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Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, Still Evolving, Celebrates 60 Years of Progressive Politics

L to R; Congressmember Carolyn Maloney, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and City Councilmember Carlina Rivera were among the progressive politicians to attend the 60th Anniversary Brunch of the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

BY SAM BLEIBERG | Marking milestones and making a renewed commitment to uphold their progressive principles, the 60th Anniversary Brunch of the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club (CRDC) saw its members and elected officials from all levels of city, state, and national government in high spirits and good humor.

Gathering at Bocca di Bacco (W. 20th St. & Ninth Ave.) on Sat., May 5, the brunch honored current and former New York City Council Speakers Corey Johnson and Christine Quinn, as well as club award recipients Kate Linker, an author, activist, and political organizer, and Elizabeth Holtzman, former four-term US Representative and NYC’s first female comptroller. CRDC’s first and founding president, Robert Trentlyon, also attended.

Founded in 1958 to compete with existing Democratic clubs criticized for corruption and a lack of transparency, the CRDC has championed progressive policies through political organizing, community service, and fundraising.

“We have tried to keep on the progressive side of things,” said former club president (and current District Leader, 75th Assembly District, part A), Steven Skyles-Mulligan. “A lot of time what we do to advocate is keep after elected officials and make sure they’re doing the right thing. That has not changed one bit.”

Since its inception, the club has consistently advocated for environmental protection, economic equality, and access to healthcare. In Chelsea, they fought to establish public park space, protect local businesses, and ensure access to affordable housing in the face of rising rents. The CRDC has also contributed to numerous milestones for LGBTQ equality, having championed the legalization of same-sex marriage and supported candidates including Quinn and Tom Duane, a former state senator.

CRDC founding president Robert Trentlyon, left, pictured with district leader and former president Steven Skyles-Mulligan. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

Skyles-Mulligan explained how the club supports progressive policies locally, even in the absence of endorsement from the national platform. “We have to keep pressure on local elected officials to keep looking at local solutions to what could be national problems,” he said. “Our Assemblyman [Richard Gottfried] has been promoting single-payer healthcare in the state for a long time, so we have to push our other elected officials to get on board.” In her speech accepting the Esther Smith Award, Linker specifically mentioned that policies like Get Covered NYC and the statewide campaign for a $15 minimum wage started as local, community movements before achieving wider support.

Direct community support has also remained central to the club’s mission. Skyles-Mulligan called for an emergency response to help vulnerable Chelsea residents in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Currently, club members volunteer at the food pantry of St. Peter’s Chelsea and were, at the time of the brunch, looking forward to hosting host an event to provide prom dresses for high school students who cannot afford them.

“We want to be more involved than just backing politicians. We want to be a club that gives back to the community we live in,” said the club’s VP of Community Affairs, Evelyn Suarez.

L to R: State Senator Brad Hoylman, City Councilmember Carlina Rivera (holding Hoylman’s daughter), Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, and former State Senator Tom Duane were just a few of the elected officials who attended to support the club. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

Speakers at the event paid homage to the club’s history and continued relevance in the modern political landscape.

Special Recognition Award recipients Quinn and Johnson pointed to the impact of the club’s support for their successful campaigns, emphasizing the CRDC’s role in community-based advocacy. “If you don’t have support in your hometown, nobody wants to give you support,” Quinn said.

Christine Quinn was the first of two City Council speakers, along with Corey Johnson, who the club  helped elect. To the right, Sylvia Di Pietro (District Leader, 75th Assembly District, part A) and David Warren, CRDC’s current president. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

Congressmember Carolyn Maloney explained that support from clubs empowers politicians to take bold policy stances. “Leaders depend on clubs like the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club that give us the strength and support to stand up for the issues. It’s a tremendous legacy to the city of New York,” she told Chelsea Now.

State Senator Brad Hoylman, who has received support from the club for his election as well as campaigns for state legislature, cited the club as an example of successful grassroots political advocacy. “Top-down politics doesn’t work in New York,” Hoylman told this publication. “It’s all about neighborhoods pushing upwards… It’s the clubs that give politicians the backbone to be courageous. CRDC is a great example of that.” 

The event’s speakers issued calls to organize for the coming year. Johnson, Quinn, and others drew attention to Maloney’s campaign for re-election this fall. Johnson used his speech to urge members to make an impact on competitive political races outside of Manhattan.

Sylvia Di Pietro (District Leader, 75th Assembly District, part A) introduced honoree and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

“Each one of us — people who live and breathe activism and civic engagement in politics — each one of us needs to spend the next couple months in swing races,” Johnson said. “No one should feel that because in Manhattan we don’t have swing races, that there isn’t work to do. You can hop on Long Island Railroad and in 30 minutes be in a swing district in Long Island.”

The topic of presidential impeachment also surfaced throughout the program. Holtzman, winner of the club’s Thomas K. Duane Award, served on the House Judiciary Committee that recommended impeachment against Richard Nixon, and called for action to remove Donald Trump from office. “We can’t be sitting down. We can’t sit back now,” she said.

Elizabeth Holtzman (center) received the Thomas K. Duane Award, presented by Duane himself (left) and New York State Committeemember Francine Haselkorn (right). | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

There was a significant audience for these comments in the room. In attendance was Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, a current member of the House Judiciary Committee who would stand to become the committee’s chair if the Democrats were to take the House majority in upcoming elections.

The event’s programming captured both the CRDC’s legacy over the past 60 years and its impact moving forward. According to club members and elected officials, transparency and autonomy are instrumental to the club’s longevity.

“The independence from local politicians is really significant,” Hoylman said. “That’s why the reform political movement is as important today as it was when it began. We need to ensure that our political clubs aren’t just vehicles for elected officials. They have their own voice. Nobody owns CRDC and that’s what makes it so effective.”

District Leader Sylvia Di Pietro reaffirmed the club’s openness to member input: “We rule in this club from bottom up.”

Political organizer Kate Linker received the club’s Esther Smith Award. On the right, Congressmember Jerrold Nadler. | Photo by Sam Bleiberg

Despite its storied history, the club’s leadership is committed to ongoing evolution.

“You have to show people what you’ve learned about the way things are, and you have to listen to them about what could be different,” said Skyles-Mulligan. “There’s always the tension between, ‘It won’t work because we tried this in 1968,’ and, ‘Let’s take a fresh look at this and try something new.’ ”

The club actively recruits younger members to join those who have been involved in politics for decades. Executive committee-at-large member Wyatt Frank represents a new generation of member at the club.

“I know there are a lot of people my age who feel this new pressure to get involved,” Frank said. “Listen, it’s one thing to post on Facebook and retweet things. This is a community of leaders and a community about democratic policies and getting the right people elected. It’s that simple.”

Asked about what motivates young people to get involved in politics today, Holzman summed up the same mission that sparked the club’s founding 60 years ago: “They’re impatient and they have the dreams. They’re willing to try to make the world better.”

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