The organizers of the New Reformers, a reform-minded PAC aimed at running candidates for district leader, say that running for one of the most grassroots positions in the County Democratic Party has become an obstacle for everyday Queens residents.
The group’s co-founders wish they didn’t have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars just to help candidates across the borough win a low-level party office. That being said, they seemed to be having a good time doing it at the PAC’s launch party and fundraiser on Oct. 22.
The group filled Cobblestone Pub in Kew Gardens nearly to capacity at the party, which turned into a regular who’s who of the many progressive Democratic challengers in state, city and federal races in 2020.
The PAC itself is focused on transforming the Queens County Democratic Party from within. Its ambitious goal is to enlist candidates to run for each of the 72 district leader spots in the Queens party.
District leader is a position designed to act as an envoy between residents within an assembly district and party leadership. The role also votes on party resolutions and elects the chair of the party, a position currently held by Rep. Greg Meeks.
Moumita Ahmed, one of the PAC’s co-founders, said that the district leader stopped functioning as a bottom-up democratic position when more and more elected officials began running for it. At least 17 elected officials currently serve as district leaders in Queens. Ahmed said that their name-recognition and access to fundraising makes it difficult for low-income residents or people with other major life responsibilities to have a shot at winning and serving their community.
Besides making the election process less democratic, elected officials make less engaged district leaders, according to Manuel Martinez, the residential council president of the South Jamaica Houses.
“I don’t need my district leader in Washington, I don’t need my district leader in Albany and I don’t need my district leader in City Hall, when they should be in the neighborhood,” said Martinez.
The cost of running a successful campaign for the position can range from $500 to $20,000, but it tends to get increasingly more expensive to mount a challenge to an elected official, according to Ahmed.
“It shouldn’t be that way. It shouldn’t be so expensive. We shouldn’t have a PAC that’s trying to raise half a million dollars just to do this. That’s part of our frustration. But at the same time it’s very important,” Ahmed said.
In addition to its fundraising on behalf of its candidates, the New Reformers’ strategy is to bring these issues with the district leader position to public attention. The group has been asking elected officials not to run for district leader office and getting its candidates to take a pledge to abstain from contributions finance, insurance and real estate industry contributions.
At the party, co-founder Vige Ramos Rios announced that so far, Councilmen Jimmy Van Bramer and Costa Constantinides, along with Assemblyman Ron Kim have taken a pledge not to run for district leader and to embrace the PAC’s principles.
“The pledge is important. Elected officials should not serve as district leaders. That’s absolutely contrary to a real thriving democracy,” said Van Bramer, who stopped by the launch party.
Standing on the table addressing a boisterous group of progressives packed in the back of the bar, four district leader candidates gave their stump speeches. Ahmed said that the New Reformers have enlisted 10 candidates so far, but the list is growing.
Maria Kaufer is one such candidate. Kaufer started as a county committee representative — the most hyperlocal of all Democratic party positions. She said that it was during 15-minute biennial meeting that the Queens Democratic Party hosts for its over 2,000 county committee members that she realized that the party didn’t care about what she had to say.
So, she decided she had to run for district leader in order to be able to have more of influence in how the County Party is structured.
Kaufer said her ambition in running in a district where the positions are held by Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz and Michael Cohen, a former assemblyman and treasurer of the Queens Democratic Party, is not to run for higher office, but rather to democratize the County Party.
Once district leaders take on the county, then then they can turn their efforts toward getting finance and real estate money out of the state committee and the national committees, Kaufer added.
“If my current district leaders committed to something along the lines of what New Reformers pledge has outlined, I would be fine. I would love not to have to run for district leader, but they’re not, and they’ve said that in no uncertain terms,” she said.