Has Anyone Told the Brooklyn Democratic Party There’s an Election Next Week?

Downstate turnout could decide the governor’s race. The Brooklyn Democratic Party is mounting almost no campaign effort.

Sam Mellins   ·   November 2, 2022
Governor Kathy Hochul addresses the Brooklyn Democratic Party gala as Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, third from right, looks on. | Sam Mellins / New York Focus

ON TUESDAY NIGHT, speaking to several hundred guests at the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s annual gala fundraiser, Mayor Eric Adams urged attendees to open their wallets to support the party in advance of next week’s election.

“Let’s bring this home for the state, for the city, for the borough,” he said. “It’s a blessing to live rich, it’s a sin to die rich. So write another check.”

The mayor’s call for donations to the county party — beyond the $500 to $10,000guests had already paid for their tickets — came at a critical moment for New York Democrats. Southern Brooklyn is the site of several close races for Congress and the state legislature, and Governor Kathy Hochul, who was in attendance herself, is relying on big turnout in New York City to survive a surprisingly tight race.

But what attendees may not have known is that the money that the Brooklyn Democratic Party raised at the event won’t support any Democratic candidates in next week’s election.

“The money that we’re raising tonight is more housekeeping,” to pay for the salaries of party staff and operating costs, Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn told New York Focus at the gala.

Bichotte Hermelyn, who represents central Brooklyn in the state Assembly, said she hopes the Brooklyn party will be able to raise money to support candidates in the 2024 election cycle.

“We’re waiting to do that probably in two years or so. But right now, the first thing is to make sure there’s money in our treasury to operate the party,” she said.

Their main focus has been their gala fundraiser. I’d much rather be spending my evening making calls.

—Seamus Campbell, Independent Neighborhood Democrats member

The most recent financial data for the Brooklyn party’s campaign operations is from June of this year, when it reported spending $4,375 in the final days of the primary campaign and ending the month with a campaign account balance of $2,936. The most recent data for the party’s housekeeping account, which by New York law can’t be spent on campaigns, is a reported balance of $255,802 in July.

Other Democratic county parties are spending to support Democratic candidates. In October, the Nassau County Democratic Party reported donating over $200,000 to Nassau candidates for state legislature, and spending nearly $18,000 on campaign materials such as yard signs.

Some Brooklyn Democratic leaders expressed frustration with the party’s inactivity.

“The party has hundreds of thousands of dollars and full time staff,” said Diana González, president of the political club Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, which she said has been volunteering on behalf of Brooklyn Democratic candidates. “They could be organizing phone banks, canvasses, or text banks. They could be doing mailers or digital ads.”

“You can basically say to the campaigns, ‘What do you need?’ and then do it,” she said.

Late Party

Instead of spending money, the party claims that it is mobilizing volunteers.

“We have 1.3 million Democrats in Brooklyn, which is the largest across the state of New York. And we’re trying to mobilize every single person,” Bichotte Hermelyn said.

Brooklyn has by far the most registered Democrats of any county in the state, which means that high turnout in the borough is an essential part of any Democrat’s path to statewide victory. In 2018, one in seven votes that former Governor Andrew Cuomo received came from Brooklyn.

Yamil Speight-Miller, the party’s executive director, said that the party’s get out the vote efforts started weeks ago.

“In-person canvassing has already been taking place,” Speight-Miller said, mentioning canvassing by district leaders in the Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Bushwick, and East New York neighborhoods, none of which currently have competitive local races.

District Leader Julio Peña III, who represents Sunset Park, said that the first time he’d heard anything from party leadership about getting out the vote for November was on Monday, when they sent an email asking for phone banking volunteers. “Better late than never,” he said Tuesday. “But it would have been great if we could have organized something sooner.”

Speight-Miller said that after the Monday email, over 80 people signed up to phone bank. But one would-be volunteer, Brooklyn Heights resident Seamus Campbell, told New York Focus that he signed up to phone bank but didn’t hear back with information or instructions.

About an hour after his Tuesday evening phone banking shift was supposed to start, a district leader texted him to say that since the party couldn’t find someone to run the phone bank, it was called off, according to texts that Campbell shared with New York Focus.

“Their main focus has been their gala fundraiser,” said Campbell, a member of the political club Independent Neighborhood Democrats, which Campbell said has been canvassing and phone banking for Brooklyn Democrats. “I for one do not have the money to spend $5,000 for a piece of rubber chicken at their gala, and I’d much rather be spending my evening making calls.”

Speight-Miller said that he wasn’t aware of the Tuesday phone bank being canceled, and said that the party isn’t asking volunteers to sign up at specific times. (The sign-up form for phone banking asks volunteers to select the day and hour that they’re free to make calls.)

“The individual that didn’t get a call back, maybe they don’t understand organizational structure and rolling out a plan,” Speight-Miller said. “You just can’t get a call back with instructions unless we are prepared to go, and I never issued a launch date.”

Speight-Miller said the party has reached out to its 44 district leaders, as well as other party supporters, to ask for volunteers. He said he’s heard back from a “great percentage” of them, but that not all district leaders have been able to help immediately.

“Many of them are away on vacation,” he said on Tuesday. “When they get back, they’ll hit the ground running.”

Bay Ridge Blues

Southern Brooklyn, currently the site of several key swing races, has been trendingRepublican in recent years, making robust turnout efforts all the more important for Democrats. The highest-profile race in southern Brooklyn is for Congress, as Democrat Max Rose fights to win back the seat that he lost in 2020 to Republican Nicole Malliotakis, who in 2021 voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. A recent poll showed Malliotakis with a six point lead.

There are also several highly competitive state legislature races, with Democrats hoping to preserve their supermajorities in both the Senate and Assembly.

The Brooklyn party has been absent from those races as well, electeds and activists say.

The governor takes a selfie at the Brooklyn Democratic Party's gala. | Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

State Senator Andrew Gounardes, who since 2019 has represented a district stretching across southern Brooklyn, told New York Focus on Tuesday that while he’s gotten support from numerous Democratic political clubs, he hasn’t heard anything from the county party.

Gounardes won his last two elections by margins of less than four percent. Next week, he faces Republican candidate Brian Fox, who denies President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

“We’re battling real Republicans, people who voted for the insurrection,” Gounardes said. “I think every Democrat should be coming to southern Brooklyn to campaign for Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.”

Picking Up the Slack

With the county party largely inactive, the New York State Democratic Party and local political clubs are attempting to pick up the slack.

The state Democratic Party has committed $100,000 in the last week alone to getting out the vote in Brooklyn, state party chair Jay Jacobs told New York Focus on Tuesday. That money will pay for canvassers, printed campaign materials, and radio ads in multiple languages in support of Governor Hochul, other statewide elected Democrats, and local state Senate and Assembly candidates, according to a campaign memo reviewed by New York Focus.

And local political clubs such as the Bay Ridge Democrats, Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and Lambda Independent Democrats are also running multiple volunteer canvasses a week, electeds and club leaders told New York Focus.

“Some of the clubs have been going out there every single weekend since September,” said Hunter Rabinowitz, president of the Brooklyn Young Democrats, which he said has been canvassing and leafleting for Hochul, Rose, state Senate candidate Iwen Chu, and Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus.

Rabinowitz said he hasn’t heard anything from the county party. And although Brooklyn Young Democrats has clashed with county party leadership in the past, Rabinowitz said that he would welcome a chance to collaborate with them.

“We would absolutely be willing to work together,” he said. “Despite all of our differences with the county party, right now we should have the same priority, which is making sure that Democrats are able to win.”

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. 
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