The 15-Minute Meeting and the Long Road to Change  

Point/Counterpoint: Running for County Committee

By Dan W.

“Don't Vote, Build this Maoist Party!” was the slogan on much of the agitprop I wrote and distributed in the early 90s. Yet, some 25 years later, I hold an official position in the Democratic Party: I’m a County Committee Member in Queens.

My thinking has changed. Once, I saw winning reforms as a dangerous distraction from  revolutionary work; now, I see it as a way to expand the masses' sense of the possible. Circumstances have changed, too. Occupy Wall Street caught fire in 2011 among young people outraged by the 2008 financial crisis. And Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign inspired a new generation to push for better policies than those the corporate-funded politicians offer.

The Democratic Party is changing, too. In the Clinton years, the neoliberal hold on the party seemed complete and permanent. Today, neoliberals remain in leadership, but the left is challenging their power, and gaining ground at every level.

Running for County Committee

I was active in Bernie’s 2016 campaign, and in 2018, I was a volunteer in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign for Congress in the Democratic primary against the 20-year incumbent, Joseph Crowley. I collected signatures to get Ocasio on the primary ballot, hosted a weekly phone bank in my home, and knocked on doors in my neighborhood. Along the way, I developed confidence that I could run my own campaign for some low-level office, perhaps in 2020.

But Ocasio’s victory over Crowley prompted widespread speculation  that Crowley’s days running the Democratic Organization of Queens County were numbered. Then, I received a well-timed text message from Our Revolution, encouraging me to run for County Committee Member, an entry-level position requiring a low level of commitment: one meeting every two years. Still euphoric from contributing to a major electoral coup, I decided to keep knocking doors and gathering signatures, this time for myself and my wife/comrade.

We ran to represent our four-block Election District (ED). I knocked on the doors of friends and acquaintances, and the people they referred to us to. I wore my Ocasio t-shirt and pin, signifying our intent to be progressive voices in the County Committee. We needed valid signatures from 5% of the ED's enrolled Democrats—36 in our case. To be safe, we gathered 68. We ran unopposed, and our petitions were not challenged, so we became CCMs effective September 13, without a primary election.

Why Bother?

When canvassing, I told people that the County Committee plays several important roles. It selects the Democratic Party candidate in special elections called to fill vacancies; almost a third of state legislators entered office that way. It selects candidates for judge on the Democratic ballot line. It selects the County Committee leader. At least, that’s what New York State law says County Committees do. I learned after winning my campaign that it’s not true in practice. The Queens County Committee bylaws ensure otherwise.

You can’t find the Queens CC bylaws on the Board of Elections or Queens Democratic Party websites. I had to do an Internet search to find them. Here’s my translation of their 19 pages of legalese:

  • The County Committee meets once at the beginning of its two-year term.

  • When not meeting, the County Committee delegates all of its powers to its Executive Committee, made up of the 72 elected Democratic District Leaders in Queens.

  • When not meeting, the Executive Committee delegates all of its powers to the Chair of the Executive Committee (Joseph Crowley).

  • The mechanisms for changing these rules are heavily weighted against change.

Bylaws vary from County to County. I’m told the Queens bylaws are particularly bad.

Who Really Rules?

The Executive Committee met three days before the County Committee meeting, and the District Leaders present voted 60-4 to keep Crowley as Chair.

I arrived at the County Committee meeting expecting to see machine people and dissidents, perhaps with dissidents lying low. But I observed a lot of a third category: people not too passionate one way or the other, happy to be part of the club but not particularly vested in the status quo.

The meeting was scripted, literally. Sitting next to Assembly Member Michael DenDekker, a Crowley guy at the meeting, I could see the small, typewritten script in his hand with his line: roughly, “I second the motion.” The meeting chair recognized DenDekker and other actors in this play. They didn’t have to raise their hands to be recognized. The chair cued them.

The official business lasted 15 minutes, gavel to gavel, including the Pledge of Allegiance. As scripted, the County Committee surrendered its power to the Executive Committee, which three days earlier had handed its power to Crowley and his cronies at the law firm of Sweeney, Reich & Bolz.

The 15-minute meeting was the bare minimum needed for Crowley and Sweeney, Reich & Bolz to comply with state law and retain control of the County organization. It lets them populate the party ballot lines for special elections and for judgeships, and to connive with the Bronx party leadership to choose the City Council Speaker and the chairs of key Council committees.

It also empowers them to rake in millions of dollars in Probate Court by overseeing (and taking a cut from) the estates of people who die without wills, and to run a mortgage foreclosure mill in Housing Court. In the end, the County Committee isn’t about policy change; it’s a business run to enrich a small group of lawyers who get assignments from the judges it nominates.

Changing the Rules

It’s all profoundly corrupt, and very hard to change. It takes a special meeting of the County Committee to change the rules,  and there are only three ways to call such a special meeting:

  • The County leader (Crowley) can call for a special meeting

  • Five hundred CCMs--at least 50 in 10 of the 18 Assembly Districts in Queens--can call one

  • A majority of the 72 District Leaders can call for one.

The first won’t happen, of course. Organizing either of the second two options would be an arduous, multi-year effort requiring collaboration with reform-minded partners across Queens.

I lean against DSA putting resources into what look to be long and difficult CC reform efforts, beyond comrades who choose to run sharing information and helping each other. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't run for County Committee, or, better yet, District Leader. Democratizing the Democratic Party at the county level and ridding it of corruption would make it easier for progressive candidates to run for office and win. More immediately, running provides an opportunity to connect with reformers across your borough and, more importantly, meet and organize your neighbors.

“Don't just agitprop. Organize!”