“What Do Reformers Want Anyway?”

In researching my three part series on the race for the Democratic nomination in the 11th Congressional District, I came across a remarkable document which bears discussion. It is a “10-point reform plan” for the Kings County Democratic Party written by Congressional candidate Chris Owens. The plan is interesting not so much for what it says about Owens (nothing not already suspected), as for what it says about “reformers”. In undertaking an uphill and not unmerited battle for reform of the Kings County Democratic Party, would-be reformers are well advised to first do two things: 1) Get Your Facts Straight, and 2) Get Your Goals Straight. The Owens document fails on both counts.

The importance of getting one’s facts straight cannot be overestimated. The most effective “reformers” have always been those who outsmarted the “regulars”, beating them at their own game, making them suffer the ignominy of living by their own rules. The best election lawyers in New York, people like Henry Berger and Marty Connor, started out as “reformers” who understood the key to victory was knowing the rules of the game better than the guys who wrote them.

The importance of getting one’s goals straight is that you can’t get what you want if you don’t know what that is. The Owens document presents its ends as a seamless garment, and there is no doubt that Owens (and many other “reformers”) feel that these goals are indeed united in interest.  The goals that can be inferred from this document are: The Kings County Democratic Party should be (1) more effective in electing Democrats, (2) more open, accountable and run on a fiscally sound basis, (3) more liberal, (4) a vehicle for “good government” type reforms and (5) a vehicle for minority empowerment. Let us stipulate, for the moment, that these are all worthy goals.  The problem is that these goals are quite often mutually exclusive in actual practice. The Owens document gives no hint of which of these ends should give way to one another, positing instead a world where we can all have our brie and eat it too.

The document is linked from the “Domestic Issues” page of Owens’ website where its intro states: “Brooklyn's Democratic Party is far weaker than it should be.”  This is a statement nearly everyone but Brooklyn Republicans can agree with, provided one doesn’t look too deeply into its meaning. In Meade Esposito’s day, a strong party meant one that could bend legislators to its will, and give primaries to those who disobeyed. Chris certainly isn’t advocating this sort of strength. Or is he? As a partisan Democrat, I would think he was talking about winning general elections against Republicans, which has only sporadically been a goal of the party organization, traditionally more concerned about taking sides in primaries, and helping Democrats beat other Democrats.

Owens goes on to say “Yet our rates of voter participation — particularly in Primary elections — are far too low. “ There are two possible interpretations of this. The kinder interpretation is that he wants a return of the Esposito days, with the party more aggressively and effectively taking sides in primaries. The unkind version is a sort of variation on the old “League of Women Voters” cliché “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, as long as you vote”. To a partisan Democrat, this is nonsense; we aren’t interested in maximizing voter turnout; we are interested in maximizing our voter turnout; everyone else should stay home. And in a primary, to expend party resources on increasing voter participation solely for the sake of increasing voter participation is a stupid waste of party resources.

Owens goes on  “This party has neither empowerd (sic) nor inspired younger voters to become and remain active participants in the electoral process.  The trend is particularly ominous for African American voters and the political strength of Brooklyn's Black communities.” So the idea is to increase black voter turnout; but for what end? In a general election, this is a winning strategy for all Democrats (at least it is now); but what exactly is accomplished by doing this in a primary? What is the agenda, Chris? Do you even know?

Apparently, the agenda is embodied in the ten-point reform plan.

Point one starts out with promise:  “The Democratic Party of New York State should prohibit its members from jointly holding both a public elected office and any Party office other than ex-officio membership with a Party Committee.” 

Certainly, any Assembly member worth their salt can control their District Leader, so why let them hog the positions for themselves? Funny, though, that Chris never raised this concern when Clarence Norman was County Leader. Moreover, Owens seems confused in his rationale “The Party cannot prosper when public elected officials can be forced to choose between the best interests of their constituents and organizational considerations of a political party.”  In other words, the problem is that District Leaders might be too accountable to the voters that elected them. I thought the idea was to increase public accountability. And why would Districts Leaders, elected by the same voters, be any less susceptible to the temptations of pleasing those who elected them?

Point three “The Brooklyn Democratic Party’s Executive Committee should have selected a woman to serve as its next chair.” Because, “women voters consistently make up the majority of Democratic votes and are the backbone of the Party’s organizational structure”.

Fantastic; let’s elect Yvette Clarke to Congress. Think of the wealth of possibilities our female District Leaders offer the Party; Annette Robinson as Leader could quadruple her son Taharka’s work pick-pocketing judicial candidates. Linda Minucci as Leader would send a message that the Party does not sanction discrimination against convicted numbers runners. Lori Garson would continue her family’s proud tradition of service. Think of the opportunities for reform we’ve forsaken by not extending women the same opportunities as men to have seen their opportunities and took em.  

But, not only a woman, but “preferably one of African descent.”  This is because “despite our numbers and despite our loyalty, no public or Party countywide position in Brooklyn is currently held by an African American.” 

By this, Chris means the big four: Borough President, DA, Surrogate and County Leader. But has Owens ever done anything in furtherance of  this principle? He did not back a black female for Surrogate; and did not back a black male for DA (and the white guy he backed wasn’t even the right one). He and his father pretty much sat on their hands when the black candidate for Borough President was an old political enemy who once nearly ended Major’s career (and, perhaps not coincidentally, black voters deserted her in droves to support Marty Markowitz). Of course, this was all excusable because we had a great black reformer, Clarence Norman, as County Leader. The Owenses went so far as to rally in his support; Major compared Clarence’s indictment to a lynching. 

But, getting back to Point three, the bottom line is, “we should not alienate our best friends – our own”. So much for coalition building and broadening the base of an inclusive party; in the end, it’s “just us”.

Point four is that “the governing documents of the Party, including the By-Laws and rules, should be made available immediately to anyone who requests them.” 

As required by law, they are on file with the Board of Elections and available on demand.

Point six includes “County Committee membership should be weighted based upon Democratic voting strength within a given jurisdiction…this practice has been used for years in New York County.” 

Actually, it has been used for years in Brooklyn, in exactly the same manner as in Manhattan (to choose candidates in special elections).  The system involves using the Democratic Party line vote cast in the last Governor’s election; I note, that if the Owenses had their way and voters cast ballots as they instructed, every member of the County Committee would cast zero votes, as the Owenses were urging people to use their gubernatorial vote on the Working Families line (thus empowering Bruce Ratner). So much, then, for the document’s assertion “Party leaders cannot be people who endorse candidates from other parties for personal or political convenience”, which would seemingly apply not only to Marty Markowitz’s endorsement of Bloomberg for Mayor, but also to Owens’ endorsement of Green Gloria Mattera against Markowitz (I guess one good turncoat deserves another), not to mention his 2003 endorsement of Margarita Lopez Torres for Supreme Court on the Working Families line. Or are “reformers” exempt from the rules they seek to impose on others? And, hmm, didn’t Major endorse Bloomberg against Mark Green?

Points five and six include “Brooklyn Democrats should emulate other counties in separating the function and office of 'State Committee member' from the function and office of 'District Leader'”, and “Brooklyn Democrats should emulate other counties by dividing each Assembly District into multiple parts with a Male and Female Co-District Leader elected from each part”.

Certainly these measures have worked wonders in making Tom Manton’s Queens organization the models of transparency and accountability it is today.

Point seven:  “Brooklyn Democrats should hold an annual strategic planning retreat to review and analyze the preceding year’s performance and to finalize the Party's operations for the upcoming year."

Yes, this is certainly a higher priority for the expenditure of party resources than improving general election “get out the vote” operations, which go entirely unmentioned.

Point eight: “The Party should immediately revise the nomination process for Supreme Court Candidates in Brooklyn." Amen to that!  Unfortunately, the fine print is “Democratic Supreme Court nominees should be selected at the Party’s Judicial Convention through an open voting process, including Instant Run-Off Voting methodology.”

This is code words for a system in which there is a free-for all ballot for everyone, rather than contesting the available slots one at a time, should there be any objection to the party slate. Thus, sitting Judges, who have a virtually free shot at re-nomination under the existing system, and therefore can minimize their political activities and fundraising to a pro forma level (which you'd assume reformers would find highly desirable), would instead be forced to compete in the same vote with hungry folks campaigning for the open slots, thereby rendering every slot an open slot and further politicizing the bench.

Point ten: "the Brooklyn Democratic Party should have a policy division and the Party should take stands on issues.”  

So we’ve come full circle; in the sixties, reform meant that public policy should be the realm of the party’s elected officials, who were chosen by the voters. Party policy was ideally what the party’s elected official and its candidates stood for. It was the hacks who felt that party officials should dictate how elected officials actually performed their duties. Now, it is “reformers” like Owens who feel that public policy is too important to be the realm of public officials. This ain’t your father’s idea of “reform” (although it may be Chris’ father’s idea of “reform”).

Like virtually every Owens proposal, this plan is ten pound of politically correct buzz words spilling out of a five pound sack, without even a hint of awareness of its self contradictions and cognitive dissonance.

And yet, this list makes the best possible case for a vote for Chris Owens’ election to Congress. McCain-Feingold has made it virtually impossible for any member of Congress to intercede into the affairs of local party organizations.  Election of Owens to Congress will ensure that his 10-point plan gets the decent burial it so thoroughly deserves.