Amid Intraparty Conflict, Brooklyn Democrats Issue Judgeship Recommendations

At a meeting that included an attempt by party leadership to prevent several district leaders from voting, the party made seven picks - six of whom were donors to the party and its leaders.

Sam Mellins and Rory Nevins   ·   August 5, 2021
Assemblymember and Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn attempted to prevent several executive committee members from voting at a recent Democratic Party meeting, several committee members said. | Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

The Brooklyn Democratic Party’s executive committee voted on recommendations for State Supreme Court on Monday night, in a contentious process which included an unsuccessful attempt by party chair and New York Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn to prevent several members of the committee, including a former Assemblymember, from casting votes.

Seats on the Supreme Court—which, despite its name, is the basic trial court of New York State—are nominally elected positions. But it is an open secret of New York politics that the real decisions are made not by voters, but by the county party organizations that nominate candidates.

This year’s judicial selection process reflected the increased power of reform-oriented members of the party’s executive committee, several of whom have been elected in recent years with the support of the progressive political club New Kings Democrats.

Reform-oriented candidates “showed some political muscle inside the party. As a group they showed that they had votes to affect the outcome of these recommendations,” executive committee member Josh Skaller told New York Focus.

But the recommendations also reflected the endurance of traditional party practices: almost all the judges chosen by the committee were donors to the Brooklyn Democratic party and its leaders.

Bichotte Hermelyn did not respond to requests for comment.

Nominating Party Donors

District leaders on the county party’s executive committee voted to recommend seven candidates to fill seven open Supreme Court slots: Richard Monteleone, Dena Douglas, Joy Campanelli, Lillian Wan, Gina Levy, Carolyn Walker-Diallo, and Connie Melendez.

All seven were appointed or elected to other judgeships within the last decade. The New York City Bar Association gave “Approved” ratings to each of the judges during their initial contests, with the exception of Walker-Diallo, who was not reviewed due to her only opponent dropping out of the race.

Six of the seven recommended candidates—all but Monteleone—have donated to the campaign fund of Bichotte Hermelyn, the current chair of the county Democratic Party, as well as to her predecessor, Frank Seddio. Five have contributed to the Brooklyn Democratic party itself.

All the candidates, again excepting Monteleone, have contributed more than a thousand dollars each to various Brooklyn based Democratic groups or to the campaign funds of key party decision-makers and elected officials.

Douglas, Campanelli, and Wan stand out as the most prolific spenders. Douglas, whose history of donating to party leadership stretches back to 2006, has dished out more than $8,000 to Brooklyn political players. Campanelli has donated more than $9,000 since her donations began in 2014. Wan topped both with a sum over $11,000, almost all of which was contributed after she was first appointed to a civil court judgeship in 2012. In 2018, Wan sent a single donation of $4,120 to the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats PAC.

The Brooklyn Democratic Party is hardly unique in nominating its own donors to judgeships. Last year, New York Focus reported that 20 of the 24 judges elected to the Supreme Court in New York City’s 2020 elections were party donors.

Attempted Disqualifications

The party’s judicial selection process is typically secretive and dominated by top leadership. But this year, reform-oriented district leaders—a growing faction in the county party, closely associated with the New King Democrats, a progressive political club—sought to make the process more transparent by holding a public candidate forum and distributing candidate questionnaires.

“It brings a level of transparency and accessibility for the general public to get a better sense of candidates and of how the process unfolds,” district leader Kristina Naplatarski, who helped organize the forum, told New York Focus.

The relationship between New Kings Democrats and party leadership has been testy over the past year. At two meetings last December whose combined length reached twenty-six hours, party leadership beat back an attempt by reform-oriented district leaders to make changes to the party rules aimed at increasing transparency and internal democracy.

Skaller, a district leader himself, said that the process of recommending judges Monday mostly ran smoothly. “Rodneyse ran a good meeting and built consensus around 7 candidates—that’s not nothing,” he told New York Focus.

But in the most contentious part of the night, Bichotte Hermelyn moved to disqualify seven district leaders from voting on the recommendations, citing a rule recently adopted by the executive committee requiring district leaders to recruit delegates to Brooklyn’s annual Judicial Convention, an annual event at which Supreme Court nominations are finalized.

District Leader and former state Assemblymember Walter Mosley, who was one of the candidates Bichotte Hermelyn attempted to disqualify from voting, told New York Focus he was surprised and dismayed by the party chair’s motion.

“I’ve never seen where we’ve not allowed someone to have their voice heard at the committee level,” Mosley said.

The attempt to disqualify the district leaders was ultimately unsuccessful, but some observers described it as an attempt to reduce the voting power of reform-oriented district leaders—and to ensure that one candidate in particular, Campinelli, edged out her competition.

“The effect was disproportionately affecting reformers,” Skaller said. “By and large the reformers have their set of judges that they care about and county [party leadership] has their set. Clearly, county wanted to be able to control that vote and not leave it up to what the reformers were going to do.”

A district leader who requested anonymity to discuss internal proceedings said that the attempt to disqualify the seven district leaders was motivated by a fear that Joy Campanelli, one of the heaviest donors to party leadership among this year’s nominees with donations in excess of $9,000, would not have the requisite votes to win a nomination. 

“They were afraid they were going to lose Joy. Those votes you never know until you get into it,” the district leader said. Many of the candidates threatened with disqualification preferred rival candidate Cheryl Gonzales, a housing court judge, to Campanelli, the district leader claimed. 

Campanelli ultimately received two more votes than Gonzales, giving her the final open slot, another district leader present at the meeting said. 

When Bichotte Hermelyn moved to disqualify the seven district leaders, district leader Julio Peña III, who was elected in 2020 with the support of New Kings Democrats, objected that the move violated the Party’s charter

“Currently in our party rules, we have something that every district leader is entitled to one vote, which contradicted this ‘custom’ that was not written down anywhere,” Peña told New York Focus. “I was elected to make these decisions, and no one should have their voice silenced.”

Peña appealed to Rob Robinson, a party-hired parliamentarian who was presiding over the meeting. Robinson has previously been accused of selective application of Robert’s Rules in favor of party leadership.

Skaller perceived a similar pattern on display in Monday’s meeting. “That parliamentarian was racking his brains trying to find a way to uphold the [party leadership’s] position that they couldn’t vote,” Skaller said.

But Robinson eventually conceded to Peña’s argument that party rules entitle all district leaders to one vote, and party leadership dropped their objection.

Shaquana Boykin, a district leader elected in 2020 with the endorsement of New Kings Democrats, said the incident reflected leadership’s lack of respect for reform-oriented district leaders. “Leadership feels that we don’t know what we’re doing,” she told New York Focus. They thought they were going to have a chance to vote without us and say ‘We don’t need you.’”

Still, Peña was mostly satisfied with the results of the night. “Last night was probably one of the better meetings I’ve been part of” in his time as a district leader, he said. “Good is relative, I guess.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
Rory Nevins is a matriculating senior at the University of Chicago and an Editorial and Digital Media Intern for New York Focus.
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