Brooklyn Dems and New Kings Dems locked in ugly war of petition challenges

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Kings County Democratic Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, left, and Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, right.

Over the past couple weeks the Kings County [Brooklyn] Democratic Party and the New Kings Democrats (NKD) have been locked in a rancorous battle, both sides accusing the other of resorting to less-than-savory tactics to knock their primary candidates for low-level party positions off the ballot, leaving the future of political power in the borough hanging in the balance.

The public battle reached a head last week when the news website The City reported allegations by the NKD’s Rep Your Block initiative of two false signatures on petition challenges to their candidates running for County Committee seats in the 55th Assembly District – which includes Brownsville and East New York. 

The City then reported two more allegedly fraudulent signatures on petition challenges in the 55th Assembly District Monday.

Rep Your Block is in itself controversial in that it chose to operate mainly outside the legacy of long standing Black political clubs in historically Black neighborhoods, bringing allegations it is akin to political gentrification. But the NKD and Rep Your Block argue the initiative is important in its efforts to get more people involved in the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

The latest brouhaha comes after Rep Your Block filed a formal complaint with the city Board of Elections based on sworn affidavits by the two voters who alleged the signatures in question weren’t theirs. The organization also claims the petition challenges with allegedly forged signatures came from the Brooklyn Democratic Party – or County as it’s often called, as its law chair Anthony Genovesi Jr. is listed on the challenges as a point of contact.

Rodneyse Bichotte
Kings County Democratic Party Chair and Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn

However, Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn said she doesn’t think the party or its attorneys are responsible for the alleged false signatures on the petition challenges.

“The law firm that represents County and the Brooklyn Democratic Party are not responsible for any individual who may have forged or any husbands or wives who are signing for another when they’re doing door-to-door,” Bichotte Hermelyn said. “The petitions or the objection forms are just submitted on behalf of the candidates. People don’t look at signatures to see if anything was fraud or whatever. And that kind of thing.”

This is why even though Genovesi’s name was on the petitions, Bichotte Hermelyn said, he and the party weren’t responsible for what was actually written on them.

Bichotte Hermelyn said the alleged false signatures on petitions and petition challenges are a hazard of having unknown volunteers go out canvassing rather than a coordinated effort by the party to knock opposition candidates off the ballot.

“People hire petitioners, people hire people, people may have someone go and get something and people don’t know where the signatures are coming from,” Bichotte Hermelyn said. “So, it’s not like a deliberate thing. And this was an isolated, individual situation that they tried to make it widespread as if County and a reputable law firm is promoting fraudulent whatever.”

NKD and Rep Your Block held a joint rally on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall Monday where they demanded that County drop all of their petition challenges across the borough in the wake of the fraud allegations.

At the rally, Ali Najmi – Rep Your Block’s attorney – said the alleged forged signatures are evidence that County is going to great lengths to shut candidates who aren’t affiliated with the party out of the Democratic process.

“It’s one thing to object, it’s a whole nother thing to make up forged signatures, so that you have standing to try to knock someone out because you don’t have the organizational ability or the relationship to actually get that person to be a legitimate objector,” Najmi said. “That’s absurd. That’s unacceptable.”

Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso

Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, one of the NKD founders, said these are the same bare-knuckle tactics County has been using to shut new candidates out of elected office since he first ran for County Committee in the mid 2000s. County challenged Reynoso’s petitions, he said, the first few times he ran for County Committee, getting him tossed off the ballot each time.

Reynoso said it’s time for the party to embrace a new generation of leaders instead of attempting to shut them out of the process.

“Instead of having a Democratic Party that is embracing all this leadership that you see behind me, embracing this diversity, embrace it and empower them,” Reynoso said. They “object, every single one of them is being objected, including County Committee members. It’s still the same tactics. Only if they knew that every time you challenge a county committee member in a couple of years, they could be the next Borough President. You’re just making it happen is all.”

The 44th Assembly District

Meanwhile, Bichotte Hermelyn is pointing to objections to a slate of people running for County Committee and Judicial Delegate – who vote on Supreme Court nominees at a Judicial Convention – positions, a majority of whom have Middle Eastern, South and East Asian names, as evidence that it’s actually the New Kings Dems that are exclusionary. 

Bichotte Hermelyn drew particular attention to one of the ojectors: Jo Freeman – a feminist scholar and author who was once deeply involved in Brooklyn politics.

Robert Carroll
Assemblymember Robert Carroll

Although Freeman is far less active now locally, she told PoliticsNY she still has close ties to Lori Citron Knipel – the district’s female District Leader. Together Knipel, the male District Leader Doug Schneider and Assemblyman Robert Carroll picked the original slate of candidates for County Committee and Judicial Delegate positions running in this year’s primary. Carroll is aligned with NKD and was at the Monday rally.

According to Bichotte Hermelyn, this slate is simply trying to give more representation to the 44th Assembly District’s large Muslim community, concentrated in the section of Flatbush known as Little Pakistan. That’s why, Bichotte Hermelyn said, she sees objections to this slate linked to NKD as hypocritical.

“When there’s a group of people who have shared that they’ve been excluded from the democratic process, their voice is not heard, and they wanted to participate in quite frankly everybody’s county, everybody’s part of the Brooklyn Democratic County, there’s a problem?” Bichotte Hermelyn said. “That is very bad.”

Freeman said her objection has nothing to do with excluding any particular group of candidates. Rather, she feels the District Leaders and Assembly Member should get to pick the slate of candidates running in her district, not County. This seemingly runs counter to Rep Your Block’s mission of usurping and going around local political clubs and district leaders. 

Additionally, Freeman admitted she doesn’t know who any of the candidates are who she objected to, but was told many of them don’t live in the district.

“I didn’t know who they were,” Freeman said. “I just knew that they were, you might say, they were the opposition. Why is County running these people against us? And I was told, and I have no reason to disbelieve that some of them don’t even live in the district, which means they really shouldn’t be running at all. And they aren’t running themselves. So it’s not like it’s a grassroots uprising.”

Carroll told PoliticsNY he supports Freeman’s objections because not only did a majority of the candidates live outside of the 44th Assembly District, but many of the collected signatures came from outside the district.

“I don’t believe you should be gathering signatures outside of (the district),” said Carroll, whose father, Jack Carroll, an election attorney, is representing Freeman’s objections. 

“You know, the majority of the signatures gathered on those petitions were outside the 44th. And a majority of the people on those judicial delegate slates lived outside the 44th Assembly District. And so I have no problem with the challenge, and I support it,” added Carroll.