Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn (D-Brooklyn) speaks at the New York State Democratic Convention, Feb. 17, 2022.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITY
In January 2020, Rodneyse Bichotte stood before a spread of tables inside a nondescript brick building close to Brooklyn’s eastern shoreline, beaming at the people who had just voted to make her head of the borough’s Democratic Party.
A relatively obscure 47-year-old state Assembly member at the time, Bichotte had suddenly become one of the most powerful people in New York — and she arrived with a mandate.
The party representatives sitting before her knew that the Kings County Democratic Party, New York’s biggest local political organization, representing more than a million voters, was in crisis. For years, the party apparatus, known as “County,” had been hemorrhaging money under its aging boss, Frank Seddio. At the same time, as with national Democrats, the fight between its old-school establishment and its emerging progressive, “reform” faction was heating up, devolving into attacks in the press and screaming matches at party meetings.
The vote for Bichotte that day — 36 to 0 with one abstention — was an overwhelming affirmation of the healing grassroots ethos she said she would bring to the party.
Bichotte got into politics, she told her colleagues in the room, believing that people like her, outside of these factions, represented the bulk of the borough’s Democratic voters.
“The majority of Democrats don’t know County. The majority of Democrats are not part of the reformers’ group. They’re regular people,” she declared. “Regular people, trying to make it day by day. They want to get involved, but don’t know how to.”
Bichotte’s biography certainly lent credence to that vision: Her parents worked in a textile factory after immigrating from Haiti, and she grew up in East Flatbush, a largely Caribbean neighborhood, without wealth or dynastic connections. She hadn’t toiled for years under an outer-borough strongman waiting her turn. Nor was she an activist in one of western Brooklyn’s Democratic clubs dominated by brownstone owners and young, often white, transplants.
Joanne Seminara, a longtime party rep from Bay Ridge in southern Brooklyn, remembers feeling hope after voting for Bichotte that day.
The daughter of a Sicilian immigrant, Seminara had never been comfortable with the entrenched culture of glad-handing in borough politics. An attorney, she felt that the party’s culture of patronage had skewed the borough’s judiciary, helped send mediocre elected officials to Albany, and frequently veered into corrupt dealings.
Brooklyn Democratic Party member Joanne Seminara, Bay Ridge
George Joseph/THE CITY
“I just took her at her word that she would be open and that she would run the party more in keeping with democratic principles,” she recalled.
Two years later, Seminara entertains no such ideals.
Under Bichotte Hermelyn’s tenure, Brooklyn’s Democratic Party has further descended into chaos, with progressive upstarts accusing establishment leaders of engaging in criminal activity in order to retain power, and with both sides going after each other in the media and on Twitter. (On New Year’s Day 2021, Bichotte got married to Edu Hermelyn and added her husband’s last name to her surname.)
The insurgents, led by the New Kings Democrats — a millennial-heavy group inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 calls to organize — claim that Bichotte Hermelyn’s county machine has crushed dissenting voices: nullifying inconvenient votes, filing a flood of ballot challenges for low-level party races, and in some cases, even resorting to forgeries and slotting residents into position for low-level party seats without their knowledge.
Last week, that faction took five key party seats from Bichotte Hermelyn’s allies in New York’s primary election, threatening her majority hold of the party’s executive committee. One of those defeated allies was her husband, who gave up a $190,000 job with the Adams’ administration to campaign to keep his party seat, but got crushed anyway.
In the face of ongoing attacks, Bichotte Hermelyn and her proxies have dived headlong into identity politics, accusing their “limousine liberal” challengers of invading their turf and seeking to sideline minority groups that have worked for decades to assert themselves in Brooklyn politics.
In April, for example, after a white Assembly member affiliated with another self-styled reform group compared Bichotte Hermelyn to Donald Trump over a Board of Elections dispute, the party boss shot back with accusations of xenophobia.
“The only story here is that a privileged man is claiming the rules are stacked against him when they aren’t,” the party boss tweeted.
The discord comes as Democrats across the country, despairing over the end of Roe v. Wade and the Biden Administration’s perceived inertia, brace for a GOP wave. Even in deep blue Brooklyn, pro-Trump Republicans have gained ground in recent years, scoring new seats in New York’s City Council and congressional delegation and coming within striking distance of more in Albany.
The constant drip of scandal and strife has left some Brooklyn voters disillusioned, following a mayoral election that saw historically low Democratic turnout. This spring, for example, Reon Sealey, a 21-year-old from Brownsville, a majority Black neighborhood, was one of several residents who were disturbed to learn that their signatures had been forged on Board of Elections documents linked to establishment efforts to knock off primary rivals.
“It’s really strange that they think that they can get away with this. It shows they have no integrity,” Sealey told THE CITY in April. “It sort of makes it hard to trust anything that they have to say in this whole process.”
Elected Democrats aligned with the New Kings Democrats and other reform factions argue that Bichotte Hermelyn’s style of leadership is part of the problem.
“The Brooklyn Democratic machine combines the worst elements of patronage and self-dealing that is counter-productive to the essential goals of expanding our party, strengthening our base, and communicating to voters of color across the borough and country,” U.S. (D-Brooklyn/Queens/Manhattan) told THE CITY in a statement. “A reform-minded Democratic Party is the only way to bring in new voices, fully represent the diversity of the city, and push back on Republican extremists who threaten our very way of life.”
Brownsville resident Reon Sealey says he never signed a petition aimed at knocking off Democratic candidates in a primary battle, April 15, 2022.
George Joseph/THE CITY
But Charles Ragusa, a longtime party leader and establishment ally in Southern Brooklyn, said Bichotte Hermelyn has been doing what’s needed as party chair.
“When people are attacking you, you have to fight back. And that’s what Rodneyse has been doing,” said Ragusa, 68, a member of the United Progressive Democrats Club in Bensonhurst. “I support her.”
Bichotte Hermelyn did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. But after her Primary Day setbacks, a statement issued on her behalf struck a far more conciliatory tone about the party’s “family fights.”
“Now we have to unite to face the bigger challenge in November to defeat an increasingly right-wing Republican party threatening the rights of women to control their bodies and their reproductive health, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, communities of color more generally and the US Constitution itself,” said Bob Liff, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democratic Party. “That is the prize on which we must keep our eyes. After all our family fights, we are one party. We have a lot of work to do.”
When Rodneyse Bichotte was 10 years old, she was walking down a street in East Flatbush about 20 blocks from her home, excited at having sold some chocolates for her sister, when a car came barreling down the road and slammed into her.
The driver sped off, leaving Bichotte with a broken ankle and a permanent limp. Her parents, blue-collar workers, couldn’t provide her with physical therapy, so she lay in bed for months, teaching herself how to walk again.
“I could not play, could not dance,” Bichotte later told The Haitian Times. “But over time I became active again, and was determined to be strong and not let my injuries slow me down, or show signs of weakness.”
That tenacity propelled the young woman to sprint towards her goals. By the time Bichotte was 35, she had secured degrees in engineering and finance, and traveled to Japan and China for work in the tech sector. Eventually, she landed a job on Wall Street and returned to New York.
By that time, Flatbush had changed — less white and Jewish Orthodox, more Black and Caribbean. But the area’s political leadership hadn’t transitioned with the times. Rhoda Jacobs, the area’s longtime state Assembly member and a Jewish woman, had held on to power for more than three decades, and the neighborhood did not get a Haitian city council member until 2007.
For decades, many Haitian immigrants had chosen to sit out of politics. In the old country, with its string of Western-backed dictators and coups d’etat, civic activity could be deadly, and some didn’t want to get invested locally when they still nursed hopes of returning home, several New York Haitian-American leaders told THE CITY.
Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn visits the site of a shooting in Flatbush, Dec. 15, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
By the time Bichotte’s generation came of age, though, it was clear their families were staying and that they needed to stand up for themselves.
On the street, many Haitian-Americans faced prejudice from Anglo-Caribbean migrants because they spoke Haitian Creole. In school, many of the newcomers were separated into ESL classes, and became the butt of jokes due to racist stereotypes about AIDS, body odor, and poverty.
Garry Pierre-Pierre, founder and publisher of The Haitian Times, says that this discrimination helped motivate Bichotte’s jump into politics.
“She wanted to take that fight, she was itching for that fight,” he recalls. “She just felt that we had been trampled, we had no representation, and she was gonna lead that fight.”
Urged on by family and friends, Bichotte ran for and became a Democratic district leader in 2010. Two years later, the ambitious newcomer was already gunning for Flatbush’s state Assembly seat.
Pierre-Pierre recalls sitting down with Bichotte at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Brooklyn and advising her against the run.
Jacobs was a savvy incumbent who could not be beat, he argued. And someone bright and capable like Bichotte should set her sights higher than the cesspool that was Albany.
“I told her, you know, ‘This place can corrupt you. I’ve seen many people get corrupted,’” Pierre-Pierre said.
The Brooklyn leader Bichotte replaced, Frank Seddio, still operates like an old-school boss, taking meetings at a restaurant in Carroll Gardens, where men speak Italian in the back and a statue of St. Anthony stands by the front window.
The 75-year-old Canarsie native grew up in an era when most decisions — who was going to run where, who was going to work where — were hashed out in places like this, over pasta and chianti.
“My first job in politics as a kid was going to Bensonhurst every Sunday morning and buying fresh mozzarella for Meade Esposito’s table as he entertained everybody from mayors and governors to presidents of the United States,” says Seddio, reminiscing about a cigar-toting party boss of yore who was later convicted for corruption. “Being a part of that, witnessing that, was an enormous thing for me in terms of my education.”
Seddio rose up through this world, building himself up from cop to state Assembly member to judge. In 2007, he had to leave the bench after questions were raised about his campaign finances, but five years later, he was tapped to be party boss himself after a wide-ranging sexual harassment scandal brought down his friend and fellow Italian-American, Vito Lopez.
By that point in 2012, the borough’s changing composition was threatening the power of the old men in smoke-filled rooms.
On the western side of the borough, the young, disproportionately white liberals, activated by the New Kings Democrats, and older dissident clubs, like the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, were starting to forge an alliance with prominent Hispanic leaders in gentrifying neighborhoods.
And in central Brooklyn, a crop of relatively progressive Caribbean American officials, revolving around the family of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, were starting to bump up against the coalition of African American, Jewish and White ethnic leaders that had historically dominated the party.
Bichotte came out of this rising Caribbean-American tide, counting Jumaane Williams, then a left-wing Grenadian-American Council member from Flatbush, as her first major backer.
So in 2012, despite getting advice from Seddio that she wait her turn, Bichotte challenged the machine-backed incumbent. The newbie got crushed, but the campaign experience helped her win two years later after Jacobs retired.
From there, the young legislator continued to buck the establishment.
In 2015, Bichotte backed an Assembly candidate, Diana Richardson, who won on an anti-gentrification platform with support from the Working Families Party, a progressive group frequently at odds with county leaders.
Later that year, Bichotte held a press conference explicitly going after Seddio and the party machine, which she accused of feeding a story to the New York Post to smear a family friend running for state Senate.
“The Brooklyn Democratic establishment should be careful before accusing others of improprieties,” Bichotte declared after the event. “Glass houses shatter easily when bricks are thrown.”
Entering the state Assembly, Bichotte focused on causes that were personal to her.
In her first year in Albany, the former investment banker became chair of the state’s Subcommittee on Oversight of Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises, a perch she used to push legislation aimed at leveling the playing field for vendors seeking state contracts.
The new legislator also doubled down on the representation politics she ran on, sending out press releases, going on CNN, and even embarking on a hunger strike to inveigh against anti-Haitian discrimination in New York and abroad.
But Bichotte was not as generous with her support when it came to different ethnic groups that also lay a claim to the same patch of Brooklyn. In fact, when Flatbush residents from other Caribbean communities sought to champion their causes, they found an indifferent — and sometimes antagonistic — Assembly member.
State Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte holds a hearing on affordable housing, July 7, 2019.
New York State Assembly
In the fall of 2017, a coalition of tourism, business, and cultural groups were set to announce the launch of “Little Caribbean,” an official city designation intended to boost economic development in a swath of Flatbush.
Behind the scenes, Bichotte had initially backed the designation, which would include much of her district. She even provided the coalition with a statement ahead of time, describing how the project was “yet another opportunity to shine a light on the richness of Caribbean culture.”
But little more than a week before its public launch event, Bichotte emailed Shelley Worrell, creator of CaribBEING, a culture and arts group that had spearheaded the initiative.
“I’m sorry but I have to retract our quote. we are having an issue with this whole issue of little Carribean in [sic] many levels,” Bichotte wrote, according to email correspondence reviewed by THE CITY.
The community coalition proceeded without Bichotte’s backing. But the night before its opening event, Bichotte launched a preemptive strike, issuing a press release asserting that the coalition had failed to hold enough meetings with local politicians and had gone forward with “very little community support.”
Instead, her office called for the designation to be postponed so that a “Little Haiti” district could “be established first.”
The Little Caribbean designation went ahead anyway, but with nearly all elected officials other than then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, pulling their public support.
The next year, with Williams’ help, Bichotte pushed through a separate but larger and overlapping “Little Haiti” zone, promising the “momentous” initiative would “bring revitalization to our neighborhoods and businesses.”
(As of last week, the Little Haiti BK nonprofit that was set up by Bichotte allies to assist with that goal hadn’t yet collected on the $160,000 allocated to it by the City Council over the last three years because of paperwork issues, including the temporary repeal of its nonprofit status by the IRS. The delay prompted $120,000 of those allocations to be diverted elsewhere by the Council, city officials said.)
Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn speaks at the renaming ceremony for the Newkirk Av-Little Haiti station
Marc A. Hermann/MTA
Bichotte’s maneuvering sparked an ugly back and forth between some Anglo-Caribbean and Haitian Americans, straining the alliance that had been expanding across Central Brooklyn.
While many in the community saw nothing wrong with the Haitian display of cultural pride, others viewed the separation as unnecessarily divisive.
Ernest Skinner, then a Williams staffer who had previously volunteered for Bichotte, criticized the Assembly member for her “insularity” in an email that referred to Haiti as a “Fourth World Country,” sparking outrage.
Skinner says he subsequently apologized, and insists the comments, which he still regrets, were directed at Bichotte, not the broader community.
He had grown up watching post-colonial leaders across the Caribbean bickering amongst themselves. Now, he felt, the same provincial mentality was splintering their emerging coalition in Brooklyn.
“I held Rodneyse in the highest esteem up to the point where it became clear to me through her reaction to the establishment of Little Caribbean that she was actively pushing a Haitian agenda,” he said.
In 2019, the tensions erupted into an all-out “war” when Bichotte publicly broke with Williams, the first elected official who ever endorsed her and who had stood by her during the Little Haiti debate, despite being an Anglo-Caribbean American leader himself.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams testifies before the City Council in 2019.
William Alatriste/New York City Council
Brooklyn political insiders say Bichotte felt betrayed because just months after she had chaired his successful run for public advocate, Williams had decided to support another candidate over Farah Louis, Bichotte’s Haitian-American pick and his own former staffer, for his old Council seat in Flatbush and Midwood.
“I think that they were offended,” recalled one insider, who had previously worked to help get Bichotte elected. “I think they were like, ‘We did so much for you. You know, it’s patronage, it’s time for you to pay us back.’ And Jumaane was like, ‘Nah, bro. Like, I have allegiances. What do you think this is, the mob?’”
Adamant that Louis should take the seat, Bichotte forged alliances with former foes.
Local Jewish leaders, concerned about the divisive rhetoric of Williams’ pick and Williams’ own decision to abstain from a Council resolution condemning the BDS movement, encouraged their supporters to unify behind Bichotte’s candidate, putting aside past concerns about the Assembly member’s comments on Jewish voters.
Likewise, Seddio, the Democratic party boss Bichotte once publicly excoriated, abandoned his initial pick in the race to support the Assembly member’s candidate.
With strong backing from the Orthodox Jewish community, Louis won decisively. And that, the former Bichotte campaign volunteer said, “set them up to go to Frank [Seddio] and be like, ‘OK, bet. You need to deal with us now.”
The win hardly assuaged Bichotte, whose anger against her old mentor continued to boil over even after Louis’ victory party.
In response to a message from Louis on a WhatsApp thread thanking her campaign supporters, Bichotte typed out a long message attacking Williams for his supposed “betrayal” of and “hate” for “the Haitian community.”
“I see some others trying to promote him because they have political ambitions. Good luck,” she wrote. “All I can say is, keeping the record straight, we are still at War. Don’t sleep. 🇭🇹💪🏾🇭🇹💪🏾”
The level of animosity toward a former friend and mentor alarmed some Bichotte allies at the time, according to a source close to the Brooklyn Democratic Party.
“That’s the turning point where people were saying, if she can turn on a person like Jumaane, then she can turn on anybody,” said the source. “That’s when a lot of people said, ‘You know what? She has no allegiance.’ People were not trusting her after that.’”
In response to questions, Liff, Brooklyn’s Democratic party spokesperson, did not comment on the WhatsApp messages, but said that the idea that Bichotte is not “supportive of inclusion of other groups,” including the broader Caribbean community, is “disgracefully wrong.”
“She has been a champion of inclusion. It is antithetical to her entire career of lifting up communities that have been traditionally excluded from the corridors of power, including her own Haitian American community,” the statement said.
By January 2020, the Brooklyn Democratic Party was in trouble. Under the rule of Seddio, a self-admitted “terrible fundraiser,” the party had gone from having more than $500,000 on hand to owing nearly $200,000, with much of the dough going to party-connected insiders like veteran communications hires and the wife of the party’s law-chair.
At the same time, Seddio recalls, the progressives were complaining at every turn without offering to help. They demanded more meetings, which could cost thousands of dollars, decrying the establishment’s lack of democratic input. But where were they when it came time to fundraise? And as the party slid further into the red, the establishment’s opponents complained aloud about the lack of financial transparency.
In Seddio, the self-styled reformers had an easy punching bag: an old Italian with a penchant for cannoli who had learned at the feet of corrupt party bosses of yore.
Frank Seddio in Brooklyn in 2016.
But what if they had to square off against a new kind of leader, or at least a new kind of face? Six months after Bichotte’s victorious proxy battle in the Flatbush City Council race, Seddio abruptly announced his retirement and tapped her to be his successor.
Bichotte had proven herself a strong campaigner, an able fundraiser, and a reliable ally to the county establishment, Seddio recalls.
And her identity was a plus.
“To be honest with you, I saw that we can, you know, make history by appointing someone who was a Black woman,” Seddio said.
When Bichotte gave her victory speech, it was in Seddio’s political clubhouse in Canarsie. As the new young leader stood up to speak, Seddio sat beside her, grinning at the Democratic leaders, many of them self-styled reformers, who had just gone along with his plan.
Antonio Reynoso, a co-founder of the New Kings Democrats and Brooklyn’s recently elected Borough President, assumed Bichotte’s elevation was just another step in the party’s inexorable march towards progress.
“We were really excited about it, a Black woman!” he recalled. “There was a lot of like energy and support even in our movement for her.”
They were getting a bona fide progressive party chair, Reynoso thought, someone who had passed legislation aimed at reducing Black maternal mortality and with whom he had collaborated in stands against anti-Haitian discrimination.
But coming into office, Bichotte did not clean house, at least in the way the insurgents would have liked.
Frank Carone, who dined with her soon after news broke of her likely elevation to party chair, stayed on as the Brooklyn Democrats’ law chair, despite his reputation for questionable dealmaking with elected officials. Jeff Feldman remained executive director, despite his history of getting an immunity deal in exchange for testifying against a Brooklyn party boss who was then convicted for extortion.
A few months into the new leader’s reign, Reynoso started to worry that Bichotte was fine with the county machine’s old-school tactics.
Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn speaks at a rally in City Hall Park supporting female candidates, July 13, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
That spring, though a global pandemic was killing thousands across New York City, including multiple Board of Elections staffers, Bichotte pushed the board to stay up and running, so that the signatures that candidates had gathered to get on the ballot could still be vetted — and challenged.
The party boss claimed this plan was needed to “retain the democratic processes,” but it also allowed Bichotte’s allies to knock off several out-of-favor Democrat candidates off the primary ballot for a lack of valid signatures — punishing those who claimed their campaigns had limited their door knocking efforts to stop the spread of COVID.
Bichotte’s camp had thrown “the first punch,” Reynoso says, and he remembers feeling confused.
“I don’t understand why you think we’re coming after you. We want to work with you,” he said.
Any good will that remained was extinguished later that year at the party’s massive County Committee meeting, a gathering where thousands of Brooklyn Democratic Party delegates representing multi-block areas in neighborhoods across the borough vote on new party rule proposals.
In December 2020, the delegates logged on to Zoom for the meeting due to the dangers of large indoor gatherings. And for the first time ever, the self-styled reform block, which had swelled as part of the wider liberal backlash to Trump, had a slim majority.
After an initial vote miscount and hours of procedural jujitsu, the progressives eventually marshaled their newfound majority to enact rules aimed at a longtime goal: shifting power from party executives to the neighborhood block representatives.
Their measures were hardly radical. They got more meetings. They curbed the practice of letting party leaders wield tons of ballots for absentee party members.
But by the end of the night and an interminable meeting, the newcomers were ecstatic.
“After 12.5 hours, I can say that we ended the night with a huge victory! #ccmeeting2020 #sweetvictory,” Emile Bazile, a Williamsburg party leader with the New Kings Democrats tweeted at 12:44 a.m.
After the contentious meeting, the party leadership apologized to Democratic activists for the initial vote miscount, and a spokesperson for Bichotte reaffirmed her boss’s commitment to being a “reformer.”
But the next week, when the meeting reconvened, a party-installed parliamentarian, who promised he didn’t have a “dog in the fight,” proceeded to void all of the votes for reforms, prompting a mass walkout.
“This is not tyranny, this is not dictatorship, this is what everybody asked for,” Bichotte explained at the time. “We are trying to get through this meeting in a structured, efficient, and lawful way.”
For Reynoso, the tragedy of the Brooklyn Democratic Party is the political opportunity it is failing to seize.
This is one of the biggest, bluest Democratic counties in the country, he notes. And the party has a ready-made structure in County Committee, which, if filled and empowered, could allow thousands of hyperlocal party leaders to mobilize their neighbors block by block and back ambitious legislators to reshape the statehouse.
“We should be leading. We should be a model of what a Democratic Party can look like,” he said. “And instead, we’re an embarrassment and a big joke.”
Antonio Reynoso, co-founder of the New Kings Democrats, at the Red Hook Houses, Mar. 6, 2021.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY
Over the last year, Bichotte and her allies have gone from facing accusations of anti-democratic behavior to allegations of criminality in their fight to hold off insurgents.
The signatures of at least five Brooklyn residents from Brownsville and East New York were forged by someone in the camp of a Bichotte ally as part of an attempt to knock County Committee rivals off the ballot.
Likewise, Bichotte Hermelyn allies in southern Brooklyn listed at least 20 residents as County Committee candidates in Board of Elections records, presumably to try to exploit their future voting power, despite the residents’ lack of knowledge or consent.
In response to these rolling scandals, which have prompted calls for a criminal investigation from good government groups, Bichotte Hermelyn has shown little interest in getting to the bottom of the falsifications.
“The petitions or the objection forms are just submitted on behalf of the candidates,” Bichotte Hermelyn told PoliticsNY. “People don’t look at signatures to see if anything was fraud or whatever.”
Liff, the party spokesperson, said the signatures raised concerns, but argued it would be naive to think Bichotte Hermelyn could “micromanage” the “district-based procedures” of her allies.
The win-at-all-costs approach to retaining power under Bichotte Hermelyn, coupled with embarrassing losses for establishment-backed candidates at the polls, has sparked alarm among some of Bichotte’s traditional Black, White and Jewish Orthodox allies in the eastern half of Brooklyn.
Multiple sources close to the party’s old guard said Bichotte Hermelyn is likely to face internal challenges to her leadership once the newly elected executive committee members come on board. According to insiders, even Seddio is having second thoughts, upset by Bichotte Hermelyn’s decisions to back her own candidates on his turf and break with him on party nominations.
“She’s very independent-minded,” one source close to the party establishment said. “She placated him to get the position, and once she got the position she did not necessarily walk lockstep with him — and I think that’s where the rift began and where they are right now.”
In person, Seddio is careful not to disparage his hand-picked protege. But he isn’t afraid to point to their differences.
“I think it was harder for her to be successful than it was for me,” Seddio said. “I came in with years and years and years of experience in how to run this place, watching people who had done it first-hand all the time.”
With their recent gains in key party seats, many reform club leaders believe a viable opposition coalition is coming into shape. And as an insurgent alliance, Brooklyn’s reform clubs have been able to find common ground on procedural changes aimed at curbing party executives’ backroom dealmaking and devolving power to the block-by-block representatives in the County Committee.
These reforms, some insurgent leaders assume, would bring party appointments, endorsements, and other key decisions to the grassroots level, stymying real estate, big law, and other special interests, and unleashing the organization’s ability to back candidates with popular, progressive platforms.
“Everyone talks about how terrible the Democrats are at just getting their message across,” said Reynoso. “The progressives, I actually think we do a good job, and that’s why we win elections. We win elections because we listen to the people.”
But what if today’s reform executives find that many in the expanding pool of block representatives they’ve recruited are unwilling to go along with them on key left-wing propositions?
In interviews, some of the insurgents’ new County Committee leaders express views on homeless shelters and criminal justice reform that deviate from leftwing orthodoxy.
Such dissenting views will not stop the progressives, particularly their socialist factions, from ramming through their agenda when they get the chance, their establishment critics charge.
“Once they gain power, those that are not with them — they’re going to go after,” said Ragusa.
Eventually, Seddio argues, the new “progressive” ruling clique will come under attack because they’ll be “what the regular guard is today.”
“That’s the nature of the beast. That’s what politics is about. It’s about the young taking out the old,” he said.
Time will tell if the old guard’s cynicism is proven correct. But as the progressives continue to grow and consider a new leader to line up behind, they may think back to that day in January 2020 in a bright hall in Canarsie when many of their representatives voted for a new party chair promising change.
Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn came in as a historic figure, the first Black woman to lead a party organization in New York City. To this day, she calls herself a progressive and a “revolutionist.” And to many in her community, she still is.
Yet somehow as she rose, with many of her would-be allies failing to notice, she seemed to gravitate to the borough’s entrenched power structure.
As Clarence Norman, one of Brooklyn’s former party bosses, once said before his conviction for corruption charges, “When you’re on the outside, you’re a reformer. When you’re on the inside, you’re a regular. Let’s be for real.”
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