the city politic

Brooklyn’s Democratic Boss Is Taking a Step Back — for the Happiest of Reasons

Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn isn’t done with politics though.

Photo: Jasmine Clarke
Photo: Jasmine Clarke

Kings County Democratic Party boss Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn would like to inform her friends — and especially her enemies — that rumors of her political demise have been greatly exaggerated. She also wants to let folks know why she’s been doing more online meetings than usual these days.

“I am due October 25, but I will probably have this baby at the beginning of October,” she told me. “Anybody who’s high risk and older, they don’t want them to go through full-term.” At 49, Bichotte Hermelyn is already at an age when women rarely give birth. Additional risk factors include a past myomectomy to remove fibroids from her uterus, and a traumatic 2016 incident in which Bichotte Hermelyn went into pre-term labor when she was five and a half months pregnant. Her newborn did not survive.

“They don’t want me to do as much activity,” she says of her doctors. “Last time I was pregnant, I was swimming, I was biking, in the gym, campaigning. I remember I was campaigning for Assemblywoman Latrice Walker.  I was doing everything I wasn’t supposed to be doing.  This time around, it’s the complete opposite.”

As leader of the Brooklyn Democrats, Bichotte Hermelyn oversees the arcane process by which people get nominated to run for some of the state’s hundreds of elected Supreme Court judgeships, which come with 14-year terms and pay $136,000 a year. Beyond the courts, the party organization (informally known as County) can bestow the party’s blessing — and help from its army of lawyers, consultants, and fundraisers — on all manner of candidates, from City Council wannabes to major players like Mayor Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul.

Born in Brooklyn as the daughter of a Haitian immigrant, Bichotte Hermelyn graduated from LaGuardia High School, picked up an MBA and engineering degrees, and settled into neighborhood-level politics in Flatbush, eventually winning an Assembly seat that had long been held by Rhoda Jacobs, a Jewish incumbent in an increasingly Caribbean community.

Bichotte Hermelyn has represented all or part of Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, and Ditmas Park since 2015, and handles the mundane chores of a local officeholder, including resolving constituent complaints and voting on laws (Bichotte Hermelyn chairs the Women’s Committee of the Assembly, which is currently considering legislation to further strengthen women’s access to abortion services).

“It’s been tough, because I had every single pregnancy symptom,” says Bichotte Hermelyn. Photo: Jasmine Clarke

In 2020, after a decade toiling in the political trenches, Bichotte Hermelyn made history by being named boss of the Brooklyn Dems, becoming the first woman ever to lead the organization. She was the handpicked choice of her immediate predecessor, Frank Seddio, whose seven years as boss were a struggle to rebuild the party after two prior bosses, Vito Lopez and Clarence Norman, ended up in sexual and financial scandals.

That same year, she married Edu Hermelyn, a political foot soldier who is now a lobbyist. The power couple is still making moves — Bichotte Hermelyn is attending Brooklyn Law School part-time — but she’s slowing the pace of her political and government work. Taking it easy on doctor’s orders in this election year meant vanishing from events where you’d expect to see the leader of the largest Democratic county organization in the state.

“I didn’t do press conferences. I didn’t do signing of bills. I did a couple of events, but I had to stop with those events because I could not be around too many people. I have a hypersensitive smell thing and I get nausea,” she says. “It’s been tough, because I had every single pregnancy symptom — the swelling of the feet, the throwing up, this, that. I’m 222 pounds right now. I had to do all of that and go to law school, renovate my house, do assembly bills, and carry the party on my back with somewhat little support.”

“Somewhat little support” is putting it mildly. Bichotte Hermelyn is in the middle of a complicated intra-party civil war, featuring several factions of Democrats trying to topple her as county boss, along with efforts by the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party to defeat party-backed incumbents.

The challenges are part of a citywide campaign by DSA clubs and candidates to replace regular Democrats with more “aggressive progressives” — an effort that began with the startling 2018 victory by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over Queens Democratic chairman Joe Crowley, a feat that has not been repeated since. In the June 28 primary election, the DSA and the Working Families Party challenged three assemblymembers in Brooklyn.

At the same time, a separate campaign called Brooklyn Can’t Wait — powered by reform political clubs including the New Kings Democrats, Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and the Independent Neighborhood Democrats — ran slates of candidates for various party positions, with the explicit goal of amassing enough support to oust Bichotte Hermelyn as chair later this year. Unlike the progressives’ campaigns, the reform Democrats are fighting mostly over control of party patronage, not particular policies.

When the smoke cleared, the progressive Assembly insurgents had all lost. In East New York, Assemblywoman Nikki Lucas clobbered the DSA’s Keron Alleyne, 70 percent to 26 percent, and in Bushwick, longtime incumbent Erik Dilan eked out a narrow victory over DSA candidate Samy Nemir Olivares by fewer than 200 votes. In Crown Heights, Brian Cunningham handily defeated Working Families Party candidate Jelanie Deshong, 55 percent to 18 percent, in a crowded field.

In the races for party positions, reformers snagged several of Brooklyn’s all-important 44 district-leader positions, including the defeat of Edu Hermelyn, the county leader’s husband. At the same time, Bichotte Hermelyn’s forces ousted reform district leader David Schwartz in Borough Park. The victor in that race was former Eric Adams aide Penny Ringel, who got some active support from the mayor during the campaign.

Reformers arguably now control as many as 18 of the 23 district leaders it would take to establish a majority among the 44 total and replace Bichotte Hermelyn as the party boss. But she says the political math is still on her side.

“Of the 18, City Councilman Charles Barron doesn’t vote. He doesn’t come, he doesn’t participate. So it’s really 17,” Bichotte Hermelyn told me. “Then there’s a couple of people who are with both sides. So we still have close to ten more votes than they do.”

The insurgent faction, undaunted, held a rally at Brooklyn Borough Hall shortly after the primary and vowed to press on.

“We’re seeing a backsliding of our democracy that’s being assisted by the Democratic Party that we have here in Brooklyn, and it’s entirely unacceptable,” said district leader Mark Hanna at the rally.  “The Democratic Party is supposed to be, and should be, the funnel for our organizing efforts. It should be open to embracing and uplifting the mass movements within our communities and not acting like politics is some kind of perverse sport.”

So who’s winning the battle of Brooklyn?

“I think it’s a draw. I think nobody’s winning,” says Stephen Witt, political editor-in-chief at Schneps Media, which includes amNewYork and PoliticsNY. Witt has been critical of news organizations that, he says, automatically assume all party bosses are corrupt and conservative, and all insurgents honest and progressive. That doesn’t apply in Brooklyn these days, he says.

“She can be really tough. But on the other side, she ran Jumaane Williams’s campaign for public advocate the very first time. It’s much harder to tell a story if you don’t have one side with white hats and the other side with black hats,” Witt told me. “She likes elections. She lives for it. She’s a political animal — but when the elections are over, for her it’s over.”

The leadership vote for County chair will take place after Labor Day, around the same time as Bichotte Hermelyn’s personal labor day. After winning reelection, she says, she plans to build a team of allies who can continue running the party long into the future.

“Even though I’m having a baby, mothers can do that,” she says. “The power of women. The power of mothers.”

Why Brooklyn’s Democratic Boss Is Taking a Step Back