Letter: It’s Time for Democratic Leadership to Change

The way the Huntington Town Democratic Party operates is broken and is in need of change. Unfortunately, that change will be very difficult unless party leadership is changed at the town and county levels.

Everyone in Huntington should care about this because the GOP needs a strong and loyal opposition to keep it honest and to demand results for taxpayers. Huntington deserves nothing less than a Democratic Party that is engaging and inviting – an authentic democratic institution crackling with energy and ideas.

I recently talked to a Democrat in Nassau County who expressed her frustration with her own town party. She said meetings were poorly attended, had no agendas, involved a litany of speeches by local elected officials, and solicited no input from rank-and-file members. She told me she thought the party could be so much larger, and the meetings far more engaging. Democrats she knew were interested in joining but couldn’t get responses from the party to emails or calls. “Is it incompetence or neglect?” she asked.

What she described was nearly identical to my own experience over many years with the HTDC. The state of these parties is due neither to incompetence nor neglect. They are weak by design. if election math can be distilled down to predictable constituencies (i.e., this union, that union, police, firefighters, Conservative Party, Working Families Party), then leadership can horse trade portions of the electorate as if they are commodities they own. Party leaders do so to enhance their own power and profit.

This clearly worked for a while. Democrats held the majority in the Suffolk County legislature for 16 years until 2021. Huntington’s Town Hall was under Democratic direction for 15 years. That’s all gone. It’s gone because party leadership prioritizes strict party control over democratic participation. Predictability and power reign over the voices and needs of committeepeople.

Power at the county and town levels is maintained by what appears to be, but isn’t, a poorly run structure. To illustrate this point, consider the low membership numbers. The Suffolk Democratic Party and the HTDC are made up of “Electoral District Representatives” referred to as “committeepeople.” Huntington has 178 districts; with two representatives per district. In all, the HTDC should have 356 members. According to my last count it has 214 committee members, leaving 142 seats vacant. That’s not for a lack of interest among Democrats.

Committee seats are kept vacant by design because a full committee is a threat to leadership.
Because they are elected, anyone posing a challenge to leadership could easily FOIL from Suffolk County the names and contact information of Democratic committeepeople. If seats are empty, however, the town and county chairs are empowered to fill vacancies at a moment’s notice. In other words, if a member threatens leadership, the chair can appoint 100 or more friends to show up and control the outcome. They need only be registered Democrats and reside in the same NY Assembly district as their district. Low membership is crucial to party control.

The arrogance of HTDC leadership  was on full display this October when the HTDC gathered to elect its executive committee. The party sent a letter to the committee on Oct. 11 announcing the election would be held Wednesday, Oct. 17 (the 17th was a Monday).

To clarify, the party authorized a robocall informing people the election was “tomorrow,” only that call was placed on Monday, implying the election would be held Tuesday. Not to be stopped, HTDC Chair Mark Cuthbertson held the election that evening anyway because he HAD to — the bylaws give the chair as many as 30 days after the county’s primary certification (September 15th ) to call a meeting to select its executive board. Committeepeople must also be given three days written notice. Consequently, the election can be held no more than 33 days after the certification. Cuthbertson scheduled the vote that Monday — the 32nd day after the certification.

Wednesday was too late. The inaccurate announcement didn’t stop Cuthbertson, however. That Monday evening he told challengers to his preferred slate not to run, while handing out scripts to committeepeople asking them to help him suspend the quorum count so the election could be held despite low attendance. It was cynicism in action.

Unless leadership at the county and town level changes, we’ll continue to lose elections. Those remaining are craning their necks to feed at a depleted trough. People are very worried about the state of our democracy and it’s no wonder; our local political institutions treat us with distrust and indifference. We CAN fix this system but sounding this alarm is only a start. It will take hard work and determination enough to defeat people motivated by greed and access. I invite Democrats throughout Huntington Township and Suffolk County to learn more about how the parties work while joining together to make our Democratic Party democratic again.

Philip Dalton, Ph.D, HTDC Committeeman ED 115

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