It might be a political club divided, but there’s still a lot of power that comes from a Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club endorsement.
There’s the club’s physical space on West 231st Street, which becomes that selected candidate’s space. And then there’s the volunteers — a club full of them, many required to back that endorsed candidate or face retribution from their peers.
Just a few weeks ago, all seven candidates looking to replace Andrew Cohen on the city council visited with members of the Ben Franklin Club — virtually — in the hopes to get that endorsement. But as of Monday, only one is left seeking it — the one many felt was going to get it anyway, thanks to his strong family connections.
It was a revolt against the establishment Ben Franklin Club president Michael Heller blamed on one of the so-called “No, Thank You Six” candidates, Dan Padernacht. And in response, compared their tactics to those used by Donald Trump.
“Although you urge the club to abolish the election endorsement” for city council, “I regard it essential for our longstanding local Democratic club to give its members the opportunity to make their choice known for this important position,” Heller said.
Yet, that’s where the rogue candidates disagree. In an “emergency” meeting called earlier this month, the Ben Franklin Club decided to temporarily change how they voted to endorse city council candidates in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, using a system developed by Heller that most did not even get to review until the minutes before they were asked to vote on it.
Heller also wanted to conduct leadership elections in the same way. But ousted state committeewoman Helen Morik led a charge to delay leadership elections indefinitely — a move that a Riverdale Press editorial later deemed Trumpian in its own right, opining there’s never any excuse to refuse the people’s right to vote for its leaders.
“Given that petitioning begins in January for the special election, club leadership presented a self-created emergency to hurriedly approve a new voting procedure in blatant violation of the organization’s bylaws,” said a letter from the candidates that included Carlton Berkley, Jessica Haller, Mino Lora, Abigail Martin, Padernacht and Marcos Sierra.
“The club leadership offered no response to the question of why members could vote for an endorsement for a special election, but not for the club’s own leadership,” the candidates told Heller in their letter. “The club leadership offered no response to the statement that it is more important for a Democratic organization to maintain a democratic transition of power than to endorse a candidate in a special election.”
The rush to vote, Heller said during the meeting earlier this month, was because both city council petitioning and officer elections were just around the corner in January, and that existing bylaws required both votes to be held in-person. The candidates maintain, however, that such a decision could’ve been made months ago since the problems associated with the coronavirus pandemic are hardly new.
Heller, however, says all these points were debated and decided during that Dec. 3 meeting. The problem, according to the candidates, is that they believe Heller and a club coalition led by Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz ensured a voting bloc at that specific meeting to ensure there would be a city council endorsement vote, even if it came at the expense of electing new leadership.
While the club’s voting procedure borrows heavily from the state’s three-envelope mail-in balloting system, statewide ballots are mailed to random elections board employees, who process those ballots under an oath of fairness, the candidates said. The endorsement vote procedure developed by Heller allows the club to fully control the process.
And based on what was shared ahead of the Dec. 3 vote, who is eligible to participate in the endorsement is controlled — with no transparency — by corresponding secretary Ivan “Duffy” Nedds, who also is a paid staffer inside Assemblyman Dinowitz’s office. Based on past elections, few if any other people are officially allowed to review membership rolls.
The candidates believe this was all set up to hand Jeffrey Dinowitz’s son, Eric, the club’s endorsement, and all the volunteer work that comes with it. The younger Dinowitz — who did not join the others in the letter — didn’t respond to questions about whether the Ben Franklin Club acted appropriately in amending its bylaws. But he did release a statement to The Press calling the endorsement process “fair and open.”
“My campaign is going to remain focused on giving my neighbors a voice in the city council,” Dinowitz said, “and how the northwest Bronx recovers from this pandemic in a way that is equitable and uplifts what makes our community a great place to live and retire.”
Padernacht, who was the first to announce his candidacy for Cohen’s seat back in 2018, said in his own statement that the latest actions of the area’s largest political club are hardly “fair and open.”
“We don’t choose if and when we are going to abide by the rules of a democratic process,” Padernacht said. “It’s important to shine a light on the improper actions of groups that have an impact on the electoral process in our community.”
Those were sentiments shared by another of the current fundraiser leaders in the race, Jessica Haller, who disputed Heller’s earlier claims that the emergency faced by the club was like “fixing the engine while flying the plane.”
“I’ve been in those situations,” Haller said, in a statement. “This is not that. This is more like ignoring the red-engine light until the night before you need the car.
“I refuse to participate in a sham process, and find it both ironic and unfortunate that the ‘reformed Democratic’ club fails to recognize that its own absurd rules are in dire need of democratic reforms, and the community in dire need of new voices.”