 2nd meeting between Sword backers and several elected officials, including Rep. Rose, State Senator Diane Savino, Councilmember Rose, and Assemblymember Charles Fall, led to several of the politicians present expressing private support for a possible Cusick candidacy, according to a source who attended the meeting.
Cusick, who did not return a request for comment, has held elected office since 2002. A former staffer for Senator Chuck Schumer and a devout Catholic, Cusick is disliked by progressive activists because of his conservative views on abortion: He voted against the Reproductive Health Act in Albany, which strengthened abortion laws in New York. He has also run on the Conservative Party ballot line multiple times.
Cusick, a genial presence in borough politics, is considered the preferred choice of elected officials, in part, because he is one of them and could be more adept at raising funds for the cash-starved party. He is also a rumored candidate for borough president in 2021.
Elkins, speaking on behalf of Rep. Rose, declined to comment on Cusick or Sword. He said the party organization was relatively unhelpful in Rose’s win last year, and he looked forward to new leadership, wherever it came from.
“Patronage is dying out, as it should be, and the party needs to focus on recruiting a bench and playing a supportive role for elected officials and campaigns,” Elkins said. “There is a broad swath of people who agree on this.”
CORRECTIONS: This article has been updated to clarify that: Laura Sword would be Staten Island's first female Democratic leader, not its first female county leader overall; the State Supreme Court candidates who failed to get on the ballot last year were due to a paperwork error, not a failure to get enough signatures; and Sword has yet to receive the endorsements of the Staten Island Democratic Association and other organizations, though their backing is expected. Gothamist apologizes for the errors.