The ‘Red Wave’ Hit Southern Brooklyn. Some Blame the County Democrats.

After the Brooklyn Democratic Party did almost nothing to mobilize voters, Republicans swept the borough’s southern points.

Sam Mellins   ·   November 9, 2022
State Senate candidate Iwen Chu (right) and state Senator John Liu (center) talk to a voter on November 8, 2022. | Sam Mellins / New York Focus

ON ELECTION DAY, the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst, a political battleground, was buzzing with campaigners.

Volunteers for Max Rose thrust flyers into commuters’ hands, urging them to help the former Democratic congressman win back the seat he lost in 2020. An SUV from campaign headquarters pulled up with sandwiches for the team. On a corner a few blocks away, Democratic state Senate candidate Iwen Chu made her case to voters in English and Chinese, flanked by other Brooklyn electeds, union representatives, and Working Families Party members.

Missing, however, were any canvassers sent by the Kings County Democratic Party. Until about a week ago, the party had done virtually nothing to help any Democratic candidates, anywhere in Brooklyn.

“Weve got our own people that we use,” Joseph Bova, a Democratic district leader who represents Bensonhurst, told New York Focus on Tuesday. “We’re doing the best we can do.”

Their best fell short. Republicans appear likely to win three out of four of the area’s competitive state legislature races, and Republican Representative Nicole Malliotakis trounced Rose in a rematch of their 2020 congressional face-off. Southern Brooklyn has been trending Republican for several years, and Tuesday’s results continued that movement.

A week before the election, the Brooklyn Democratic party held its annual gala fundraiser, with tickets going for $500 to $10,000. None of the money raised at the gala would go to supporting Brooklyn Democratic candidates, County Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, who represents central Brooklyn in the state Assembly, told New York Focus. At that point, the party also hadn’t run any volunteer get-out-the-vote efforts.

In the wake of New York Focus’s reporting, the party organized a last-minute effort to boost vulnerable candidates. It appears to have been too little, too late.

Chu was very narrowly ahead as of Wednesday afternoon, leading Republican Vito LaBella by 215 votes out of over 35,000 cast.

But Assemblymember Peter Abbate appeared poised to be wiped out. Abbate, who has held his seat since 1986, trailed Republican challenger Lester Chang by 668 votes. Though he has yet to concede, Abbate told New York Focus that absentee ballots likely won’t make up the difference. Southern Brooklyn Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz lost to Republican challenger Michael Novakhov, and Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus currently trails her challenger by about 800 votes, though the race has not yet been called.

Abbate said he tried to get the county party to devote resources to southern Brooklyn — to little avail.

“There was no one to talk to. The executive director was gone; the county leader was having a baby,” he told New York Focus. “I kept telling them they had to watch out.”

Sam Mellins / New York Focus

AFTER MONTHS OF INACTION, the county party mobilized dozens of volunteers in the last week of the campaign, the party’s newly hired executive director Yamil Speight-Miller told New York Focus. They began to recruit volunteers for phone banking about a week before election day, resulting in what Speight-Miller claimed was “at least 300,000” calls.

Asked for documentation to back up that number, which would have required over 30,000 calls each day, Speight-Miller said over text message, “you can remove it if you like.”

“As the executive director I’m not on trial when giving interviews,” he added.

Brooklyn Heights resident Seamus Campbell, a volunteer for the party, told New York Focus he was the only participant in a phone banking Zoom on Friday.

According to Speight-Miller, the party hadn’t gotten involved sooner because of a lack of information.

“We learned of the challenges later in the game when it came from South Brooklyn,” Speight-Miller said on Wednesday. “We were not made aware that that was the area that needed canvassers.” He acknowledged that the party didn’t organize any canvasses.

Republicans, meanwhile, ran an aggressive campaign. Chang, the Republican now poised to unseat Abbate, boasted endorsements from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa, who stumped for Chang on AM radio.

“County can do more to help to support Democratic candidates,” Chu said on Tuesday. “In my race, the Republican Party, they really organized. They put in resources.”

BUT DEMOCRATS CAN’T BLAME all their woes on the county party. Multiple Democratic leaders told New York Focus that they’d struggled to come up with an effective counter to Republicans’ messaging on crime, which was the central issue of Representative Lee Zeldin’s gubernatorial campaign.

The results were apparent in Bensonhurst, where several Republican voters and volunteers told New York Focus that crime was their top issue. May Zhu, who was canvassing for Republican candidates with her son Brandon, said that subway crime and homelessness persuaded her to volunteer for Republicans. LaBella, Chu’s Republican opponent for state Senate, ran on a tough-on-crime platform that included a pledge to work toward repealing all of New York’s recent criminal justice reform laws.

Sam Mellins / New York Focus

Andrew Apicella, a registered Democrat, said that he’d voted for Zeldin because “he seemed to be a little more addressing the issue of crime.” He said he’d never voted Republican for governor before.

Abbate said that he hadn’t been able to find an effective response to Republican attacks, and cast some of the blame on New York’s historic 2019 reform to its bail laws — a longtime punching bag of New York Republicans.

“Bail reform was a problem,” he said. “People are getting mugged in the street, theyre afraid to walk in the street, and people get pushed in the subway. And the assailant is out the next week.”

Even telling voters that he had supported recent rollbacks to bail reform, favors even more, and received endorsements from multiple police unions didn’t help, Abbate said. Voters “just didnt want to hear it.”

Democrats across the country faced similar attacks. Among many others, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, and incoming Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman all won against Republicans who either made crime a main focus of their campaigns. But in New York, often considered a safe blue state, Republicans had one of their best showings in decades.

Going forward, Speight-Miller said that the county party will do more to boost its candidates.

“County is going to ensure that our Democrats know not only who we are, but that we are working together collectively,” he said.

He added that the county party will contribute money to local Democratic candidates.

“​​Why wouldnt we want to do that?” said Speight-Miller. “Its done in other counties.”

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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