‘New Tammany’ isn’t for democracy

BY DODGE LANDESMAN | After the election of Trump, I was initially inspired by the call to action the leaders of my local Democratic Party had made. They have done due diligence in challenging the president on issues both social and economic. They have called for mostly dormant citizens to wake up, get involved and protest our president. The party has encouraged all disenchanted voters to get involved in the local Democratic Party, so they, too, could have an impact, so their voices could be heard.

However, on the local front, it’s clear to see that activists on the most grassroots level will never be heard by the local party apparatus. The party’s motto? “Join us, sit down, and shut up.”

While many progressives have acted with a newfound sense of urgency, wanting to get involved with the local party, it’s clear that they will be discouraged from doing so in any significant way. On Sun., Sept. 17, members of the County Committee convened to “nominate” their choice for state Senate for Daniel Squadron’s district, since he chose to vacate the seat after the deadline for a normally scheduled primary.

The senator, in the timing of his decision, took the first step in opening the door and awakening the Tammany beast within the party establishment. Instead of a normal primary, County Committee members, who are elected on a block-to-block basis, would be tasked with “choosing” the Democratic nominee.

While not an ideal or even acceptable process, activists on the grassroots level have been trying to make it as transparent as possible. It’s true, as opponents like to highlight, that candidate Paul Newell, a Democratic district leader, recruited a slew of local activists to fill vacant County Committee slots. However, if politicians or opposing Democratic clubs wanted to scout out new activists, encourage them and help them petition, then they, too, could claim County Committee members under their tutelage. Yet, it’s crystal clear that those in power don’t feel the need to do so.

So, Newell encouraged people to join the County Committee, where, in a hyperlocal sense, their voices could be heard. I’ve seen many candidates for County Committee this year take their campaigns seriously, knocking on doors, working long hours to get enough signatures while building alliances with activists across the district. Despite their efforts however, many received a rude awakening when they realized that the one power they were supposed to have upon election was completely negated and meaningless. Their one task, as described and defined, is to vote and fill vacancies of elected officials who resign their seats or die in office. In a sense, this is the most Democratic outcome in an undemocratic process. Since County Committee members represent only a city block or so, they are the most local voice of their community, and thereby can be the most accurate voice for voters who couldn’t get the opportunity to weigh in.

A vote was held, and it was almost immediately deemed meaningless, even though Paul Newell received more than 70 percent of the vote. About 20 minutes later, Brian Kavanagh declared victory on Twitter.

On the other side of the East River, Brooklyn County Committee members were denied a vote altogether (having Chairperson Frank Seddio cast a vote on the County Committee’s behalf without any consultation from the members themselves), and the reason why is abundantly clear.

It seems that those in power have a certain vendetta against Newell for acting independently. While I supported (and still support) Yuh-Line Niou, Newell’s opponent in the primary for state Assembly last year, I recognize talent when I see it, and I appreciate all meaningful and conscientious voices in in an election. While voters would prefer a wealth of quality candidates to pick from, party insiders make it their lives’ mission to narrow the playing field, so that the least independent person can be elected without even breaking a sweat. Talented people who choose to run against an establishment pick are forever branded with a scarlet letter, rather than being seen as a key community player who can help build a powerful coalition to benefit the entire district in the future.

Insiders employ an “us versus them” mentality — only their team and allies should benefit from an elected official, and provincial politics should rule instead of broad, coalition-building politics.

Now that Brian Kavanagh is the Democratic nominee for state Senate, he will almost certainly win the position in November. A record of reform and activism will be negated from day one, and the G.O.P will use Senator Kavanagh as the ultimate punching bag.

Will Kavanagh have any credibility when he introduces campaign finance reform? Adding his name as a sponsor on any ethics-reform bill would surely sink and hurt it.

The New York Post and other conservative publications will have a field day, calling the Democrats the party of the corrupt, and using Kavanagh as an example. They will use this when competitive congressional and statewide races emerge next year throughout the state. I admire Kavanagh, and I admire his record. He has been a leader on election reform and has often stood up against developers. Perhaps if he decried the process and called for a full vote, I would support him in next September’s primary election. He will forever be beholden to Keith Wright and Frank Seddio, so his voice will be silent when reform efforts are made to defeat the apparatus that Carmine DeSapio and Vito Lopez left behind. He’ll be unable to make meaningful legislative reforms, and he will be radioactive to progressive Democrats.

Who knows who will be running for state Senate in September. Newell is conscientious and well-qualified for the job, and he has continued fighting despite knowing full well he would draw the ire of the city’s most powerful players. Alan Gerson had a stellar record in the City Council and is friends with many different types of activists, showing he does not hold grudges and strives to bring everyone to the table. Diego Segalini has experience in the arts and values the city as their epicenter. Eileen Naples brings a unique perspective, having worked in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. Any one of these candidates would be a dramatic improvement over Closed-Door Kavanagh.

Landesman is a former member, Community Board 2, and former State Committee candidate, 65th Assembly District

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