Is Brooklyn’s Democratic Party Doing Anything to Reverse Its Losing Streak?

New York’s top elected officials showered the Brooklyn party with praise, but is it doing anything to support its candidates?

Sam Mellins   ·   August 1, 2023
Governor Hochul speaking in front of Brooklyn Democratic Party digital screen
Governor Kathy Hochul speaks at the Brooklyn Democratic Party's annual gala, July 31. | Sam Mellins / New York Focus

The full house at the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s gala fundraiser Monday night had paid handsomely to be there: between $5,000 for a “Copper”-level ticket and $50,000 for a “Platinum.” For that price, they were treated to panoramic views of the East River and Williamsburg Bridge, a live band, bar and buffet, and more than an hour of every top elected official in New York state lavishing praise on the Brooklyn Democrats and their chair, state Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn.

“Let’s give a huge round of applause for our leader,” said Governor Kathy Hochul. “I feel like a slacker next to her.” Senator Chuck Schumer led chants of “Rod-NEYSE, Rod-NEYSE.” Mayor Eric Adams told the crowd, “We’re here not to lift ourselves up, but to celebrate this amazing, amazing county leader.”

Only one speaker noted that New York Democrats have a problem: They’re losing.

“We were the reason why we don’t have a majority,” said Congressmember Daniel Goldman. “We’re going to need everyone in this room working hard to make sure we get Hakeem [Jeffries] to be the next speaker of the house.”

Republican gains in New York were a major reason that Democrats lost control of Congress last year. In Brooklyn, Democrats lost three state legislative seats after the Brooklyn Democratic party did essentially nothing to support its candidates.

With competitive City Council elections coming up in November, is the party doing anything to reverse this trend? It’s not clear.

Monday’s blowout bash didn’t raise any funds for campaign efforts. Instead, the money will go to the party’s “housekeeping” account, which by law can’t be spent on campaigns. In the past year, that account has collected over $227,000 in contributions, more than $100,000 of which went towards legal bills and event planning, including $21,000 for an electronic voting system at the party’s chaotic and glitch-filled annual meeting last September.

The party’s campaign account, on the other hand, hasn’t accepted any contributions since April 2022, according to the most recent data from the Board of Elections. It hasn’t spent any money since June 2022.

The party’s executive director, Yamil Speight-Miller, said that this will change, and that — unlike in the last election cycle — the party will soon put resources towards raising money for its candidates. But he declined to offer a timeline.

“I wouldn’t want to commit to something at a gala that we would have to live by,” he said. “It’s something that we all have to work toward and make sure we resolve.”

The party may not even have the capacity to accept donations to its campaign account. Last October, Brooklyn Democratic activist Seamus Campbell sent a $25 check to the party’s campaign account, as a test.

“I actually want to support the [county party’s] work,” said Campbell, who has previously criticized the party’s inaction. “But I want to know that my donated funds will actually go to help elect Democrats — the primary objective of every county committee — and not just sit in some slush fund.”

The party never cashed the check. Instead, it was deposited into Bichotte Hermelyn’s own campaign account.

It may not be the first time party funds have found their way to Bichotte Hermelyn. In 2021, the party paid over $12,000 to Bridgegap LLC, a nebulous company that lists her as its agent. Her financial disclosures show the company paid her at least $20,000 that year for “consulting.” The payments from the Brooklyn party were described as reimbursements, though it’s not clear for what. Bichotte Hermelyn and Speight-Miller did not answer questions on the subject.

If the party isn’t financially supporting Democrats, what about canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts?

In advance of the November elections, the party plans to engage in “more activism, more transparency, having more conversations with those who we wouldn’t normally have conversations with,” Speight-Miller said. There aren’t currently any campaign events listed on the party’s website.

“I want to know that my donated funds will actually go to help elect Democrats, not just sit in some slush fund.”

—Seamus Campbell, Local Activist

Democratic City Council nominee Amber Adler told New York Focus that she is “currently speaking with the party” about getting involved in her campaign, but declined to offer specifics. Adler is facing off against Republican incumbent Inna Vernikov in a south Brooklyn district that includes the heavily Russian Jewish neighborhoods of Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, where Republicans have made significant gains in recent years.

“With my campaign, you are going to see a unity that you haven’t seen in a very long time from Democrats,” Adler said.

Backing Adler would represent a new level of commitment from the party to her part of south Brooklyn, where party leadership has allowed a local organizing position to remain vacant for the better part of a year.

In December, when south Brooklyn City Councilmember Ari Kagan switched from Democrat to Republican, he also resigned his position as a Democratic district leader, an unpaid position that serves as the head of local political organizing. The area that he represented overlaps significantly with the district that Adler is seeking to represent.

Bichotte Hermelyn called a special meeting of the county party’s executive committee to fill the vacancy. The day before the meeting, Margarita Kagan, the other district leader for the area, nominated a candidate to fill the slot. Traditionally, when a district leader vacancy opens up, the other district leader for the area picks the replacement.

But in the meantime, Lenny Markh, a local Democratic organizer and staffer for state Senator Iwen Chu, had also thrown his hat into the ring and started rallying support from executive committee members. Markh has previously fought with Speight-Miller and wasn’t expecting any support from top party brass, which was in favor of Margarita Kagan’s chosen candidate, he said. As the time for the meeting approached, Markh had secured the votes necessary to win the post, he claimed.

The vote never happened. At 6:37 PM the night before the meeting was supposed to take place, Speight-Miller sent out an email stating that it was being postponed. “A future date will be provided with proper notice to the Executive Committee Members,” the email said.

Nearly nine months later, the post is still vacant. Speight-Miller didn’t say whether the party has any plans to fill it, or why the vote was postponed.

For Markh, it’s a missed opportunity. “The district had just turned red. We needed active Democrats, we needed some sort of infrastructure,” he said. “I don’t know why Rodneyse would not fill this vacancy and deny active Democratic representation in that district.”

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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