In politics you must always keep running with the pack. The moment that you falter and they sense that you are injured, the rest will turn on you like wolves.
-- R. A. Butler (1902 - 1982)
While the consensus among politicians is that most political clubs are not all that relevant any longer, you would never know that by the seriousness of the apparent attempted coup at the Downtown Independent Democrats last week. Was Reform really on everyone’s mind?
With a suddenness that belies some serious planning, it was revealed that a few D.I.D. members claimed to be less than thrilled with Sean Sweeney as President and through the powerbase of Julie Menin, Chair of Community Board #1, there was a sudden attempt to install her nominee into the club hierarchy. Prior to this there had not been either a move like this or a contested election in 25 years. Of course, this could have also, ostensibly, paved the way for Menin to take over the club in the service of supporting her presumed City Council candidacy -- Alan Gerson’s current slot as Council Member which expires next year. He’s term-limited.
Several people spoke both for and against Sweeney, someone who has been a fixture of the Downtown political scene for well over a decade and someone who was (and is) closely associated with Kathryn Freed, former Council Member. Freed, who was term-limited out, ran and won as Civil Court Judge and Alan Gerson now holds her old seat.
Sweeney is, and was, a hard worker whose idiosyncratic methods both endeared him to and aggravated political junkies both in and out of the club.
His leadership at D.I.D. and the SoHo Alliance has been both a positive and negative lightning rod for accolades as well as criticism, depending upon one’s political views.
Menin’s attempted coup has created instability and doubt among those in SoHo since it currently is the only club with the fealty of SoHo artists and residents – people who are not from Greenwich Village or from Tribeca where Menin holds court as Chair of Community Board #1. The SoHo people are a specific breed of independent and are not always sympathetic to the Machiavellian “destroy-your-enemy” brand of politics. This putsch could succeed and yet alienate many members who view crafty political moves as successful power plays but poor prognosticators of political trust.
David Reck, a District Leader at D.I.D., wielded a degree of power in this melee and is rumored to have directed a number of critical and personal remarks in a speech about Sweeney’s Presidency. One member described Reck as having had "smoke coming out of his ears." Reck is Chair of Zoning and Housing at Community Board #2, is very involved with Hudson Square issues and is a supporter of Julie Menin.
The attempted coup, if it was one, using methods such as stacking the club and forcing the issue of leadership change with blitzkrieg speed and secrecy may succeed -- but the real issue is whether SoHo would follow. Or, would D.I.D. psychically and physically move to Tribeca leaving SoHo without a political center?
There is also the issue of whether Menin’s candidacy, ostensibly supported by Boro President Scott Stringer as the Downtown Express seems to believe, is an embrace of D.I.D. members and Community Board members like David Reck – or, is a repudiation of Sean Sweeney, whose hard work helped Stringer win the election. There is no soft landing in politics, for anyone.
What is unknown is whether this kind of nastiness is likely to aggravate Kathryn Freed enough to drop her judicial robes and get into the City Council race next year. There is no question that Freed would win that race. But, while Menin is not expected to go hungry anytime soon, Freed’s motivation has to consider the financial realities. Therein lies the rub.
One unknown factor, of course, is Pete Gleason who is persistent and motivated. He wants the Gerson seat next year but, as yet, is not believed to be a real threat to Menin. However, that could change.
The archaic system is now being tested and the relevancy of belonging to a club, which occasionally picks judges, endorses politicians running for office, and ostensibly supports its members in the community -- has passed, for the most part. Candidates go through the motions when they audition at club meetings because they don’t want to risk being accused of a slight --and club members and officers don’t want to let go of the appearance of control over their political environment. There is still this dated infrastructure but it has a questionable effect on local voters. It is an illusion among activists seeking to remain relevant.
However, most aspiring and already elected politicians well know that that game is winding down. It’s more of a tradition than a political necessity. It’s polite, but not essential to political success.
We no longer live in the era of Tammany Hall when jobs and political favors were doled out by the Clubs and where members of the community were protected.