After losing Ben Franklin Democratic Club leadership vote

‘Insurgents’ mull their next move

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The question is answered. The dust has settled. The old guard kept control of the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club.

But what about the challengers whose more than 150 votes were overwhelmed in the club’s leadership election last month? The men and women — some of them brand new, and others who long felt change was needed — who led a wave of like-minded candidates for the club’s leadership?

The establishment put up a slate of candidates selected by its nominating committee. Any other year it’d be a simple vote, but the insurgents — for a lack of a better term — proposed their own alternate slate. In what some described as a record-breaking vote, some 400 members ultimately cast a ballot, handing Michael Heller’s incumbent leadership team a resounding victory.

Now, members supporting that alternate slate are considering where they fit into arguably the Bronx’s most influential political club. Some had originally been nominated for leadership positions, but were pushed out by new candidates introduced by Heller’s side, once they “defected.”

“I mean, I can only speak for myself, but right now I feel as if there is no place for me in the Benjamin Franklin Club anymore,” said Morgan Evers, who led the uprising. She lost her bid for club president to Heller by 243 to 156. “And I’m not sure what my next move is.”

Some of the upstarts feel they still have a place, and that’s great, Evers said. “But some people think that they don’t have the time to devote to a club that might not want them to participate.”

Perhaps the whole situation wouldn’t have gotten so messy if state Sens. Alessandra Biaggi and Gustavo Rivera hadn’t endorsed the alternate slate. Or if Rivera’s club endorsement wasn’t unusually close in the political aftermath. If the old guard hadn’t felt like a new set of members were pushing them out of their club, maybe it wouldn’t have been such a snub.

And maybe if members of the alternate slate who were also selected by the nominating committee hadn’t been replaced by a number of establishment-supported members, things wouldn’t have gotten so sour.

But they did. And the advocates of new blood in the club’s leadership wonder if it’s worth it trying to find a compromise, or should they all leave the establishment to continue doing things how they’ve always been done.

But there are other games in town, said Northwest Indivisible co-founder David Knapp. That organization and others like NYCD-16 Indivisible do the same kind of petitioning and campaigning as Ben Franklin, only they’ve not done it as long.

The reason the alternate slate pushes for more leadership roles is to open the club to endorsing new candidates, Knapp said. Although the Ben Franklin Club snubbed Biaggi when she ran against then-incumbent state Sen. Jeffrey Klein in 2018, she still found a way to beat the establishment.

“I don’t want to go and carry petitions for (Assemblyman) Jeff Dinowitz or even (U.S. Rep.) Eliot Engel,” he said. “It’s not my thing. But I would do it for the right candidate.”

Many of the upstarts recognize the club’s connections are old and deep. But they also feel the club is openly “part of the machine” that resists change, Knapp said. That doesn’t appeal to more progressive Democrats, who may seek to establish their own political organization.

The idea that many of the challengers and their supporters may leave elicited only a tepid response from Heller, the club president. Many of the upstarts weren’t terribly active in the club anyway, he said, and were “variable at best.”

“We’re a voluntary organization,” Heller said. “They’re free to do what they want to do.”

Members are in this limbo because they picked their own set of candidates and “blew up what the nominating committee did in the process,” Heller said.

“They drew over a bunch of people who were part of the slate that was put into play by the nominating committee,” Heller said. “Which if that slate had not been challenged, those people would be on the executive committee right now.”

But some in the so-called “old guard” will miss the participation of the energized group of progressive Democrats, like nominating committee chair Ira Bigeleisen.

“The goal for several years has been to move people who were supporters of Sen. Biaggi into the hierarchy of the club in a gradual way,” Bigeleisen said. “But doing so in a way that respected the people who’ve been in the club for a long time.”

So the nominating committee put these new faces on a fusion slate. Some applied to be on the executive committee and be officers and got the nominating committee’s nod, he said, with the understanding that some longtime executive committee members would step aside.

“We encouraged everyone who applied to run, whether the nominating committee chose them or not,” Bigeleisen said.

But then along comes the alternate slate that sought to remove all current officers and members of the executive committee, he said. And the rest was history — the old guard saw it as an existential threat and dropped anyone who appeared on both slates. The conversation devolved into finger pointing and the integration of the two factions fell apart.

“That was a big personal defeat for me,” Bigeleisen said.

At the heart of it, longtime members do want the upstarts to be part of the Ben Franklin Club — and want them to participate.

“I know that that’s true because every time we have a discussion about how to integrate them into the club, we talk about creating committees, giving forums for the (new members), and so forth,” Bigeleisen said. “We’ve worked on having a lot of ways people can be part of the club.”

But it will take time, he added. The old guard has a lot of political experience that some of the new blood hasn’t gotten since entering the scene in 2018 during Biaggi’s campaign.

Some of them are still angry that the club endorsed Klein, Bigeleisen said. Others aren’t happy things that change is slow.

“But there’s no question about their passion,” Bigeleisen said. “There’s no question about my respect for every single one of them as a person of integrity, and passion and being really on the same side of all the issues.”

But what some see as the club’s big steps forward, are a half-hearted effort to others.

“I know that when I speak to longtime members of the Benjamin Franklin Club, they feel that they’ve been making big changes,” Evers said. “Some of us who have recently gotten involved don’t feel that there’s been any change or any acceptance, something I’ve tried to really emphasize to people who have been longtime members.”

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