A brewing intra-Democratic party battle in Brooklyn that has one pol on a warpath to settle a score with his party’s leadership is one of the biggest storylines coming out of Tuesday’s mostly sleepy general election.
The fight erupted in a southern Brooklyn council race between two incumbents, Democrat Justin Brannan and Democrat-turned-Republican Ari Kagan, which Brannan looks to have handily won, according to unofficial city Board of Elections (BOE) results. Brannan led by nearly 17% — or 3,232 votes — on election night, a far wider margin than expected in the council district that covers neighborhoods including Bay Ridge, Bath Beach and Coney Island.
But while Brannan’s campaign was bolstered by a broad coalition of Democratic pols and powerful labor unions, he notably did not appear to have the backing of the of Brooklyn’s own Democratic Party chair — Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn.
Bichotte Hermelyn’s seeming lack of support for Brannan was most apparent when, in the days leading up to the election, she released a statement slamming the Democratic incumbent over years-old allegations that he harassed and bullied an autistic council staffer resurfaced in a New York Post story and were highlighted by Kagan’s campaign. Brannan also charges Bichotte Hermelyn did not lift a finger to help his re-election bid, while actively campaigning for Bronx Council Member Marjorie Velazquez, a Democratic who lost her race to Republican Kristy Marmorato.
Since winning his re-election bid earlier this week, Brannan has been voicing his desire to get even with Bichotte Hermelyn, telling the New York Daily News on Election Night that she’s “gotta go.”
On Friday, Brannan intoned that he still has Bichotte Hermelyn in his sights, even with the election a few days in the rearview mirror.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m 7 years old, but she started it,” he told reporters at the Somos conference in Puerto Rico, according to a social media post. Brannan also told reporters he was skipping out on a Brooklyn Democratic Party event at the conference that had Gov. Kathy Hochul and senior members of Mayor Eric Adams’ administration in attendance.
During her tenure, Bichotte Hermelyn has contended with a growing reform movement within the Brooklyn Dems that has called for her ouster as well as broader structural changes to the party.
One of those reform-minded individuals is Seamus Campbell, a member of the Independent Neighborhood Democrats political club. He told amNewYork Metro that Bichotte Hermelyn’s dissenters could take her to task during the party’s “issues meeting” scheduled for next Thursday — Nov. 16.
“The big question is if they’re even going to let anyone speak,” Campbell said, “or if it’s just going to be them talking at us, because it is set up as a zoom webinar.”
James Christopher, a spokesperson for the party, told amNewYork Metro “it’s open to the public to ask questions, but the focus is on issues affecting the community.”
Christopher later clarified that the meeting will be focussed on topics that will help “keep Brooklyn blue” in the 2024 election cycle, with panel discussions where the general public and County Committee members are “encouraged to weigh-in.”
When it comes to actually removing Bichotte Hermelyn as chair, the party’s rules state that a two-thirds majority vote of the Executive Committee — made up of its 44 district leaders — is required at a special meeting called for the purpose.
Bichotte Hermelyn was narrowly re-elected as party chair last year and will not be up for re-election until 2024.
The substance of the allegations against Brannan that Bichotte Hermelyn highlighted was that he harassed former co-council staffer Michael Bistreich — who is on the autism spectrum — while the two worked for Brannan’s predecessor Vincent Gentile several years ago.
“We have received a barrage of concerns and disturbing allegations against Councilman Justin Brannan for harassing and tormenting an ex-staff member with autism, who was under Brannan’s supervision at the time,” Bichotte-Hermelyn said, in the statement.
Brannan has maintained the allegations are false, pointing out that he was not named in a 2016 lawsuit brought by Bistreich against the city and Gentile or called to testify in court. Following Bichotte Hermelyn’s statement, Brannan’s spokesperson Ian Brown said the chair should be “careful she doesn’t end up getting sued for libel and slander.”
The council member also got support from 16 district leaders, who released a statement blasting Bichotte Hermelyn for “acting against” the party’s best interests in attacking Brannan.
But the party chair doubled down on attacking Brannan in a subsequent statement released last Friday, which also went after Tori Kelly — one of the district leaders who came to Brannan’s defense.
Then on Election Day, Kagan’s campaign distributed flyers that used direct quotes from Bichotte Hermelyn’s initial statement. She later denounced the flyers as “false literature” while arguing she supported Brannan all along.
On Tuesday night, Bichotte Hermelyn celebrated Brannan’s likely victory in an email blast rounding up Democratic wins from across the borough, without acknowledging her previous issues with the lawmaker.
“Congratulations to incumbent victor Justin Brannan, who delivered a powerful Democratic victory for the people of Council District 47,” she said, in the emailed statement. “I’m confident that Brannan’s dedicated and effective public service will continue to improve the lives of his constituents and our borough.”
Editor’s note: Since this story was published Friday, Howard Graubard, an election lawyer close to the Brooklyn Democratic Party, informed us that party rules allow for a special meeting on removing the chair, with a two-thirds majority required for removal. And the Brooklyn Democratic Party shared more information about its upcoming “issues meeting.”