Everett Pelzman, ’15
The lowest common denominator in the stratosphere of local Democratic politics in New York City is the neighborhood political club. A unit so integral to the system, yet often overlooked and outperformed, the political club is ever-evolving. As a new generation of politicos swarms the local scene in favor of activist organizations and issue-oriented coalitions, political clubs drift away but still maintain peculiar influences.
During the 2013 election cycle, when the city’s voters elected a new mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough presidents, and 51 city council members, the position of local Democratic political clubs was both amplified and reevaluated. Candidates from across the five boroughs trekked to grubby restaurants, secluded office spaces, basement laundry rooms, makeshift storefronts, and the occasional high-end apartment suite with a monthly mortgage steeper than the salary of any elected official, in order to retrieve a coveted endorsement from a band of dedicated senior citizens, sometimes a half-dozen in number, who take minutes on diner napkins and rotate secretarial responsibilities every year. Well over a dozen political clubs are active in the 2nd City Council District, the Lower East Side, where Rosie Mendez was elected for a second term last November.
Was it worth it? What weight do these political clubs still have to throw around? The media has yet to seriously consider these questions, and many others that surround these political mainstays.
In order to get on the ballot, most candidates seeking local office must garner enough signatures from potential voters. A central responsibility of these political clubs is to collect enough signatures, ranging from between 1,500 to 50,000, for their endorsed candidate. The petition-collecting apparatus of a political club often determines its reputation around the community. But shouldn’t candidates have the resources to collect enough signatures without these political clubs? Once the petitioning cycle ends, the full election season kicks in. Political clubs may sponsor phone banks or hold canvassing events, but does their volunteer output ever have an impact?
Moreover, the demographics of New York City political clubs have been largely unexplored. Although anyone who has sat in on a meeting can tell you that most members are senior citizens, has there been any change in demographics that might indicate a long-term shift in the horizon? Nevertheless, these political clubs continue to host robust fundraisers that frequently rake in thousands of dollars. Where does this money go and what are the annual expenditures of most political clubs?
While it may seem that the power of local political clubs has diminished, a thorough study of their diverse impacts is necessary if we want an accurate representation of their influence. Despite slipping away from the focus of most ordinary citizens, many local ordinances, party rules, and city laws still govern the responsibilities of political clubs. Clubs extend their influence by electing members to positions on County Committees and as District Leaders. Candidates for local office value the office space that political clubs can often (frequently against the law) provide. More importantly, congressmen and party bosses often see their local political clubs as farm systems for the heir to their seat.
Ultimately, media outlets in New York City covering local politics have overlooked political clubs ever since they began losing influence in the early 1990s. Yet as each election cycle comes and goes, these political clubs stand their ground. Isn’t it about time that voters get a better look at the clubs they base their votes on every other year?