Ask a Reporter is an occasional series about civic engagement in and around the city. Do you have a question about how you can make a difference in your neighborhood, city or state? What about voting, the elections or navigating civic life in New York? Ask us! We want to help you get involved by answering your questions.
Q: I saw races for county committee on my primary ballot. What is a county committee? And how can I get involved?
A: With the primary election behind us, most people are turning their attention to the general election in November. Turnout was up this cycle, way up, but based on the questions we've been getting in this series, folks want to do even more.
And it’s a good time to be asking about county committees because things are about to go DOWN.
Take Queens. As local Democrats gear up to meet tonight, some have expressed outrage at Representative Joe Crowley’s re-election as chairman of the Queens Democratic Party.
Unreal that the Queens Democratic District Leaders met this morning and voted to keep @repjoecrowley as Chair of the Party. The full Committee doesn't meet until this Thursday. Love that they get no say. https://t.co/lRi2EyLjpo— macartney (@macartney) September 17, 2018
As the New York Post reported, the election by executive committee members only happened by voice vote at a diner. This, after Crowley lost the Congressional primary in June to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Bronx County Democrats also meet tonight and will potentially discuss judicial nominees. Many of you have asked how nominees for judgeships end up on the ballot. The answer is complicated, but county committees play a central role.
The Post also reported that now outgoing State Senator Jeff Klein — who lost his primary bid to newcomer Alessandra Biaggi — is being eyed for a judgeship.
Well Zack, once again your sources fail you. The judicial convention is open to the public, feel free to come see Zach proved wrong. We’re proud of the diverse group of qualified candidates elected by elected judicial delegates from all corners of the Bronx. #respecttheprocess https://t.co/QDpj5zqPvh— Marcos Crespo (@MarcosCrespo85) September 17, 2018
Then, there’s Brooklyn.
Kings County Democrats hold their major organizational meeting on September 27, in a rather remote corner of the borough, as noted in this snail mail invitation to committee members.
Though no agenda has been posted, this is the once-every-other-year meeting where members elect leadership and executive committee members can make appointments to fill vacant seats.
These committees have key powers. As a basic responsibility, the county committees set the rules for political parties, elect leadership and determine the local party’s budget.
They also choose which candidates to run in a special election. This is incredibly important considering that one-third of state Assembly members were first sent to Albany through a special election, according to a 2017 report by Citizens Union. In the state senate, 19 percent of lawmakers were initially elected this way.
The local parties also have a say in which judicial candidates to run on Election Day. In addition, they decide basic operational things like whether to have a website with the names of the party leadership clearly posted.
That’s why new “reform” groups, and people like Ben Yee, the secretary of the Manhattan Democrats, are trying to get more people participating in county committees. Yee spends time traveling around the city giving talks on civics and local party politics.
“People don't feel like the system reflects them,” Yee said. “One of the reasons is because they're not participating in a full system.”
A recent opinion piece in Gotham Gazette also called out the Brooklyn Democratic Party for exploiting ambivalence. A column in AMNY explained how machine politics and the apparent hoarding of political power keeps half of the seats empty on the Queens Democratic County Committee. Last month, the New York Times found nearly two dozen Queens residents who were unaware they were running for seats on the committee.
(Yee also narrated WNYC’s animated explainer on the hurdles to getting involved in the committee system.)
So how does one actually get involved in county committees?
To become a member of a committee, you have to run. That means you have to petition to get on the ballot (an art form in and of itself, given the specific rules around this). Then, you have to get elected.
The other way you can become a member is to be appointed by a district leader (the party has two district leaders within each Assembly district). The best chance for an appointment is to be an active member of a local Democratic club, and to be in touch with the district leader. (Back in 2016, WNYC’s Brigid Bergin gave a close-up view of machine politics at work when she followed a candidate running for district leader, a high-ranking committee position.)
“It's kind of shocking how untransparent and arcane the county committee is — they up until very recently did not even have a website,” said Maisie Wilhelm, who just became a brand new general member of the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee with help from the Brooklyn Young Democrats.
The group helped Wilhelm find out which Election Districts had empty seats. It also helped her petition (she needed at least 35 signatures to get on the ballot) by making sure all of the paperwork was filled out properly. The group gave her a list of addresses in her South Williamsburg neighborhood of registered Democrats, so that door-knocking would be easier. The Young Democrats even connected Wilhelm with a Spanish-speaking volunteer who could help translate.
There are also groups like the New Kings Democrats that have taken it upon themselves to master locating which Election Districts (which make up Assembly Districts) have empty committee seats. They also have a good FAQ about how the whole county committee thing works in general. This is not information made readily available by the county parties or the New York City Board of Elections.
In short, hooking up with an outside organization actively working to bring new participants to these governing bodies is your best bet for getting involved. This goes for both Democrats and Republicans.
And this is even the advice of the Brooklyn Democratic Party itself. Jonathan Harkavy, their deputy director, noted in a phone call (for what it’s worth, I just called the number listed on party’s website and he answered) that people trying to get involved in party politics should get in touch with local Democratic clubs, or with your local district leader or assemblyperson.
“The whole purpose of the county committee is to really be the eyes and ears of the community,” said Brandon Washington, president of the Brooklyn Young Republicans. He added that committee members need to be versed in the local issues of the district, like housing, homelessness, potholes and more.
Washington said the Republican party in Brooklyn, along with his Young Republican group, actively recruits new membership. He noted that with Republicans comprising a tiny minority of voters in Kings County, the party has to be inclusive and bring in fresh perspectives.
The next opportunity to participate in local party politics, for Democrats at least, is actually right now, at the upcoming county committee meetings.
For Democrats in Queens or the Bronx, the full committees meet tonight.
The Queens meeting is closed to the public, but the Bronx meeting is open and will be held at Eastwood Manor Caterers, at 3371 Eastchester Road, starting at 6:00 p.m.
Brooklyn Democrats will hold their first committee meeting of the new term next week, on September 27, at the Leon M. Goldstein Performing Arts Center of Kingsborough Community College, located at 2001 Oriental Boulevard. It starts at 6:00 p.m.