the city politic

Why the Brooklyn Democratic Party Is at War With Itself

Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, the queen of Kings County, is under siege. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, wrote Shakespeare. Not in Brooklyn.

Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, the first woman ever to lead the Kings County Democratic organization, comes across as fully at ease, comfortable in the eye of the storm, unapologetic about holding and using power, and eager to duke it out with the growing group of reformers trying to topple her.

“All these people who just want to spend their time and days fighting on things that’s really not going to help the party — minuscule stuff just because they want power — that’s their agenda, but that’s not my agenda,” Hermelyn told me the day after several Brooklyn party officials called a press conference at Borough Hall to demand that she step down. “I was raised in real struggle [by] an immigrant Black woman, and right now I’m fighting for the lives of my people in my community, to have access to health care, to make sure that Roe v. Wade is not overturned.”

That bigger picture — the desire to elect Democrats and rally voters to fight for women’s rights, voting rights, immigrant rights — is something both sides of the party’s civil war claim they want. But the Brooklyn Democratic Party organization, universally referred to as County, can’t effectively deal with big issues until the faction fight gets resolved. As the civil war escalates, the two sides have generated threats, insults, sly insider moves, lawsuits, and rival slates of candidates.

“We are the largest county of Democratic voters in this country. We should be setting an example. We should be a model for how we want democracy to look like within the Democratic Party,” Borough President Antonio Reynoso said at the press conference. “We should not be wasting our time in front of Borough Hall to talk about nonsense performed by the party, versus fighting it to ensure that Roe v. Wade is codified.”

Hermelyn’s reign as County boss began with calls for transparency and openness that she made some efforts to implement. That didn’t satisfy the reformers. “It seems like they can’t take yes for an answer,” Hermelyn told me. “They ask all these things and I’m about progressivism, I’m about reforming, because I believe in those things as well, and we will provide them.”

In 2020, at a marathon 13-hour meeting, rules were put in place that shifted power away from the County chair and put more in the hands of the 5,000-member County Committee, a body that seldom meets and has mostly unfilled positions. When the meeting continued for another 13 hours the next week, a parliamentarian newly hired by County ruled that the change was invalid, enraging the reformers.

The latest round of complaints are coming from some of the organization’s 42 district leaders — the two unpaid party officials elected from each of Brooklyn’s 21 Assembly districts — that their already meager power is being whittled away by Hermelyn.

By long-established tradition, district leaders recruit the election inspectors who manage polling sites on Election Day. Although anybody can apply, recruits sent to the Board of Elections by the district leader typically get first dibs on the positions. The local folks who get the jobs — which mostly involve checking your registration, handing you a ballot and an “I Voted” sticker, and helping you navigate the lines on Election Day — get paid $250 per Election Day plus $100 for a day of training. In a year like 2020 or 2022, when there are multiple primaries, plus early voting and the general election itself, the gig can easily pay $500 or more for a few days of not terribly difficult work.

It’s a small but meaningful piece of neighborhood patronage that district leaders covet. Hermelyn set off a firestorm by appointing special party liaisons to the Board of Elections in selected districts. These handpicked representatives of County were given the power to bypass the district leaders and give their own list of election inspector candidates to the Board of Elections. In at least two cases, Hermelyn’s handpicked liaisons are also candidates running for district leader against incumbents who are on the outs with her.

“We found that there was a targeted list — a blacklist — with actually red lines of district leaders who are not sufficiently obeisant to the county leader. And those people now have been stripped of the ability to make recommendations to the Board of Elections for poll workers,” said Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon, who once served as a district leader for more than a decade. “Now, having worked with poll workers, I know when you’ve got a site with a good coordinator and a good team of poll workers, it makes everything so much better.”

Simon acknowledges that, according to party rules, Hermelyn has the right to name her own liaisons to the Board of Elections. The complaint isn’t that she’s broken any formal rules, but that the leader is unfairly punishing her foes within the party.

“We have a party boss who thinks that she can come in and take away the responsibility of these duly elected party officials and give them to people who are her loyalists and cronies. This is just a disgusting display of cronyism and patronage,” said Diana Gonzalez, president of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, a progressive pro-reform club. “Here’s what we need to do: We need to vote her out. The way we vote her out is by electing district leaders who will stand up against this.”

The New Kings Democrats have organized an audacious effort to do just that. They are running 20 district leaders in an attempt to win control of County and oust Hermelyn. NKD has also recruited hundreds of volunteers — a campaign called Rep Your Block — to run for the party’s mostly unfilled 5,000 County Committee slots. The obscure positions, which make the winner the official party representative for a few blocks of turf, hold no real power but are an excellent way to build a grassroots army. The effort has garnered media attention due to alleged irregularities in the legal papers filed by County lawyers.

“You have the Brooklyn Democratic Party leadership going out of their way to arrange [legal] objections for County Committee seats and on top of that, some of the ones that they submitted are forgeries,” Ali Najmi, a lawyer for the New Kings effort, told me. “I think there’s a lot of excitement in Brooklyn. There’s a lot of positive organizing and energy coming from the younger reform movement in Brooklyn. And not only are they running a skilled organization, like Rep Your Block and New Kings Democrats, but we’re in court and we’re winning, and we’re not afraid to take it there.”

If all of this sounds depressingly petty and overblown — a political firestorm over control of $500 patronage gigs — it’s not. The county organization controls nominations to civil and Supreme Court judgeships, which are substantial and powerful positions, held by jurists who serve 10- and 14-year terms and handle a broad range of criminal, commercial, and family court cases.

So Hermelyn, like the male bosses before her, has every reason to take an insurrection among district leaders seriously. In theory, they could unseat her, but there have always been local leaders on the outs with the central party, and Hermelyn says she’s ready to take on this year’s crop.

“I’m in law school. While they’re going crazy, I’m taking four classes, so I can be in the courtroom and make an impact on constitutional law,” she told me. “That’s one of the things as a Haitian person I’ve learned, and as a revolutionist, as a warrior: You have to keep shit moving.”

And like the men who ruled County for decades before her, Hermelyn comes to the fight with the attitude once voiced by the late Meade Esposito, the cigar-chomping County leader who famously said that “today’s reformer is tomorrow’s hack.”

“There is a gross hypocrisy,” Hermelyn added, claiming that several of her accusers have irregularities on their own nominating petitions. “This is not about rules, it’s about wanting power — and I believe in order for you to gain power, you’ve got to win at the ballot box. We have an election [for district leaders] coming up June 28, and that’s where you win.”

This post has been updated. An earlier version mistakenly omitted the fact that the rule change made in the first part of a 26-hour County party meeting in late 2020 was later undone in the second part of the meeting a week later.

Why the Brooklyn Democratic Party Is at War With Itself