Joe Crowley, the Democratic Party machine, and the lack of democracy in Queens and New York City

The power rests with the party boss, not the people. Is this the kind of Government we want ?

By The Editorial Board

Joseph Crowley is not just a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, he is the chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party — Mr. Chairman squared, as it were. Chairman Squared Crowley is certainly a powerful figure in the House Democratic leadership but would be considerably more powerful should Democrats win back a majority in the House in the mid-term elections in November and even more so if he were to succeed Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democratic Caucus ; were he to become speaker of the House, he would become one of the three most powerful men (and they are currently all men) in Washington — more powerful than the Senate majority leader and just below the president of the United States in his ability to shape Federal legislation and regulations.

But the real source of DoubleChair Crowley’s power is not his seat in the House, where he represents the 14th House district — which includes broad swaths of Queens and the Bronx — but, rather, his direction and control of the Queens County Democratic Party ‘organization,’ a.k.a. ‘the machine.’ And there is no more powerful political machine in the entire state than the Queens machine, a.k.a., ‘Queens County’ (or even more simply, as its members call it, ‘County’).

Crowley was Thomas Manton’s hand-picked successor as county chairman. Like Crowley, Tom Manton held a seat in the House (he represented a district that was later redrawn but which included much of the 14th district that Crowley now represents. Manton was Queens County Democratic Party chair from 1986 until his death in 2006, accumulating power like others collect coins or stamps but far less ethically. When Manton decided to retire from his House seat (at that point, the 7th Congressional district of New York) in 1998, he withdrew from his re-election race on the last day it was possible to enter the race, effectively handing Crowley his seat without a contest, as Manton reportedly had told no one else of his intentions, thus precluding the possibility of any primary challenge to his hand-picked successor ; given that no Republican would have been competitive in that overwhelmingly Democratic district, Manton basically handed over his seat to Crowley without anything but the mere formality of an election that November — technically legal, but profoundly unethical and antithetical to any commonly understood notion of democracy. Manton’s shady maneuver even got the attention of the New York Times, which only intermittently covers Queens politics and even then not well, editorializing against the political sleight of hand.

And yet, Manton’s maneuver is quintessential Queens machine — technically legal yet profoundly unethical and profoundly corrosive to democratic process ; and it set the tone for Crowley’s long reign as county chair. Twenty years on, Crowley still holds that House seat — even if the district has been substantially reconfigured after two successive redistrictings following the U.S. Census in 2000 and in 2010. Up until this year, Crowley has faced only one primary challenge, back in 2000, when Walter McCaffrey who would have been a potentially strong competitor in 1998 had Manton allowed a primary for his successor, challenged Crowley and lost after Crowley smeared McCaffrey with a minor financial scandal.

But that’s ‘democracy’ in Queens, under the regime of just-barely-legal corruption and the racket run by the Queens machine. It would be bad enough if the corruption of the Queens machine undermined democracy in the borough, which is the second largest by population and the largest in land area, but, in fact, the tentacles of the Queens machine extend far beyond the borders of its home borough. Crowley, like his predecessor Manton, is a kingmaker of the first order, and, between the two of them, they have named all but one of the speakers of the New York City Council ; how they were able to do that is a story in how power is wielded in this City and an object lesson in how the structures and procedures of what is ostensibly a democracy can in fact be manipulated to corrupt local Government and undermine local democracy.

In 1989, the old Board of Estimate was abolished and the New York City Council expanded from 35 to 51 members, and in 1993, the position of president of the City Council changed to ‘Public Advocate,’ who was designated a non-voting member of the Council, with the speaker of the City Council becoming the presiding officer of the Council. Peter F. Vallone, Sr. (speaker until Jan. 2002), Gifford Miller (2002-2005) and Christine Quinn (2006-2013) were all put in the speaker’s chair by Manton. Corey Johnson was made speaker by Joe Crowley in January 2018. Only Melissa Mark-Viverito was elected Speaker over the candidate of the Queens machine, in January 2014, and only then because the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, staged an unprecedented intervention to tip the balance in her favor over Crowley’s candidate, Daniel Garodnick. While the mayor, the public advocate and the comptroller are elected citywide by the voters, the electorate in the case of the Speaker’s race is only the 51 members of the City Council, and in effect, only the Democrats, as Republicans have had only a handful of seats (between 3-6) in the Council since the abolition of the Board of Estimate in 1989 and therefore have little if any influence over the choice of the Speaker.

Brooklyn has the largest delegation in the Council with 15 members and Queens has the second largest delegation, with 14 ; Manhattan has 10, the Bronx nine, and Staten Island just three.

Council members know how the game is played. Because the Brooklyn delegation is rarely if ever unified, the Queens delegation is the largest borough-based delegation that can potentially be delivered to a potential Speaker candidate, possibly minus one or two Republicans. The Manhattan delegation is rarely unified around a single Speaker candidate, and the Staten Island delegation is too small to count, all the more so since two of its three members are almost invariably Republicans. The Bronx delegation is the second smallest, but if the Bronx Democratic Party boss and the Queens Democratic Party boss can cut a deal, they will together have enough votes at the very least to block any candidate they do not support. It is important to note that the Queens party boss does not necessarily favor a member of the Queens delegation, and, in fact, a Council member from Manhattan has been the choice of the Queens party boss three times now : Miller in 2002 ; Quinn in 2006 and, again, in 2010 ; and Corey Johnson in 2018 ; in none of these Speaker elections was there anything more than the pretense of openness or democratic process ; the deals cut that got Vallone, Miller, Quinn, Johnson — and even Mark-Viverito — the speakership can only be the subject of speculation, given that those who know will not tell.

Given that the Speaker is the second most powerful elected official in the City of New York, controlling with the mayor over $90 billion in annual revenues (as of 2018), the ability to choose the Speaker, which the Queens Democratic Party boss has been able to exercise in every Speaker election (under the new City Charter of 1989) to date except for 2014, gives the Queens machine enormous power. The power that Manton wielded and that Crowley now wields as the most powerful party boss in the state is difficult to overestimate, and the fact that that power is exercised largely behind closed doors in all but entirely secret transactions makes the Queens machine one of the biggest impediments to transparency and true democracy in the City of New York.

If politics is so much about who gets what and when and who controls the process of who gets what and the resources at stake, then true democracy demands transparency and accountability, both of which are almost entirely lacking in the way in which Crowley and the Queens machine operate today. Re-establishing democracy means fundamentally altering this profoundly undemocratic status quo.