Membership delays rouses accusations of political payback

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As sure as a group of people work together toward a goal, there will be politics — especially if the work itself is politics.

In a Point of View opinion column published last month in The Riverdale Press, Jennifer Firestone described the lengthy process she endured to join the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club.

Becoming a full member of the long-standing northwest Bronx political club requires the applicant to simply be a registered Democrat. After filing an application and being vetted by the club leadership, a new member can then be a part of the endorsement process for primary election candidates, among other membership perks.

Firestone alleges her membership inquiry was ignored for five months because she manages the campaign of a candidate running against the incumbent Assemblyman’s son for city council. Jeffrey Dinowitz has been a longtime member of the club, stretching back to even before he was elected to state office in 1994. His son, Eric, joined the city council race last year soon after Firestone’s candidate, Dan Padernacht.

But politics had nothing to do with the delay, according to club president Michael Heller. Instead, it’s because the Ben Franklin Club doesn’t have a team of employees processing paperwork. He admitted such processes need to be sped up on the club’s end regarding communication and vetting applicants, but he denied accusations the club delayed Firestone’s membership because of who she was working for politically.

Firestone said she first completed the new membership query form on the club’s website last summer. When no membership form followed in the mail as expected, she contacted the club leaders more than once trying to get that application.

“My new member inquiry form was ignored for weeks on end,” Firestone wrote in her Point of View piece. “I left a message on the Ben Franklin answering machine notifying the club about the potentially overlooked form, along with my telephone number. No one returned my call.”

The club’s leadership knows who she is because she’s actively campaigned for candidates who posed primary challenges to incumbents, Firestone told The Press. She backed Cliff Stanton, who faced current Councilman Andrew Cohen when he was elected to office. And now she’s managing the campaign for Padernacht, a former Community Board 8 chairman and local real estate attorney, for the same seat.

Padernacht, also a long-time member, is on the Ben Franklin Club’s executive board.

“In the intervening months before I received a membership form, I had indicated to Dan that it seemed unusual that there was no movement of any sort,” Firestone said. “I told him that I have even left a message. He is not a part of the membership team, so it’s not something that he, as a member, could affect in any way.”

It wasn’t until the club’s July meeting something finally moved. In a conversation she said she had with a young committee member, Firestone described how long she’d been waiting for a membership form. Upon hearing her comment, the young member turned to the club membership and asked about the delay.

“The quick chaos and ugliness that ensued” afterward included  “being ridiculed by a longtime elected official” and “yelled at by the club president,” Firestone wrote. But she did receive a membership application, which she completed, along with her club fees. The application was submitted in July, but it was October — after other member-only club votes — before she got confirmation her membership was accepted.

Heller said the slow email response wasn’t because of who Firestone was or whom she represented.

“We’re a group of volunteers,” he said. “We don’t have a paid executive director or an administrative staff. We get incoming (communication) from a variety of sources through different emails, different application processes, and we do try to process them as quickly as possible.”

The club is in the process of overhauling its website with the help of new, technologically savvy members. The aim, Heller said, is to put the membership form on the website so prospective applicants can print it out and mail it in.

They also hope to make it possible for members to pay dues by card through the website instead of submitting checks. Heller says the club’s vetting process also is due for some streamlining so political affiliation can be verified sooner if they’re from outside the New York City area.

Heller said Firestone is “a political operative” and her Point of View in The Press was an attempt “to harm the club” by using “the old technique of setting up something to fail so that you can complain about the process afterwards.” A phone call directly to him or another club leader would have cleared the situation up quickly, he added.

“But I think there was a choice to let it stew quietly in the background until the pot boiled over,” Heller said, “and that’s what happened.”

Firestone said her intent wasn’t to smear the club, but to point out that a 50-year-old organization had no straightforward membership process and therefore discouraged new members and new ideas. The delay in response seems significant, considering a recent club presentation about attracting newcomers, she said.

Firestone isn’t the first new person to feel they’re not welcome, she said. Supporters of state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who tried joining the club two years ago, felt snubbed when the club prohibited them from voting for her endorsement because their membership was not yet 60 days old.

“I think any local organization with a sizable number of members should reflect the community it serves,” Firestone said. “So it is meaningful for new members to get involved and to ensure that the vantage point of the club at large reflects the vantage point of the growing and changing community that it serves.”

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