Photo: Max Parrott/QNS
Rep. Greg Meeks calls all the incumbent district leaders to the stage at the Queens Democrats' pre-election party.

With early voting already underway for the Nov. 5 Queens district attorney race, the Queens County Democratic Party gathered its ranks at a pre-election cocktail party at Antun’s in Queens Village on Tuesday night to broadcast the importance of getting out to vote.

With a full dinner spread and open bar, the event’s mood was more social outing than policy exchange. Its speakers all addressed the importance of party unity in the face of Trump and the task of bringing new voters into the fold. 

Then, in the final moments of what was otherwise a boilerplate party huddle, Congressman and Party Chair Gregory Meeks brought up a contentious point that has been simmering among a leftwing contingent of the party’s base: his views on the role of district leader.

Meeks took a hard stand against district leader challengers, calling for the evening’s attendees to help fund incumbents in the volunteer party role to help them defeat any primary challengers in 2020. 

The timing was not incidental. Last week, the New Reformers, a progressive PAC aimed at running candidates to challenge incumbents for the district leader position, hosted a packed fundraiser in Kew Gardens.

The conflict over the position reflects a growing split within the Queens Democratic Party about how to respond to members of the party calling for reform. 

The party’s speakers —  Meeks, Mayor Bill de Blasio, District Leader Anthony Andrews, and DA candidate and Borough President Melinda Katz — all mentioned the importance of getting out to vote in Queens, a sore point after a particularly low turnout in the June primary for district attorney. Of the 766,107 enrolled Democratic voters in the borough, only 85,447 (11 percent) voted.

Intra-party tension has sprouted from how to incorporate the borough’s recently activated block of progressive voters– some of whom would like to make the way the party elects its officials more accessible. This is compounded by the likelihood that the 2020 elections will draw a greater group of voters than the party’s reliable base.

“We’re going to see the largest election turnout in our lifetime in 2020,” Mayor de Blasio said in his speech.

Rockaway Councilman Donovan Richards told QNS he agreed with this opinion, saying that he thinks anti-Trump sentiment will motivate a lot of people to come out. But he added that the party needs to confront the question of how to sustain that energy.

“How do we hold on to that? How do we engage the electorate?” Richards asked.

In his remarks at the end of the party, Meeks made it clear that he does not approve of district leader campaigns as a way to harness this new energy. 

In his closing speech, he called every district leader at the party to the front of the stage.

“We’ve got to make sure that we come together in 2020 that they get re-elected,” Meeks said. “I want to make sure we are raising money for these leaders.”

He denounced the notion that the county party is a machine — a label that many of the New Reformers organizers use to describe it. To illustrate his point, he described the district leaders on the stage as “people who have focused their lives to the betterment of Queens County.”

As Meeks spoke, he became increasingly excited, raising his voice louder and louder.

“This organization takes a backseat to no one. We’re not gonna to allow anyone to bully us. We’re gonna show you, so come on with it,” he said.

In response to QNS’s reporting on Meek’s remarks, the New Reformers sent out a statement saying that they are “happy to see the leadership of the Democratic Organization of Queens County notice our efforts to support new candidates for district leader.”

The New Reformers denied that their goal was to attack party leadership, instead claiming that they simply want to bolster participatory democracy. 

“This means standing up to the type of antidemocratic practices in which party leaders can sometimes engage,” their statement read.

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