Rules fight exposes growing rifts within Bronx Democratic Party

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It began calmly enough. But as the Aug. 8 meeting of the Bronx Democratic County Committee progressed, a rift between members became apparent.

In fact, several committee members argued later that the East Bronx meeting to fix what’s wrong with the BDCC put the problems of the political operation on full display.

In the end, the committee approved a slate of changes proponents said would make the county Democrats’ processes and structure more accessible to members. It was the result of efforts that came to a head last September when a number of progressives, having their lineup of leadership nominees voted down, proposed changes to the rules. That proposal made its way to BDCC’s rules committee last February, before making what was expected to be its final stop during the August gathering at Eastwood Manor Caterers on Eastchester Road.

A video of the February meeting showed BDCC members trying to share comments and ask questions about the rules changes that was expected to include voting procedures and how members are notified of meetings. Rules committee chair — and Wakefield-based state senator — Jamaal Bailey told them he’d take no input from the floor, but their participation would be welcome before the full BDCC voted on the changes in August.

At that meeting this month, Michael Beltzer — who is running for the city council seat currently held by Ruben Diaz Sr. — tried making a friendly amendment to clarify some language about meeting frequency. His motion was seconded, but was ruled out of order by committee chair — and Concourse Assemblywoman — Latoya Joyner before it could be called to a vote. Joyner told Beltzer all proposed changes should have been brought up at the February meeting.

The approved rules changes were not exactly what we asked for,” Beltzer later told The Riverdale Press. “They changed a few things, but it’s basically most of what we asked for. I think we might have just been too meek to start, so that’s why they’re able to water it down.”

Beltzer — along with committee members Roxanne Delgado, David Knapp, Jessica Sosa, Egidio Sementilli, Samelys Lopez and Cynthia Prisco — told The Press the rule changes were an excellent first step toward educating county committee members on their purpose. But all agreed there was much more the Bronx Democratic Party must do to be truly democratic.

Member education is important, especially because those members can have enormous power and not even realize it, Beltzer said. A handful of people casting votes for special election candidates can decide who will represent hundreds of thousands of Bronxites.

“Some people might understand, but most are just there to socialize, to clap, raise their hand, and eat the food,” Beltzer said. “I’ve heard that people used to be told that it’s just a social event, a Democratic club. They follow along with what everyone else is doing and never ask questions.”

When people do ask questions, they feel singled out, intimidated and ignored, Sosa said. She’s a political neophyte — this was only her second county committee meeting. She was excited to represent her electoral district in the county party, but found getting information about procedure, meetings times and agendas was “like pulling teeth.”

“It feels like it’s confusing on purpose,” Sosa said. “They almost make you feel like you did something wrong if you ask questions, and that they’re confusing us on purpose. Meetings are supposed to be for discussion, but the only thing it seems they want us to do is vote but not ask what we’re voting on.”

Lopez, who is a co-founder and co-coordinator for Bronx Progressives, was among 50 new committee members who’ve caucused together since last year. They say they represent an inquisitive, progressive movement aiming to transform the party through democratization of information.

“The issue is that a lot of this information is hidden,” Lopez said. “So what we have done collectively is educate people on how to get on the ballot, on the role of county committee, on district leadership, judicial delegates, and how it’s all supposed to work together to create a healthy debate at the Democratic Party level that currently doesn’t necessarily exist right now.”

She was happy to see the BDCC approve the changes, but dismayed that suggestions were flatly dismissed in the August meeting. In the past when members were persistent in asking questions during meetings, she said, security asked individuals to be quiet or even asked them to leave.

In 2016, several Bronx Democrats sued the party, claiming they were added to the county committee without their knowledge or consent. The federal suit alleged party leadership conspired to ensure only their hand-picked members were appointed.

Federal judge Kimba Woods dismissed the case stating the suit “failed to allege business or property injury” according to federal corruption and racketeering laws. Those plaintiffs were barred from trying to file the suit again.

Delgado was one of several whose name was added to the committee rolls in 2016 without her knowledge or consent. She was notified by a former staffer of Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr., of her position on the committee. It came as a surprise, she said, especially since she has only ever received one notice of committee meetings. That was for the special election of Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez in April 2018.

“They pick and choose when they want you there,” Delgado said. “If you’re going to vote and not ask questions, they’ll call you. Otherwise, you have to hear about meetings from other people who actually got meeting notices.”

The party disagrees. The rules change means meeting notices will be mailed to members earlier and emailed to members who provide electronic addresses, BDCC spokeswoman Geraldine Estevez said.

“As you can imagine, this is a flawed system since addresses change and we’re not always made aware of it,” she said. “We are working on improving this method.”

But some county committee members like Sementilli believe it’s “well orchestrated” by a “political machine” to exclude certain people.

“It’s repeating the same playbook and it’s continuously the same every year,” said Sementilli, who ran for city council in 2017 for a seat ultimately won by Mark Gjonaj. “Democracy in the Bronx has been circumvented. It’s been circumvented by the process itself.”

Not all BDCC members see it as a large-scale political conspiracy.  Knapp, co-founder of Northwest Bronx Indivisible and a Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club member, said the county party needs to do more to be more inclusive. Conflicting statements about when comments or suggestions about rule changes should have been submitted is just the latest example of an enduring problem.

“I just think that they need to commit to being more open and transparent and creating some simple ways to allow people to participate more,” Knapp said. “And then it’s on those people if they don’t participate. At least they’re offered that opportunity, and if they create that and promote it, people will engage and really want to participate.”

The party’s perceived resistance to change will not hold, Prisco said, if members begin asking questions.

“The dynamics of politics are rapidly changing, and the people will start to become aware of what’s happening,” said Prisco, a leader of the Bronx Arts Initiative. “They can continue to restrict access and radicalize the public against them, or we can actually start talking and negotiating positive change.”

As a group, Lopez said the members who ask questions and push for change are staying right where they are.

“Once you empower people with information, they want to keep getting involved and keep being a part of that conversation,” she said. “I’m hopeful that people saw that even though there was initial resistance to what we were proposing, we all agreed to make our party better.

“Let’s keep doing that.”

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