Queens residents take politics into their own hands by running for district leader

On Friday evening, Fred Simmons went out to put up flyers for his campaign.

“I’m tired of the machine. It’s not my first introduction to politics,” he said while walking down 134th street near 95th Avenue in Jamaica looking for spots to put up his flyers. “I’ve learned the ropes so to speak. But it’s time to change.”

Simmons, 67, is running for the male District Leader seat in District 32 Part A –– an elected county level position within the Queens County Democratic Party. He’s one of the new names on the primary ballot this year trying to infiltrate the Queens County Democratic Party and change it from within. 

In the past, lower level elected positions within the party such as district leader, judicial delegate, or county committee were not often contested. The party would petition for a set of pre-chosen candidates and those people would then end up on the ballot, sometimes with the candidate unaware they were running for the position. 

Many candidates were elected officials or others who were already deeply entrenched in the party. The positions were not well publicized and fresh meat, so to say, was rare. But this year, individuals, like Simmons, and groups, like the New Reformers which has more than 20 candidates on the ballot this year, have made a concerted effort to present candidates and challenge the status quo.  

Simmons retired five years ago after spending 14 years as a New York State Senate liaison so he’s no stranger to politics, he said. He knows how the party works and he doesn’t like it. Last year’s Queens District Attorney race was the final straw for him, he said. When the Queens County Democratic Party didn’t back Mina Malik, the candidate who he said had the most experience for the job, he knew he needed to do something, he said.

So, when he saw that the district leader seat in his district was vacant this year, he decided to go for it.

“I thought that now was the time,” Simmons said. “I’m just sick of the political games that’s being played with people’s lives.”

The barrier to entry to get on the ballot is high. Step one: know the position exists. Step two: get on the ballot –– a notoriously difficult and finicky process that involves getting a certain number of signatures on a petition. Petitions get thrown out all of the time for minor infractions. Even someone as high profile as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose petition to be on the ballot for the Working Families Party in the primary was thrown out, isn’t immune to the notoriously convoluted process. 

That’s what happened to Melissa Bair back in 2018, a 43-year-old midwife from Woodside who’s running for Assembly District 30 Part B District Leader this year with the support of the New Reformers, a group in Queens with the slogan “District Leaders from the People by the People.” 

Motivated by the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, Bair decided to get involved in local politics by running for County Committee in 2018, she said. 

She petitioned to get on the ballot for a county committee seat but her petition was tossed because of clerical errors. Bair ended up getting appointed, she said, partially because a New York Times story revealed that some of the candidates on the ballot for County Committee didn’t know they were running. A few didn’t even live in the state anymore.

Her experience opened her eyes to ways that the lower level elected positions within the party could interact better with registered Democrats in the county. For example, she realized that she could be a conduit to elected officials about what the community thinks and needs. 

It also made her believe that the party more broadly needs reforms. It needs to be more transparent, she said, and more people need to be encouraged to run for county level positions. 

The argument for why the party is so insular is often that people don’t come to the meetings, she said. But people don’t know about meetings, let alone the positions, she said. 

“You can’t blame people for not knowing something they didn’t even know they were supposed to know about,” Bair said.

The obscurity of the office hasn’t stopped Simmons, the district leader candidate in Jamaica, from pounding the pavement to pick up some votes. As he continued down 134th Street in Jamaica, a man on the street stopped him for a flyer. After a brief and friendly exchange, Simmons realized the man lived on the side of 101st Avenue that was in his district –– a potential voter. 

“I’m running for district leader,” he said to the man. ”Make it happen my brother.”

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