CW // Alcohol Use
The Democratic party has problems that stretch all the way down to its roots. But reformers and activists have been trying to bring democracy to its namesake party. Join us as we chat about how party politics works at the hyper-local scale with local District Leader candidate Mark Hanna, who is running in Assembly District 64 in northern Bay Ridge.
At this scale, it’s all about good governance… and Bay Ridge District Leaders are part of how we get there. We’ll talk about opening up transparency around judicial screenings so that you can actually understand who those judges on your ballots actually are. Mark will also discuss the challenges involved in running, and how embedded party machines work to maintain patronage and power.
Oh, and we got a little tipsy since it was St. Patricks Day…
District Leaders have their primary on June 28th! Be sure to vote!
Quickly jump to key parts of the episode by clicking the links below…
- Drunk history of St. Patrick’s Day
- What is a District Leader?
- The weirdness of the 64th Assembly District
- What do District Leader’s do?
- Judicial Screening transparency
- Taking over County Committee
- Using the bully pulpit
- Organizing reformers
- Who even is Mark Hanna?
- Campaign finance for District Leaders
- Protecting incumbents
- The two easiest reforms
- Diversity on County Committee
- Ranked Choice (and socialists)
- Rage against the (party) machine
- Getting out the vote
- Tipsy goodbyes
- Mark mentioned that he’s part of a slate of reformers put forward by New Kings Democrats. You can check out the other members of the Brooklyn Can’t Wait! slate on their dedicated website.
- We mentioned a two-day 25-hour County Committee meeting in 2020 where reformers instituted a series of party reforms which were then rolled back. You can read about that insanity over at Bklyner. Corruption in the prior 2018 meeting was even reported on by the New York Times.
- If the name Joanne Seminara rang a bell, you might remember her from our episode about Bay Ridge’s Community Board way back in 2018.
- Mark mentioned one of his first encounters with progressive politics was the Rage Against the Machine reading list when he was a kid. You can check out the original list on Archive.org.
Mark’s District Leader Race So Far…
At the time of recording, Mark and other district leader candidates were faced with a coordinated set of challengers put forth by party machine bosses. Since recording, lawsuits did indeed play out as Mark predicted, resulting in victory for the reformers. Multiple petitions gathered by the machine candidates were thrown out. This resulted in Mark’s challenger, Ralph Perfetto, and Sabrina Rezzy, who was running against reformer Joanne Seminara, failing to meet the 500 petitions required to get on the ballot.
As Mark mentioned in the episode, getting 500 petition signatures in such a small district was a challenge. It seems that the party machine wasn’t up to the task.
You can learn more about the other reformers running in the June 28th Primaries in our Assembly Primary Voter Guide!
Expand to view the entire show transcript (lightly edited for readability)…
Dan: Hey there! Welcome to Radio Free Bay Ridge, your hyper-local progressive podcast focusing exclusively on beautiful Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I am one of your hosts, Dan. We’ve got a bunch of people in the “studio” today. We’re all sitting around, having grapes and cheese and beer. Let’s go around. Who’s here today?
Mary: And Mary.
Mark: Oh, and Mark Hanna.
Everyone: Hi Mark!
Mark: I didn’t know I was going to be introduced this way… hello! I’m glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me into this pseudo studio that’s actually just somebodies home.
Mary: Welcome to the podcast. That’s just how we do things at Radio Free Bay Ridge.
Mark: And happy St. Patrick’s day to all.
Dan: It is St. Patrick’s Day as of recording. So cheers everyone!
Dan: Clink clink. (Glasses clinking) Let’s get some nice ASMR content in there. Today’s episode is similar to one of our previous episode with Andrew Gounardes on how a bill gets made. We’re doing some civic education shit: What is a district leader? And there is no better person than Mark to discuss this because Mark is running for district leader.
Mark: I wish that that made me the best person to talk about this with.
Dan: I hope that you know what you’re running for! (laughter)
Mark: I mean I do. But there’s a lot of history to go over. Fun fact: St. Patrick is considered the first district leader because he led the snakes out of Ireland.
Rachel: Ah! Organizing those snakes.
Dan: Wasn’t it just that snakes never…
Mary: Stop. Stop.
Dan: …were in Ireland? Mary, you know about this.
Mary: Stop or I will tell you. And that will not be fun for anyone except me.
Rachel: Get into the weeds.
Dan: It’s St. Patrick’s Day!
Mary: (in a dramatic voice) The year is 406 common era! In Wales, a child is born to the groaning of the Britons. The Roman Empire has ghosted the British Isles. The barbarians are pressing in on every side. The child grows up and is kidnapped by river pirates… and they’re Irish! He escapes the Irish river pirates and swims to France, becomes a Bishop, returns to Ireland, and pays the pirates the payback of… converting them all to Christianity. Because that’s how you deal with pirates.
Mark: Converted them to Protestantism or Catholicism?
Mary: He converted them to the Irish church, which was later decimated by the re-Christianization of the British Isles in the sixth century by St. Constantine.
Dan: Damn. All right. Let’s just make the episode about this.
Rachel: We are an educational podcast.
Mark: We are in Drunk History. This is what we’re doing now.
Dan: Fast forward to the late 1800’s in which the district leader position is established in the state of New York. Originally controlled exclusively by the county political committees back in the age of aldermen.
What Is A District Leader?
And in case you don’t know what a district leader is…
Rachel: Mark, you’re running for district leader. One question you keep getting is:
“What is a district leader, anyways?” How do you answer that?
Mark: It’s a volunteer position. District leaders represent the people in an Assembly District to the Democratic Party itself. The Republicans have their own district leaders. So it’s a party position.
The role of the district leader is part of County Committee.
There are 21 Assembly Districts in Brooklyn. I’m running in the 64th Assembly District, which has land on Brooklyn and Staten Island. But I’m only running on the Kings County side of it because it’s a county position.
Dan: Oh, okay. Because the 64th District, represented by Assemblymember Michael Tannousis, has a Brooklyn side and a Staten Island side. But you only represent the Brooklyn side, because you’re representing people to the Brooklyn Democratic Party.
Mark: That’s right. I’m only dealing with the Brooklyn side. In order to get on the ballot, we have to petition people that are in the Brooklyn portion. I can’t petition on Staten Island for a county party position.
Rachel: Does that mean you need fewer petition signatures?
Mark: No, no. The requirement is the same regardless. That creates an interesting situation for me because a normal Assembly District in Brooklyn would have upwards of 50,000 Democrats in it. I’ve got 8,400.
Dan: And you have to get the same number of petitions to qualify.
Mark: Yeah. The election law has two different numbers that it could go by. It’s either 5% of the district, or if that’s too high, 500 petitions. 500 is the maximum limit for how many petitions you would need in an Assembly District.
But 5% of my district is 400 people or so. It’s not that much different than 500. So I end up having to get to 5%, which most other districts don’t have to do. In most other districts, 500 out of 50,000 is 1%.
Rachel: So you must really want to be in this role.
Mark: Oh yeah. I love this neighborhood. This Assembly District is a part of Bay Ridge that I’ve always been involved with. It’s the Northern part of Bay Ridge with the predominantly Arab community in it. I’m Greek and Lebanese. So, my family is involved in this community.
I love having my neighbors around. It’s nice to be able to get people who live around me involved in local politics. I know it’s a small district. But it means that I get to interact with more people, percentage-wise. Every time I go out door-knocking to talk to folks about the position, about running, about politics in general, I feel like I’m doing more. By accident, just because I have a small district.
So I can get more people in my district involved in stuff. It’s easier to do voter turnout. I can literally knock on every door in the district in the time period that we’ve got for petitioning. That means I’m doing Get Out The Vote (GOTV) at the same time. If I can door-knock 20% of my district, that’s not just involvement in the political process. It’s a win number for an election.
It is a lot of fun to be able to engage folks. I can’t just do that kind of shotgunning approach that most people do during this period. I can’t just go to a train station and hit as many people as possible.
There’s only one train station in the 64th, Bay Ridge Ave. People from the 51st and the 46th Assembly Districts go there too. So I end up needing to do a lot more door-knocking and face-to-face interaction with people. And a lot of that time is spent surveying. You get a sense of what people are interested in and how they feel about different things.
I have talked to so many people about that SLEEP Act with Gounardes…
Mark: Oh my God. The number of people who are upset about noise in this district. Gounardes was right. It was a good call to address the noise pollution from extraordinarily loud cars.
It’s wild that the district size gives and takes away. On one level, you have to get a weird percentage of petitioning numbers with a smaller population. On another level, if you win, you get to represent a specific community. You won’t have to spread around as much.
Dan: What would you be spreading around if you had a larger district? What are the responsibilities of a district leader?
Mark: The responsibilities are the same, regardless of the size of the Assembly District.
There are 21 Assembly Districts and 42 district leaders. That’s because there’s a male and a female seat. It’s trans-inclusive, but not non-binary. If you identify as one gender or another you can run for that seat. There’s some ongoing legislation though that Zellnor Myrie is promoting in the State Senate.
Mary: The district leader position has a special place in my heart. When I finally settled down and lived somewhere long enough to really pay attention to my local politics, one of the first people I met was female district leader, Joanne Seminara.
And early on, I’d ask Joanne, “Hey, can you explain this thing?” I’d buttonhole her at a Bay Ridge Democrats meeting. Later on, if I didn’t have a lot of time, but I need a petition or something, I’d call up Chris McCreight. “Hey, buddy.” And he hooked me up with a petition. Useful people to know. Look it up, see who they are, and get in touch with them.
Mark: I’ve been really enjoying running with Joanne. She’s been wonderful. Encouraging. But also giving me good advice, what to look out for. She’s been in it for so long. She’s been trying to do most of these reforms forever. Joanne seems excited at the prospect of having more people on board with what she’s been looking to do for a long time. I’m excited to continue working with her.
The roles that we have as district leaders are, in many cases, invisible to people. We don’t get a lot of attention on this type of stuff. I think in some cases by design.
The one thing that grabbed me, beyond encouraging people to be more involved in the political and democratic process, is judicial screenings. Putting judicial candidates on the ballot.
Even as an attorney, when I go to the ballot, I see these judges. Some of them I recognize because I’ve either been in front of them or they’re from clubs that I’m aware of or something like that. But most of the time, I don’t know any of those names. That’s problematic, even for me. I should be able to figure out who they are, what they’re about, where they come from, and what kinds of attitudes they have towards different things. It’s sometimes impossible to get that information.
District leaders do judicial screenings with candidates to put them on the ballot. That process is done behind closed doors. We don’t get any of the information. We don’t know what they’re asking them or how competent they are.
That’s important for me and a bunch of other people who are running for district leader. We’re all on the New Kings Democrats slate a.k.a. the Brooklyn Can’t Wait slate. We’re endeavoring to make judicial screenings, as well as a few other things, more transparent.
We have the ability to put all of that information out publicly. Judicial screenings can be done in an open forum before they get on the ballot. That way we know whether we want to have them representing us in the judicial system.
The judicial system affects us all invisibly most of the time. It’s not legislative so when people are affected by it, it’s through case law. That’s something judges have discretion for. They enforce all the laws. They amend and modify them in different ways. So it’s really important to nominate judges who are competent and understand the nuances of legislation. That way we don’t end up in circumstances where judges are creating havoc.
There was a recent incident that I’ve been dealing with lately as a foreclosure defense attorney. It was the beginning of 2021. The Court of Appeals ruled on a case where a bank was able to do something called de-accelerating a mortgage.
That is a pretextual concept where they’re running out of time on the statute of limitations. Maybe they don’t have a great case. Maybe it’s not going to go their way. So they de-accelerate. They take the money that was called due originally, remove it, and say, “You’re good”. And then the bank subsequently sends a letter to the borrowers accelerating the mortgage again. And the statute of limitations gets to start fresh as though there was no statute of limitations at all.
Rachel: So they’d pull it out and put it back in?
Mark: Pull it out, put it back in. Unilaterally. That got all the way to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the bank and destroyed the concept of a statute of limitations.
It’s not just in mortgages but any sort of lending institution. They don’t have to deal with statute limitations anymore. They can just de-accelerate, reaccelerate, at a whim, no matter what.
So with some other folks, I had to push a foreclosure defense bill to fix this problem.
Mary: Can you clarify a statute of limitations? It’s an obvious concept, but I never thought about how important it is. If you’re going through your life and somebody sues you, or has a mortgage issue in this case, there comes a point where the statute of limitations is up. Then you can move on with your life.
But without that, whoever has the most money will make the case go long enough until they win. And there’s no way to plan your life around that unless you have as much money as a bank.
Mark: Yeah. That’s the point of the statute limitations. It’s to give people a clear endpoint for when something can be litigated.
So if you sue inside that time period, you’re fine. Even if the case lasts forever, it’s fine because you’ve managed to start the case before the statute limitations period ended. Different kinds of cases have different statutes of limitations.
If you don’t have an assured endpoint for when a bank can sue you, then you could just be living your life… but maybe you had an old credit card bill that was forgotten about. 20 years later, you can suddenly get hit with a lawsuit that includes a crazy amount of interest for that period. You might think that doesn’t make any sense. Where was the bank for 20 years? Why did they let all of this accrue? They should have sued during the of statute limitations period so that there was some finality.
And so we want to have statutes of limitations that work in that sense.
We also don’t want rich plaintiffs to be able to take multiple bites at the apple. They might realize uh oh, a case isn’t going my way. The statue imitations period might be running up. We want them to have to deal with their case. They shouldn’t have the ability to come back again after.
But instead, what a bank is trying to do now is, pretextually, cancel the debt and then reinstate it. And then start the case again so they don’t have to worry about the fact that it’s been a decade.
The lower courts didn’t allow the banks to do that. So the bank kept appealing it to different courts until it reached the right judge, basically.
It was the Court of Appeals. Those judges are appointed. But they had to have been elected at some point in the past. Eventually, they got appointed to the appellate positions.
Those Judges were like, “Nah, that’s fine.” There’s a dissent in the case. The dissent itemizes the whole problem with this concept. But it’s a dissent. It doesn’t mean anything. So we had to fix it legislatively. Senator Sanders had a good bill and there was another Weinstein Bill. They ended up getting mashed together. It just passed the Judiciary Committee and it looks good.
Dan: That’s a lot of effort to fix. We could have just properly vetted the judges. One thing that’s frustrating to me is I rarely have any concept of who the judges are when I vote. It’s confusing to see a judge under four different party lines. They’re under Republican, Democrat, Conservative, whatever. And there are usually the exact number of Judges as the number you’re supposed to vote for.
The county committee. They pre-vet all of these people. They don’t get on that ballot unless the county committee says yeah.
Mark: We all see it, but we never really question it. And it’s something that we’d like to have changed.
I know New Kings Democrats have been trying to do a bunch of different reforms for years now. But this one requires a lot of district leaders to be involved. That’s how we ended up on a slate. We need to run as many as we can to take over the executive committee. If we do, we can make those rule changes. If we don’t, we have to worry about blowback from people who don’t want any sort of change or reform in the party.
Rachel: We typically focus just on Bay Ridge and New Kings Dems are a bit outside of Bay Ridge. What is New Kings Dems?
Mark: I suppose they’re a club? (laughter) I am a member. They’re reform-minded Democrats that are focused on the party itself. They want to change how the party works from within. They’re focused on trying to get people involved in County Committee, which is the smallest form of democratic governance.
They’re trying to get more people involved so there are fewer proxies. Proxies get abused by county leadership, and that’s not a great thing. You want to involve more people who actually represent electoral districts.
Mary: My understanding of the proxy issue is that County Committee is made up of hundreds of committee members.
Dan: Isn’t that related to New Kings Dem’s Rep Your Block thing?
Mark: Literally repping your block. Yeah. The Electoral Districts are tiny.
Mary: So County Committee’s a huge body. But not all of those people can go to the meetings. So they fill out a card and sign over their vote as a proxy vote.
Mark: And that’s fine, right? Having proxies is sensible. People that have disabilities, people that are older, they can’t show up to meetings. That stuff is great. We want to have people have the ability to have proxies. District leaders can carry proxies for the people in the Assembly District.
Dan: That’s one of their responsibilities.
Mark: Yes. The problem comes when party leadership sort of “invents” proxies. They take a look at the voter rolls, find names that live in those districts, and then make them proxies without telling them.
Dan: I’ve heard of that. Where the head of the county committee or whatever ends up wielding thousands of proxy votes. These main meetings are supposed to happen a couple of times a year, right?
Mark: It’s supposed to. They narrowed it to just one.
Dan: And that’s because one or two people with thousands of proxy votes out-voted everybody else to say “Nah. We’re having this once a year.”
Rachel: Yeah. I don’t know how many of our listeners know about the epic meeting… what was it. 12, 16, 20 hours?
Mark: 21 hours I think. The meeting in 2020. They spent a day doing a whole bunch of reforms, getting things done, and then the next day leadership walked them all back.
Dan: Holy shit. Most people don’t think that this lowest level can be so corrupt. This is our backyard if you are a Democrat… though there are a lot of independents listening. And Republicans have their own problems with corruption in their County Committees…
This is our attempt at reforming this lowest level of governance. It’s a big place for grift to happen.
Mark: Yeah, there are Board of Elections appointments. Judges are basically appointed through this process.
I know people don’t like to say it, but it feels like patronage. This feels like a patronage system that is protecting itself. It doesn’t want to be transparent. If you make a patronage system transparent, you realize how corrupt it is the whole way through.
And that’s not a great place for any people involved to be. Shedding light on corruption would be ruinous for people. And it seems corrupt, based on the behaviors of everybody that’s protecting it.
You’ve got people in well-paid positions who are walking away from that money so that they can run district leader campaigns. A position that is ostensibly a volunteer position.
There’s no payment involved in being a district leader. This is entirely for the good of the party. For a good governance. At the end of the day, this isn’t a job. It’s volunteer work.
We help staff polling sites. We help make sure people understand what’s going on in the local government. It’s a bully pulpit. It’s organizing. Essentially it is just activism, but you’re elected so you’ve got some modicum of legitimacy.
But it’s more important than that to people in the party currently. There’s clearly some element of patronage that has existed for decades that doesn’t want to go away.
Rachel: You mentioned the bully pulpit. There are a lot of district leaders who’ve been in that machinery for a long time. But there are some newer district leaders who are making use of that bully pulpit. Because you’re part of that New King Dems slate, what do you see happening with other district leaders or other folks running for the position?
Mark: I really appreciate the work Julio Peña III has been doing. He did a judge… I don’t know what you’d call it. It wasn’t a judicial screening. But he gave his constituents information about who the judges are going to be on the ballot.
I thought that was a fantastic thing. Because if you’re not going to make screenings public (and he can’t unilaterally) then at the very least he can let people know what’s going on. He gave people an opportunity. That is one particularly nice thing.
Rachel: One of the things that has been interesting is the growth of this kind of leftist reformer coalition. Without getting into too much detail on the individuals, because we’re not doing a campaign ad for anybody, can you talk a bit about building that coalition and what that looks like? Because you’re bringing in people from other parts of the district and forming ways to organize with them.
Mark: I am on the Brittany Ramos DeBarros campaign. I should probably let you know that. I believe in a movement for a progressive New York 11. It’s been great being a part of that in addition to running for district leader at the same time. And not just because it’s a good way to get people interested in something beyond just the party politics.
Because you get to talk to people on doors about whatever you want. When we’re door-knocking, we talk about television shows. Or who’s running for Congress. And that’s fantastic.
But we’ve also got a State Senate district. Gounardes is going all the way to Park Slope (Ed. note: and beyond, since this interview occurred. It now goes to the Brooklyn Bridge waterfront). So progressives in Bay Ridge now have a bit more cache. The lines have changed. So our perspectives don’t need to be tied to this old line of logic that asks “But what about the Republicans? They’re not going to let you be full-throatedly progressive!”
You know, if you say something like bail reform, Republicans are going to freak out. But now we can teach them! Bail reform is a complicated thing that most people have a fear response to. Most people don’t actually even know what bail is for the most part.
Dan: I see so many people who have so many things to say about bail reform. They still think free Mets tickets are a thing. They don’t even understand. We have a justice system where you serve time and then you’re out. And then you have rights.
Rachel: The thing that drives me crazy are these people who go, “Oh, you shouldn’t have bail. You shouldn’t have bail.” They’re saying we should lock people up indefinitely without any kind of trial or being convicted of anything.
Dan: A police person arresting you isn’t a freaking trial.
Mark: I talk with people who are anti-bail reform and don’t know what bail is or what any of the policies are. If you talk for long enough, many people become prison abolitionists. You get to the point like Rachel was saying, of asking, “What, do you think people should be locked up indefinitely?” Then they’re like, no, like people shouldn’t be locked up. It doesn’t rehabilitate people or keep people from committing crimes. So we should be doing different things. Then you can talk to them about Red Hook’s experimental court system. Not directing people towards jail time. Helping people out with rehabilitative programs. Maybe an art program for someone convicted of graffiti, you know? There are a million things that courts can do.
Again, going back to the fact that if we have good judges, they can do good things. When you talk to people about this type of stuff, it becomes very clear that they have lost the narrative somewhere. Or they weren’t given it to begin with. They’re working from a place of fear, not from any sort of logical perspective. Prisons can’t help communities. It’s just a way to make people feel more comfortable.
Anyway, this is a really long tangent.
Dan: Do we want to take a quick break and get another drink?
Mary: Hard five, everyone.
Dan: All right. We have fast-forwarded. We’ve all gotten another drink or two drinks. We got some cheeses…
Mark: Boiler Makers? We figured that one out, right?
Dan: And we’re back with more from Mark Hanna. (laughs) Though it’s not like this is a radio show where listeners are coming in in the middle and don’t know who this guy is, but…
Mark: You know what? I didn’t actually introduce who the hell I am. (laughter)
Rachel: Who are you?
Mark: I had a couple of drinks. Let’s get into it. Who even am I?
I’m a local attorney. I was born in South Brooklyn. Family moved to Jersey. I lived on a farm briefly, then moved back to Brooklyn as soon as the fuck I could. Apologies for the language. So went to law school at Brooklyn Law. Been in Bay Ridge for about a decade now.
Got involved in politics after… well, to be fair, I got involved in politics after I listened to my first Rage Against The Machine album. I mostly spent that time being upset with people on Facebook and reading everything in that reading list, which a lot of people don’t know exists. It has some really good stuff in it.
Dan: What?! Wow.
Mark: Yeah, check that out. Rage Against The Machine has a reading list for leftists . Everybody should look at it if they have any sense of being a leftist.
But then Trump got elected. They instituted the Muslim ban. I saw another friend of mine who was at JFK. I was like, oh, I’m admitted in the Eastern District. I can help out with whatever people need. If they gotta file something, we can do it through my PACER. I realized I could be useful to people who are subject to the strange political whims of Trump.
So I went to JFK. Spent days there interviewing people for habeas petitions. Writing up letters to different non-profits to try to get some assistance. I was dumbfounded by how ridiculous it all was. People who should never have been stopped were being detained frivolously by a wild nonsensical political act.
I remember in particular one guy. He was from Arkansas. He had a Midwestern accent. Clearly not from one of the countries on the Muslim ban list.
The guy had a US passport. He clearly lived here for his entire life, but he looked Muslim. And they ended up stealing his laptop because he had a Koran book-on-tape that he was using for prayers. Officers questioned him about it for three hours. They never gave it back to him.
It was wild. I couldn’t believe this was something that could happen here. It happened without anybody realizing what was going on or what the ramifications would be.
Mary: In a way, it’s similar to what you’re saying about statutes of limitations earlier. People who come to the United States are oftentimes preparing for years, getting documents together, saving up money, and selling everything they own.
They don’t have anything to go back to. They sold their house, their business, and all their assets to start a new life in America. And then while they’re on the plane, somebody with a stroke of a pen says no, that’s not good enough anymore.
Mark: And the guy lived here. And it didn’t matter. Being a citizen wasn’t even enough in that circumstance for that particular guy.
It was pretty clear that nobody had any sense of what was supposed to happen. They were just grabbing random brown people off of planes and holding them hostage. Sometimes days at a time.
Coming back to Bay Ridge, I found the Father K campaign. That was a beautiful moment for me because I was like, oh, I can continue to help.
I’ve got Arab heritage that I like to foster as much as I can. It was amazing being a part of a City Council race where it was a Palestinian man running in a district filled with Arab Americans. We registered people to vote and engaged them.
And I had so much fun and I learned so much. It was a tremendous endeavor. It is another reason why I want to be in this district.
Immediately after the Father K race, I was looking to see what else was around. I found out Andrew Gounardes was running for State Senate. I met him at I think the first campaign event that he was holding. It was at a law firm that a friend of mine worked at. I hung out with Andrew afterward. I was really impressed by everything that he was talking about.
And it was like, I’ve gotten some of my Levant heritage in a previous campaign. Now I’m going to work with a Greek. I’m thought, I’m really leaning into this heritage stuff in Bay Ridge.
It felt great to be a part of Andrew’s race. He’s become a really effective legislator. He helped me out with that foreclosure bill quite a bit. Got me in touch with other elected officials to try to make that work. He’s somebody who is somewhat technocratic and really likes to dig deep into the nitty-gritty of legislation. It was in his wheelhouse, which is nice.
After that, I worked with Tahanie Aboushi for Manhattan District Attorney. That was the first time that I got officially involved in a campaign, as a treasurer. I realized that I was pretty decent at keeping track of other people’s books.
And that’s how I ended up doing more with the Brittany Ramos DeBarros campaign continuing to today.
Dan: What was the moment that you decided District Leader was the next step?
Mark: One of the things that the Brittany campaign is trying to do is voter engagement. District leaders are good at doing that. We end up having to engage a lot of voters during petitioning and then for GOTV and things of that nature. So it was just one more element of that.
But at first, I was like, that sounds ridiculous. I don’t know what a district leader is. But I ended up seeing that the New Kings Democrats were doing a slate of reform district leaders. That spoke to me because of the judicial screening stuff in particular. Again, I’m dealing with these judges every day as part of my job. So I want to know more about them before going into the voting booth and selecting all of them down the list. Voting that way doesn’t feel right for me either.
So I was like, okay, I’m going to get involved in this. I was in the 64th at the time when I started running. They redistricted me out of it, but I wanted to be there, so I’m sticking to it. I got an endorsement from NKD, and that was the point where I was like, “Okay, I’m actually doing this.”
These other district leader candidates are fantastic in their own right. I’ve been meeting them one at a time doing different things. One of them came out canvassing with me the other day, Naomi Hopkins, who’s running in, uh, the 59th. A really wonderful woman. She’s got a lot of things going for her, but she’s running against an Assemblywoman who’s also a district leader… which is mind-blowing to me.
Rachel: There are instances where someone can’t hold their day job and be a district leader. But weirdly that’s not if they’re an elected official.
Mark: Yeah, they’re denied only if they’re in certain appointed positions. Mark Treyger, who works at the Department of Education now, can’t be a district leader because of conflicts of interest. But Jamie Williams, Assemblymember of the 59th, can. As a result, she’s running an assembly campaign and a district leader campaign. That’s wild to me.
Rachel: I have a really nitty-gritty question. If somebody is running a district leader campaign and an assembly campaign, how do they break up campaign finance? What laws are district leaders subject to?
Mark: It’s the same rules. You create a campaign committee for a district leader race. And you can’t mingle the money. But… how the hell do you even do that, realistically?
Rachel: What are you going to do? (laughter) 50-50 on a palm card with two different faces of you?
Mary: It very quickly gets into the same level of intrigue as you might expect for an elected office.
Rachel: And it just backs up this idea that these are positions with power.
Mark: There’s this level of patronage to all of it. Unspoken but clearly there. Otherwise, there’s no reason to protect such a thing. Making things more transparent for a party is reasonable. I sometimes joke and say “Democracy? In my Democratic party? How dare you! Are you kidding me? We don’t do that here.”
I don’t know. It’s a thing that I don’t like to dwell on too much. At the end of the day, I’m not running against another person. I’m sort of running against the party itself that doesn’t want me or any of the other reformers involved.
The party says: Don’t question it. Don’t look too deep into this. This is fine. This is all good. We’re doing democracy here.
Rachel: You’re also State Committee people, correct? There’s a hyper-local county party situation, but there’s also the state party and the decisions that are made there. They endorse candidates while we’re all sitting there thinking, who are these endorsers?
Mark: For special elections.
Dan: Yeah, because special elections happen way more often than they should.
Mark: I think a third or some crazy number of elected officials were first put into power through a special election. It’s a wild number.
Mary: Yeah, one-third of sitting legislators won their first election in a special election. They might’ve won a regular election since then, and that number might be a little out of date. But it’s pretty close, yeah.
Dan: Incumbency is powerful. If you can get elected in a low-turnout special election, then you have incumbency for the next general election. That makes the general election a lot easier.
Mark: And the party protects incumbents in a way that I don’t like. It pressures people to not run against incumbents. It prevents primaries in certain ways. That doesn’t feel right to me.
Particularly now that we’re dealing with redistricting. People who are incumbents have new constituencies. But they may not represent their new constituencies. That’s an important factor for the party to consider when an election has a lot of primaries.
Granted, I like a lot of my elected officials. I would want to help them out. But this is one of the things where I have to contend with my own moral philosophy. District leaders are not just there to protect incumbents. I will have to put aside my own personal feelings for them.
Mary: For the party, it makes a lot of sense to protect incumbents because they’ve already won a primary. So why spend more money? But is that worth having a mediocre representative?
Mark: Exactly. Or a representative that doesn’t represent a constituency. If a constituency does want that representative, great, they’re going to elect them. But that shouldn’t mean that we should be pressuring people away from having primaries, or doing behind-the-scenes work to screw them over in some way or another. That stuff is terrible.
In Buffalo, India Walton won a primary and then the party pushed a write-in campaign to defeat her. You can’t have that cake and eat it too. The party has two choices. They can agree a constituency wants a person because they won a primary. Or the party can go full-on corrupt and put on whoever the hell they want. Pick a lane.
Rachel: What do you think is the biggest opportunity for a district leader as far as reform? Something that has not been taken advantage of that they can contribute to the party?
Mark: I’m just repeating myself on this one, but it is that judicial screening process. That’s a very easy task. Julio Pena III has already done something that made it easier for people to understand what the candidates stand for.
Granted, judicial candidates are “apolitical”, in quotations.
Dan: Yeah. That’s why they can show up on multiple party lines.
Mark: The personal is the political. There’s really no way to avoid that. There is some politics and everything. But at the very least, screenings would be another step to make the whole process public.
Maybe the second easiest task would be to have the county do more than one meeting a year. Or just implement Robert’s Rules of Order.
Rachel: They don’t use Roberts Rules?
Mark: They do, but they ignore it when it’s convenient. And then when there’s something they don’t want enforced, then they say, “Oh, I’m sorry, Robert’s Rules prevent us from doing this.”
Dan: When you have thousands of proxy votes Robert’s Rules don’t matter.
Rachel: The defining story I heard about proxy votes was Frank Seddio, the former chair. He would slap down his six-inch pile of proxy votes and that’s it.
Mark: He famously had 600 proxy votes suddenly. Out of nowhere. “Actually, we don’t want to do this. Here are 600 proxy votes. I win.”
Dan: When we were doing the Community Board episode, I ended up leaving things out. One of the things I wanted to put in was how, even in the eighties, researchers realized there was low engagement among poor people and people of color on Community Boards. Certain people don’t volunteer for the lowest form of civic engagement, which is Community Board, or the lowest form of party engagement, which is the county committee.
Rachel: They’re all volunteers.
Dan: Yeah. Some of the things that researchers proposed in the eighties was maybe making the positions paid. Maybe we should ensure people don’t have to worry about taking care of their kids while they sit through a 21-hour meeting.
Mary: Childcare stipends. Transportation stipends…
Dan: And they were like sure, but if we start making it paid, then it becomes another patronage problem.
And they were struggling with this in the eighties, 30 years ago.
Mary: Quick shout out to the female-led city council cohort this year.
Rachel: Hell yeah.
Mary: What, 30 out of 50?
Rachel: That’s what came out of a ranked-choice voting process.
Dan: And I would like to briefly mention that we experimented with ranked-choice in the forties and it was immediately shut down because it resulted in actual representation for minorities.
Rachel: Didn’t it also result in actual representation for socialists?
Dan: Yes, it did.
Mary: I feel like the history of New York politics is just restructuring things to disadvantage socialists.
Dan: I want to do an episode on Mr. Cacchione, who was our Italian representative in City Council. He was the only one south of Prospect Park representing Brooklyn at the time. He was our city Councilman when they didn’t have city council boundaries. Back then, they were making the transition from Aldermen to City Council. City Council was a borough-wide open election that was ranked-choice in the forties and fifties.
And there was this radical Italian socialist from Southern Brooklyn. Peter Cacchione. Lived in Bath Beach.
He failed the first ranked-choice because the Democratic County Committee put up a ton of fricking people for ranked-choice. They figured there were going to flood the election with friendly politicians. Kind of like with the judicial nominations on your current ballot where you can’t not choose one of them. They tried to do that for ranked-choice in the fifties. But then a random socialist decides to jump in too.
Rachel: Damn random socialist.
Dan: And he almost won at first, as the bottom-most ranked-choice candidate. So he kept running and he kept running and eventually he became the number one ranked-choice vote in Brooklyn.
This was during World War II. He was the one guy who was saying Mussolini’s a piece of shit. That we have to fight fascism. This was a time when that was a problem within the Italian-American community. He was very outspoken about that in city government.
He worked with the first African American city council members at the time who were representing places like Bed-Stuy. He was letting them get up and speak, surrendering his time in city council.
He died in office. But immediately before he did, both main parties agreed to get rid of ranked-choice voting. It was not working out for them. Because Cacchione was the first socialist… and then two more got in. And the establishment were like, “Oh shit.”
Mary: And for more on socialists in New York City politics from 1900 on, say it with me folks: links in the show notes.
Dan: This is what happens when you get me a little drunk.
Rachel: Can I ask what is the level of financial resources that battling shit like that takes?
Mark: In order to keep people off of the ballot, generally speaking, what happens is you litigate the petitions. The people who signed the petitions and the witnesses. You can invalidate certain signatures because people signed the same line twice. Or maybe they don’t live in the district, or they’re listed as deceased somewhere.
I mean, to be fair, I was listed as deceased in the voter rolls this year, and then I had to have that fixed. There are a million ways to try to litigate you out of an election. But it is litigation. It’s actually fighting people in court. And so as a result, you end up needing to spend money on lawyers.
Even though I am an attorney, I wouldn’t represent myself for any of that kind of thing. An attorney that represents himself represents a fool for a client. (laughter)
I’m clearly drinking a little bit too much today. I’m sorry.
Rachel: I’m about to call another beer break.
Mark: But anyway, it is a serious problem. It costs a lot of money to litigate and to defend yourself from that litigation. I have a really fantastic attorney, Ali Najmi. We worked together on a bunch of different campaigns. And the dude is fantastic…
Rachel: Just for context, he was the attorney on the Absentee Ballot lawsuits in 2020, right?
Mark: Yup. Love that dude. But I still have to pay him to help me out with litigation. Because it’s not entirely pro-bono work.
Rachel: So when you’re talking about a district leader race, what is the financial commitment for that kind of defense?
Mark: It’s ten grand.
Dan: For a non-paid position!?
Mark: It wouldn’t be if it wasn’t that the county was fighting tooth and nail to prevent reform district leaders from being elected. But it’s been threatened repeatedly, not just to me, but other NKD candidates, that they’re going to litigate us. No matter what. And I fully expect them to.
Mary: You have to fundraise twice as much as most district leaders, probably.
Mark: Twice? I mean, most district leaders don’t fundraise at all. It’s just not worth fundraising for these races. What is the point of that? You’re not supposed to be running a campaign the same way that other people are. You are just going out door-knocking. Collecting 500 signatures. Then you’re good to go.
In this case, I’m not just collecting signatures. I have to actually campaign as though it were like an Assembly Race. Social media, palm cards, and posters. I’m going crazy because I have to get my name out enough that I can get people to sign my petitions… and then win an election afterward. I’m going to be fought tooth and nail the whole way through.
So I’ve got to get my name out. I need to get donations from people like I was running for something that was legislative.
It’s particularly difficult to fundraise from that perspective, too. I’m asking people for money for a position that most people don’t get any benefit from. If it was a legislative position, then everyone has a benefit because I’m legislating something. But the benefits district leaders provide are invisible.
Rachel: And the election is an all-or-nothing kind of thing.
Mark: Right. I’ve got to help out other people. We’re trying to do as much as we can through that Brooklyn Can’t Wait slate. Because it’s not necessarily all or nothing, but it is most of us or nothing. Anything less than half, and we’re all going to be useless.
It’s a midterm election. So there’s guaranteed to be less people involved. That’s just statistically the case.
But it is a super-important midterm election. We’re still in the midst of a reactionary movement that can screw up even the basic progress that we’ve made.
A lot of this has to do with getting out people and engaging people. I don’t know if it’s going to work. I really hope that it does though. I’m hoping that I’m getting people excited in my district. I’m hoping that the other people who are running for district leaders are getting people excited. I hope people vote not just for them, but for everybody else that’s running above them.
I’m so invested, and I’m not even elected to be a district leader yet. I still want people to vote though. In the primary, and then again in November.
Dan: To wrap up, let’s talk about the role that you listeners at home have. Because District Leader races won’t show up unless you’re registered as a Democrat.
Mark: Right. Yep. And it’s in the Primary only.
Dan: Yes, it’s only in the primary, it’s not in the general. So go to your primary election.
We’re going to have a thing on the webpage about everyone who is currently running for the new district seats because everything has been changed around. So double-check and see where you are in the new districts, because we have totally changed the maps.
Rachel: Well, not us personally. (laughter)
Mark: I mean, I tried. I was hoping that Bay Ridge would have its own Assembly District. And I testified repeatedly to try to get that to happen. And it was for naught.
I mean, it makes so much sense to me. We’ve got those highways. I would call it natural, but it is clearly a man-made division.
Dan: Thanks, Robert Moses. But on that note, stay tuned for a future episode, which will be about the district maps. We’ll be joined by Danny Loud, who’s our new environmental correspondent.
Mark: I want to come back for redistricting episode. I learned so much about district lines while testifying.
Rachel: Come back!
Mary: I want to shout out Mark for saying the personal is political. He’s perhaps the first person to say that on this podcast. I’m jealous that it wasn’t me. It’s one of my favorite slogans.
Mark: It is one of my favorite lines. I had some pushback from a friend the other day who was annoyed about that phrase for whatever reason. They were like, “Yeah, no, the real personal is private and not political.” And I’m like, nah, I disagree, man. I still disagree.
Even the shit that happens in your home. Lawrence v Texas, that shit happened literally in their house. You can’t even be gay in Texas.
Dan: That was a family court issue. Started in a local family court.
Mark: But this is it. Courts fuck with people daily and you don’t even know how it’s going to affect you. That is a problem… although to be fair to the family court judges are appointed, not elected.
Dan: Mark, thank you so much for coming on the show to talk about all of this stuff. Thank you so much for drinking with us and enjoying St. Patrick’s day.
Rachel: Our first airing drunk episode.
Mark: This was a lot of fun for me.
Mary: Where can people find you? You got a website?
Mark: Yes, Hanna2022.com.
Rachel: Hanna with no second h.
Mark: That’s right. Yeah. Nope. It’s H-A-N-N-A-2-0-2-2.com. I don’t remember what my Twitter is…
Mark: And I think it’s also my Instagram. I’m correct. It is also my Instagram.
Rachel: And your Facebook.
Mary: You got a TikTok?
Mark: I don’t have a TikTok.
Rachel: He has no TikTok.
Mark: Yeah, video content for me is strange. I don’t like the way that I move. I feel very weird and lanky and just…
Rachel: You go like this (pantomiming) “Hey, I’m out doing my district leader thing. Thank you for tuning in. Peace.” Done.
Mark: Probably could have done it the other day when I was out canvassing with my mom.
Dan: Everyone, if you want to check out the show notes for this, I’m sure I’m going to be fact-checking a little bit because we got tipsy before the end. Obviously.
Rachel: Which means we lied.
Dan: In case anything was inaccurate, please check the transcript where we’ll have links to a lot of things that we’re talking about. Check us out on RadioFreeBayRidge.Org. That’s the website. Or on social media if you like when we get snarky. That’s on Twitter at @RadioFreeBR. Or on Facebook…
Mary: But if you just wanted photographs of our fair neighborhood, check us out on Instagram.
Dan: Obviously, subscribe to the podcast if you haven’t already. It really helps out. Leave us a review. We have a Patreon as well if you feel like throwing a couple of bucks our way.
But until next time everybody.
Everyone: Stay Free, Bay Ridge.
This episode was recorded on March 17th, 2022 with Daniel Hetteix, Mary Hetteix, Rachel Brody and Mark Hanna in our studio located in beautiful Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. All post-production and editing was done by our producer, Daniel Hetteix.