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Brooklyn Democratic Party Execs Change Rules to Protect Their Power

A handful of leaders voted behind closed doors ahead of the party’s big meeting in September, where newly elected members are expected to push for reforms.

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Brooklyn Borough Hall

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

At a sparsely attended, closed-door meeting on Tuesday, Brooklyn Democratic Party executives passed a dozen rule changes further consolidating the power of their embattled party boss, Flatbush Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn.

The rules dilute the voting power of the hundreds of low-level party representatives, known as County Committee members, who are elected each June to represent their neighbors’ interests — and whose votes are tougher for the party establishment to control than those of higher-level officials.

The move helps consolidate power among those higher-level officials who vote for the party chair after Bichotte Hermelyn’s standing was weakened in June’s primaries.

The changes approved at the Executive Committee of the Kings County Democratic County Committee meeting, held in Bed-Stuy’s Restoration Plaza, also empower executives to limit public attendance at party meetings and to restrict access to information about party finances.

The sweeping changes come just weeks before a massive organizational meeting scheduled for this September, where thousands of county committee members will convene. 

Those members, including hundreds of self-styled “reformers,” could move to devolve power from Bichotte Hermelyn — who has yet to say whether she’ll run for another term as the party’s leader this fall.

In 2020, a dissident coalition of reformers won a bare majority at the party’s organizational meeting and passed new rules limiting executives’ ability to wield large numbers of proxy votes on behalf of absent members. 

Those changes were short-lived, however, after a party-installed parliamentarian declared them invalid, prompting a mass walkout. That came after an attempt in the same year by party leaders to fill 2,400 open seats days before the organizational meeting that  a Supreme Court judge in Brooklyn found violated election law. (The ruling was challenged by the Kings County Democrats, and reversed on a technicality this June by an appellate court).

Tuesday’s rule changes, Brooklyn Democratic Party dissidents argue, are intended to block such challenges from getting off the ground while propping up a party establishment that’s been hobbled by a series of scandals. These include Board of Election forgeries, “ghost” candidates on party ballot petitions, false statements in campaign communications, and controversial patronage practices.

‘I Didn’t Feel Like Being There All Night Long’

“Every rule change that they proposed is basically in this vein of trying to shut down the participation” of ordinary party members, said Josh Skaller, an outgoing party executive affiliated with the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, a political club at odds with the establishment leadership.

Skaller, whose tenure as a party executive representing parts of Park Slope and Cobble Hill ends in September, was one of the few dissenting voices at the meeting, voting against most of the amendment proposals. Only about a dozen of the 42 executive committee members appeared in person, with many others casting their votes through proxies.

“If you take any one of these rules on their own, ‘You’re like, Okay, maybe there was an organizational need to do that,’” he said. “But when you take them all together, the pattern just becomes exorbitantly clear.”

Bichotte Hermelyn and many of her most outspoken critics did not attend the meeting, which was announced with less than a week’s notice, according to Skaller.

Anthony Jones, a party executive from Brownsville, said he wished that people in his position, known as district leaders, could have had more time to learn about and discuss the changes ahead of the meeting.

“I think that going forward we have to have a pre-meeting before the vote meeting so that we can have a discussion around it,” said Jones, a leader in the Community First Democratic Club and an ally of Bichotte Hermelyn. “Because again, a lot of the district leaders, they don’t know Robert’s Rules,” referring to the classic manual of parliamentary procedures. “I’m one of the people that’s guilty of it.” 

Jones said he considered abstaining but finally voted for the changes since a party parliamentarian and a meeting chair he trusted were running the meeting.

“I mean, the chair might have considered that to be disrespectful, and that we didn’t trust their judgment,” Jones said, referring to Henry Butler, the party executive from Bedford Stuyvesant who chaired the meeting, and to the possibility of abstaining from some of the votes. “And I didn’t feel like being there all night long. I really didn’t.”

Butler declined to comment for this story, and a spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democratic Party didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

‘Outrageous’

Party dissidents argue some of the new rules are intended to shield the party from transparency and protect the power of executives from the will of rank-and-file delegates.

Until now, members of the public, including the press, had a right to attend each year’s annual county committee meeting, the site of numerous intraparty disputes over rules and vote tallies. 

The new rules, however, let the chair of the party’s executive committee, currently Bichotte Hermelyn, decide whether or not to accommodate members of the public and only guarantee “public access” through a live broadcast or a subsequent recording.

“If you want to abuse that rule, you could post an MP3 of the event a year later, and still be in compliance,” said Skaller. “It’s outrageous.”

Jones, the Brownsville party executive, said the rule was necessary because of space constraints. 

“It becomes very overcrowded, so then sometimes we have to ask people to move,” he said.

Another rule change cuts the number of people on the party’s internal finance committee, which decides on some party expenditures, from 15 to no more than 10. The committee was reconstituted in 2020 after progressive party activists raised concerns about large sums of money going to well-connected insiders, including longtime communications hands and the wife of the party’s former law chair Frank Carone.

“It’s definitely concerning that the party would want to limit the finance committee,” said Caitlin Kawaguchi, president of the New Kings Democrats, a progressive group that frequently clashes with the party leadership. “With the rules that passed, the party committee could just be a handful of people, and with what we’ve seen with party mismanagement of finances over the last few years, it’s clear the party needs more oversight, not less.”

‘Game Over’

Perhaps the most consequential change ratified on Tuesday concerned something highly procedural: the sequence of the party’s annual organizational meeting in September.

Historically, every two years, the county committee members convene in June at the organizational meeting and decide on the party’s rules for the duration of their two-year terms. In decades past, this order of operations was not a problem for the party establishment as it generally maintained clear majority support from the county committee. 

But over the last decade, dissident Democratic groups, such as The New Kings Democrats and an affiliated organization called Rep Your Block, have supercharged their efforts to recruit residents across Brooklyn to run for and win seats on the county committee — whose majority has the power to adopt any rules, including how the party selects its boss.

To neutralize that threat, critics say, party executives on Tuesday amended that sequence of events, allowing the establishment to fill the county committee’s unfilled seats ahead of the rules vote through a baroque appointment process reliant on party executives or slates of county committee members from particular Brooklyn Assembly districts. 

In a document summarizing the rules proposal ahead of the meeting, the Brooklyn Democratic Party asserted the change was “designed to ensure that the organizational meeting meets its legal obligations in a timely fashion.”

But such appointments, Skaller argued at the meeting on Tuesday, could nullify the voice of the county committee members, allowing the party establishment to ram through its agenda using proxied votes from new appointees who are not even present at the meeting.

“I would much prefer to see people who are our Democratic cohorts, who are out there in the streets with us, the heart and soul of this party, I want to give them a voice,” Skaller told his fellow executives.

“This sends exactly the opposite message, which is, ‘You can do all you want, but when you get in the meeting it’s Game Over, and I just think that’s a terrible, terrible way for us to govern,” he said.

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