Bay Ridge Democrats Bring Exciting Base To Working Class Nabe

Justin Brannan (3)

For politically involved Democrats in Bay Ridge last months upset elections that saw Democratic upstarts Andrew Gournardes (State Senate) and Max Rose (Congress) defeat Republican mainstays U.S. Rep. Dan Donovan and State Sen. Marty Golden was a longtime coming.

That’s because unlike other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the Bay Ridge greater area including Dyker Heights and pockets of Bensonhurst and Bath Beach, has long been the borough’s one Republican toehold.

And while a huge midterm turnout, largely from an extreme dislike toward President Donald Trump, played a factor, the real turning tide was the organizational skills of the Bay Ridge Democrats (BRD) political club.

Bay Ridge Democrats President Chris McCreight pounds the pavements to get nominating petitions signed. Photo from club’s Facebook page.

“The secret is we stay focussed on winning elections. We care very much about issues and causes, but we don’t get distracted. We need good Democrats to represent us and we stay focussed on the elections,” said BRD President Chris McCreight.

McCreight said the club also is forced to approach things different from other clubs in the borough in that most of the other clubs are done working when the September primaries end because of little or no Republican opposition. The difference is Democrats always face a tough GOP candidate in the general election in Bay Ridge..

Another factor that helps the club, according to McCreight, is the neighborhood is fairly stable with many long time residents. This is different than places like Williamsburg, which has become more transient with gentrification, he says.

Among these bedrock Democrats is Joanne Seminara, the female Democratic District Leader, in Republican Assembly Member Nicole Malliotakis’s 64th district including Bay Ridge and Staten Island.

“I’ve been involved in local politics since my dad, who is 88 and still lives in the neighborhood, ran for Congress when I was 18,” recalled Seminara. “He was a lawyer and my inspiration, and I made the decision to get involved in local politics early on.”

Seminara ran for city council in 1997 when former City Council Member Sal Albanese (D) ran for mayor, but narrowly lost to Golden. She challenged him again in 2001, but with the Sept.11 attack at the World Trade Center, she lost by a wider margin.

At that time, there were two Democratic clubs in the area – Ralph Perfetto’s American Heritage Democratic Club and Seminara’s Brooklyn Democrats for Change club, which she ran with Scott Klein and Jeannie May among others. Slowly, the two clubs morphed into the BRD with City Councilman Justin Brannan becoming their first president in 2010.

A newspaper clipping from the club’s early endorsements. Contributed photo.

“We started with a small group, and then Justin and Chris brought in a new energy. We were among the first clubs to endorse Bill de Blasio for mayor, Letitia James for Public Advocate and Kenneth Thompson for District Attorney,” said Seminara.

Seminara said the club was also early in taking on such issues as climate change, women’s issues and gun control.

“Now, we’ve had a trifecta of success with Justin getting elected to the city council, Andrew to the state senate and Max to Congress. We also supported [Assemblywoman] Mathylde Frontus, and I think she’ll be a great legislator. We’re also passing a lot of leadership to new members, which needs to happen for a healthy organization,” she said.

Klein, who originally hails from Bayside, Queens, but who moved to Bay Ridge in 2005, said he started with Seminara’s Brooklyn Democrats for Change club. Later, he recalls meeting a younger Brannan anxious to take on Golden for his senate seat in 2008, around the time Gounardes, who still in law school in Washington, began coming around.

Brannan eventually opted out of running against Golden, and instead strongly backed Gounardes, when he took on and lost to Golden in 2012. 

At that time, former City Council Member Vincet Gentile was the only Democrat from Bay Ridge in public office, but things began to change with the BRDs, Klein recalled.

“Justin’s [city council race] changed everything. He’s one of the most genuine real down to earth people in politics. There’s no pretense about him. What you see is what you get. He relates to pretty much anyone he meets. Electing him to the city council set the way for Andrew,” said Klein, adding that McCreight’s exceptional election organizing skills also played a big part in the recent elections.

Brannan said he first decided to start the Bay Ridge Democrats after going to a meeting of former district leader Kevin Peter Carroll’s club and walking away less than enthusiastic.

City Council Member Justin Brannan, left, and State Sen.-Elect Andrew Gounardes.

“They spent the entire meeting arguing about Robert’s Rules of Order and it was just awful,” recalled Brannan. “On my way home I decided there had to be another way.”

After founding the BRDs, Brannan said people thought they were crazy for the club’s early endorsement of Thompson over incumbant and neighborhood favorite District Attorney Charles Hynes as well as Bill de Blasio for mayor, but it showed the club’s independent and progressive streak.

“The club has never been a top down organization. The candidates we endorse to this day are just the  candidates the membership votes for. Even during my primary, we invited all the candidates to make their pitch and the membership votes on who they want to support,” said Brannan. “And everyone knows that once the membership makes an endorsement, we were going to do everything we can to help that candidate win. He hit the streets and subway stations and knock on doors and do all the stuff it takes to win.”

Brannan said he first saw the club was onto something when he worked side by side with Gounardes in his race againsy Golden in 2012 and, although they lost, they carried the Bay Ridge side of the district. And ever since Trump was elected, every meeting draws no less than 100 people, he added.

Still it is not lost on Brannan that he narrowly beat Repbublican John Quaglione by less than 900 votes for the council seat last year, and Gounardes narrowly beat Golden by less than 1000 votes last month.

“Whats interesting about this area is it’s one of the last areas in the city that still has competitive general elections. The fact that Andrew and I both won by narrow margins means we have to work that much harder. So we can take a quick victory lap, and then get back to the hard work to make sure voters stick by us,” he said.