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A New Era for Staten Island’s Democratic County Committee

In July, we wrote about the challenges of accommodating an elected official as Democratic County Committee Chair. We expressed that the greatest risks to creating an inclusive and representative committee would be:

  1. the consolidation of power in the elected official;

  2. the conflicting goals of public service and partisan politics; and

  3. that elected officials need to focus on the job they were elected to do by the voters of Staten Island to make their districts better.

This piece sparked conversations within the Party, including local Democratic leaders, who were driven to discuss with community leaders how we can make this party work for everyone. What followed was a long road of education and discourse to address these risks in a thoughtful and collaborative way. Our goal is to share what happened between our July op-ed and our ultimate vote for Assemblymember Michael Cusick for Party Chair in September, in hopes that we can all continue to share experiences and information, to learn from one another and remove some of the mystery that often shrouds the political process in Staten Island.

Fighting for a fair and representative county committee is a complicated task. There are many factions and coalitions within the local Democratic Party that are trying to work together and make room for each other at the table. Even with a seat at the table, it often seems like we make one step forward and then take ten steps back; you are going back in time, identifying systemic problems, while looking forward to building something new: a local party that truly includes and represents all of Staten Island’s Democrats.

Last summer, members of Staten Island’s Democratic County Committee succeeded in sitting together at the table and listening to diverse perspectives and concerns, in order to establish the most representative county committee in our borough’s history.

Early in the summer, representatives from Staten Island Democratic elected officials, Councilwoman Debi Rose, Senator Diane Savino, Assemblyman Mike Cusick, Congressman Max Rose and Assemblyman Charles Fall, sat down with members of the local Democratic Clubs, labor unions, civics groups, grassroots groups and community leaders who had played a pivotal role in filling the County Committee with new faces, to discuss what a new County Committee would look like.

As grassroots leaders of SIWWM, concerned with the interests of women and other marginalized groups, we had the opportunity to discuss early on what our vision was.

Assemblymember Mike Cusick’s and Councilmember Debi Rose’s offices seemed eager to hear our thoughts and share ideas. In group meetings and 1:1s, we discussed the difficulties of meeting the needs of all groups, and wanted to avoid the feeling of a zero sum game. We also discussed the need for education and improvement within our party on race relations, allyship, LGBT rights, and the need for more pro-choice candidates on the Island. We discussed the importance of the inclusion and equitable involvement of the new members of County Committee who were not from establishment circles, yet brought vitality and vigor into the party, and how we might elevate their voices. And most of all, we discussed what a new County Committee would need to do to ratify and establish the changes we all wanted and we all agreed upon.

Throughout this time, there were many pushes and pulls as we tried to move forward, and more than a few distractions. Political circles on Staten Island appeared to us to be historically insular, and long held loyalties and judgments have deep roots. So deep that sometimes constructive conversations were difficult.

But we witnessed many people rise above their history and predispositions to find common ground, to learn to talk to and about each other in a new way, in a way that was more inclusive and respectful, and acknowledged the need to come together for a stronger party.

As we pushed through this messy process, we witnessed consistent leadership keeping us focused and grounded on the challenges ahead for Democrats on Staten Island. This leadership and resolve was modeled by 3 individuals in particular: Assemblyman Mike Cusick, Laura Sword and Stephanie Shavuo. Their leadership, open mindset and unifying tone allowed us all to collaborate with multiple groups and factions within the Democratic Party, to ensure all have a seat at the table. They used a measured approach to learn from the past and gain new understanding with each other.

We are proud to say that this new vision that we all created proposes to do the following (bylaw revisions formally adopting reforms will be presented for a vote by the full County Committee):

  1. decentralize the power of the Chair to the Executive Board;

  2. explicitly state the powers of the Chair;

  3. make Party decisions and operations more transparent and accessible to County Committee members and constituents;

  4. create new amendments to archaic and shallow bylaws that will allow for more balanced and explicit responsibilities;

  5. expressed a new will to endorse candidates who are not only more representative of the national party line, but also pro-choice; and

  6. commit to create new committees within the County Committee and an Executive Board that are more modern, productive, and representative of all of Staten Island.

There is still so much work to do. Inherent bias still exists. Political dealmaking still exists.

These are real world problems in a system that hasn’t been flexible in a changing world.

But if this past summer was any indicator, we got through it to create a new model for a group with a new resolve. We are thrilled to be able to stand with our new Democratic leadership and look forward to continuing to work in this new, more inclusive, more collaborative way.

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