Democratic Party machines as we imagine them in New York City have long been on the decline. With enough money and savvy, they can be outmuscled. Just ask Bill de Blasio, who dominated a contested Democratic primary four years ago without the backing of any county organization.
But the Brooklyn Democrats, now more small-d democratic but diminished ever more in a post–Vito Lopez world, had an especially rough night on Tuesday, one that confirmed what most borough political watchers knew already: The borough’s party machine is increasingly irrelevant. Frank Seddio, the Brooklyn party chair and a powerful attorney in his own right, can pull votes in his home turf of Canarsie. But you can cross him and live. Many do.
Seddio’s party tried very hard to unseat two city councilmembers on Tuesday. Félix Ortiz, who has represented Sunset Park in the assembly for two decades, ran against Councilmember Carlos Menchaca in an overlapping district and got throttled. And Tommy Torres, a district leader from Williamsburg, was crushed by Councilmember Antonio Reynoso.
Both incumbents are aligned with the Democrats’ reform wing and owe nothing to Seddio. Their patron is Congress Member Nydia Velázquez, who represents slices of northern Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. They’re part of a group of reformers — many hailing from the borough’s brownstone and hipster belts — who have been pushing for more transparency in the party and a weakening of what powers Seddio still holds.
Ortiz’s loss had to be particularly humbling for party machine leaders. A low-key lawmaker, he nevertheless has climbed the ranks in Albany to assistant speaker. Menchaca is one of the more progressive members of the City Council; he was the only elected official to break ranks and endorse a socialist, Arab American reverend in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights over the candidate everyone else supported, eventual winner Justin Brannan. Ortiz, known as far more of a moderate, would have been unlikely to join the council’s progressive caucus, which has driven legislation to reform the NYPD and strengthen tenant protections.
A Texas native and the first openly gay elected official in Brooklyn history, Menchaca has his share of detractors, who say he lacks roots in the community and is too disorganized. Once a chair of the council’s Brooklyn delegation, he was overthrown for another lawmaker in a move that spoke more to his lack of attentiveness than anything else.
But, like Reynoso — who beat Lopez himself in 2013 to obtain his Williamsburg- and Bushwick-based council seat — Menchaca knows how to win elections. He drew 4,102 votes to Ortiz’s 2,777. The percentage breakdown was 49–33, nowhere as close as Seddio and Co. had hoped. Progressives are already talking about launching a primary against Ortiz in next year’s assembly race.
Torres didn’t come much closer. Reynoso won 6,452 votes to Torres’s 3,527. That amounts to a 65 to 35 percent shellacking.
More important for the Brooklyn Democratic Party, however, were its losses in little-watched civil court elections. A slate backed by gadfly political operative Gary Tilzer was partly successful, nominating Sandra Roper, an attorney best known for running an insurgent campaign for district attorney in 2001. And another judge not backed by the county organization, Ellen Edwards, also won.
Embarrassingly for the county organization, an incumbent judge was also defeated. Frederick Arriaga, first elected to the bench in 2008, finished sixth in an eleven-person field. (The top five win nominations.) Another county-backed judicial candidate, David Pepper, finished seventh.
In races where voters know so little about the judges, county organizations typically have an advantage because they send out more mailers and deploy ground troops for races few pay attention to. Countervailing forces like labor unions don’t usually get involved.
However, according to Democratic sources, Seddio’s promised volunteers never materialized. Why that happened is a question party operatives and critics are still trying to answer.
Bob Liff, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democratic Party, insisted it was a “good night” for the party because two Brooklynites, de Blasio and Public Advocate Letitia James, were re-elected. He also criticized Roper for not going in front of any judicial panel or peer review committee to screen her qualifications, a move judicial candidates often make to get what is considered a good housekeeping seal of approval.
“The so-called insurgent slate that claimed they were running against the ‘machine’ did not go before any peer review committee, but all the reporters and ed boards screaming about the need for independent review did not seem to think it was important enough to report on,” Liff said.
There are the inside-baseball implications to the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s defeat. Seddio played a role in crowning Melissa Mark-Viverito City Council Speaker in 2014 — councilmembers vote on their speaker, usually coming together in blocs that can be determined by what borough they hail from — and helped secure prized committee chairmanships for his Brooklyn delegation. He did this by breaking a pact he had with the Bronx and Queens party bosses to hold together and pick a speaker candidate that would be amenable to all of them.
Seddio instead partnered with progressives in the council to make Mark-Viverito Speaker, angering the more powerful Queens boss, Congress Member Joe Crowley, who had backed another Manhattan lawmaker, Dan Garodnick. This time around, the Bronx and Queens are expected to partner together to freeze Brooklyn out — and Seddio has lost at least two votes, and a lot of leverage, by trying and failing to drive Reynoso and Menchaca from office.
Brooklyn ultimately has a less boss-dominated system than Queens and the Bronx, which has been true for years now. In Crowley’s Queens, party insiders have, in many ways, corrupted the legal system, especially in Surrogate’s Court. Attorney kingpin Stanley Schlein’s reign in the Bronx shows no signs of abating. They are less democratic boroughs, with far weaker reform movements. The consequences are a judicial system more rife with patronage and incompetence.
New York City’s political and legal system needs much improvement. That much, as always, is exceedingly clear.