Embattled Brooklyn Democratic Boss Won’t Say If She Will Seek New Term
Under the leadership of Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, the borough’s party machine has been dogged by allegations of forgery and other fraudulent tactics aimed at undermining progressive adversaries.
On the heels of losses at the polls on primary day and mounting calls for a criminal investigation, Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn (D-Flatbush, Midwood) is not committing to seeking re-election this fall as head of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party, the largest and arguably most powerful county political organization in New York.
In a phone call on Friday, Brooklyn Democratic Party spokesperson Bob Liff declined to give a definitive answer on whether Bichotte Hermelyn would mount a re-election campaign at the party’s executive committee meeting in two months.
“We will see what happens in September,” Liff said.
Bichotte Hermelyn, who told the news outlet City and State on Friday that “I’m not stepping down” before that meeting, didn’t respond to a voice message seeking comment.
If she declines to campaign for re-election, Bichotte Hermelyn’s tenure would have lasted less than three years — the shortest term for a Brooklyn party boss in several decades.
‘The Writing Is on the Wall’
A number of her colleagues on the executive committee of the party are already scrambling to replace her, according to interviews with seven party insiders familiar with the negotiations.
“I’m more interested in a chair person that is willing to bring everyone together, as opposed to a party boss,” said Akel Williams, a newly elected party leader from Crown Heights who handily defeated Bichotte-Hermelyn’s husband, Edu Hermelyn, for a seat on the party’s executive committee last month. “Everyone is having their own discussions with the stakeholders in their district.”
Diana Gonzalez, president of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, a self-styled reform group frequently at odds with the county establishment, said that party leaders’ phones are “blowing up with conversations about who the next chair should be.”
“The writing is on the wall and everyone can read it,” she said. “There’s very little appetite for the chairwoman to continue to hold her position.”
Word of a potential change in party leadership comes after allegations that Bichotte Hermelyn’s political allies used fraudulent tactics to undermine progressive rivals for party seats ahead of June’s Democratic primary. Despite those tactics, Hermelyn’s husband was just one of several allies who lost their seats on the executive committee, throwing her majority into question.
Forgeries and Proxies
In April, THE CITY broke news of at least five forgeries made by a Bichotte Hermelyn ally in an unsuccessful attempt to knock rival candidates for low-level party seats off the ballot.
Then in May, THE CITY identified at least 20 residents whose names had been put forward by Bichotte Hermelyn allies as candidates for low-level party seats in Board of Elections documents without the residents’ knowledge or consent. “Proxy” votes from low-level party members absent from meetings have in the past been awarded to party executives.
And in June, THE CITY obtained communications showing two Bichotte Hermelyn allies campaigning for elected party positions falsely representing themselves as incumbents in text blasts, as well as an email suggesting that residents volunteer for another ally’s campaign in order to land positions as paid poll workers.
Bichotte Hermelyn’s detractors say those revelations, along with her seemingly lackadaisical attitude towards the controversy, hurt county-supported candidates at the ballot box in the June primary.
The party establishment lost five executive committee seats, including the one held by Edu Hermelyn, a political consultant who raised eyebrows after he gave up a cushy $190,000 Adams administration gig to keep his unpaid party seat.
Almost immediately after the election night setback, disenchanted allies began chatting with progressive dissidents about a potential replacement to be party chair, insider sources say.
Three days after the primary, the party announced it was postponing a gala slated for July 14 at Giando’s, an Italian restaurant and event space on Brookyln’s western waterfront.
“She made unnecessary enemies, [and] even the people who like her have decided she’s too inconvenient to be there,” said one longtime Brooklyn political operative.
Now, establishment leaders are trying to find a compromise candidate that progressives and self-styled party reformers, led by groups like The New Kings Democrats and the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, could get behind.
One name that has come up in negotiations is Maritza Davila, a fiery Bushwick Assembly member who frequently clashed in public with Bichotte Hermelyn. Davila has recently managed to ally herself with progressives even as she’s retained establishment backers who remember her days as a supporter of Vito Lopez, the former Brooklyn party boss who fell from power in 2013, and died in 2015.
But some centrists, eager to get past the divisive Bichotte Hermelyn era, are concerned about installing Davila, another combative figure who frequently locked horns with the party boss and her husband.
“If there are people who want to live in a post-Rodneyse world, Maritza does not make sense,” said one incumbent party leader.
Three sources said Tori Kelly, chief of staff for State Senator Andrew Gounardes and an incumbent party executive representing parts of Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, and Sunset Park, is also exploring a run. Kelly has historically sided with the establishment in party votes, making her likelier than Davila to entice other centrist Dems, especially in South Brooklyn.
At the same time, some of the self-styled reformers in the New Kings Democrats consider Kelly different from other establishment figures because she has broken with the party leadership before at great personal risk.
In 2012, Kelly was one of several former Lopez staffers who alleged rampant sexual harassment by the then party boss, who they said groped subordinates and openly leered at employees including a 14-year-old intern.
That year, Kelly and a colleague reported the alleged abuse to the office of Counsel to the Majority in the state Assembly, where Lopez also served, one step in a chain of events that eventually led to the iron-fisted boss’ resignation from both the Assembly and his position as the county leader.
Bichotte Hermelyn is also a state Assembly member, where she chairs a subcommittee on women and minority business enterprises. That position affords her far less influence than her position as the Brooklyn party chair, which makes her a key powerbroker in numerous legislative and judicial endorsements.
As party boss, Bichotte Hermelyn has had some victories, including turning around the party’s finances and helping to get key allies into state Assembly seats through special election maneuvers.
But former supporters say Bichotte Hermelyn’s combative personality, which helped her ascend to the chair, has made it difficult for her to keep it.
Some centrist Democrats, even her backers in south and east Brooklyn, were frustrated with her insistence on running her own candidates for low-level party seats on their turf. Others felt like she was unwilling to play ball with them on certain key endorsements that they wanted her backing on.
“She lost her mind on stupid stuff,” said one former supporter still active in the party. “She lost the compass.”