In our latest story from Electionland, we look at what it takes to challenge a big-city political machine. In September, a young New Yorker named Emily Gallagher tried to do just that. The race shows the challenges of such an undertaking — and what it says about the larger question of who is allowed to participate in the party system.
After 10 years as an activist in north Brooklyn, Emily Gallagher decided to take her community involvement a step further this year. The 32-year-old ran for female district leader in the Democratic primary in September.
It’s an obscure, elected position with the Kings County Democratic Party. But that’s also what makes the unpaid position attractive. For people who aspire to such things, district leader is a key entry point to party politics — and possibly public service.
She was challenging an incumbent who has held the seat as long as Gallagher has been alive. She was also challenging the Brooklyn Democratic machine, which has been alive much longer.
Gallagher made her pitch at a fundraiser this past August at Muchmore’s, a bar and performance space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. From a small stage, she pledged to use the district leader position as a tool for community organizing. She said her causes — fighting for parks and safe streets — are not that different from the ones she cared about growing up.
“I remember the first time I spoke up, I wrote about over-development in a letter to the newspaper in Rochester, N.Y., when I was 12 years old,” Gallagher told supporters at the fundraiser. “They were building a Target where there used to be a park.”
Full disclosure: I first met Emily Gallagher more than 20 years ago, when I babysat for her and her brother. I hadn’t seen her since, and I had no idea she would grow up to run for office. So we sat down at Muchmore’s, and she explained.
“I just got really interested in what might happen if someone who was coming out of advocacy and knew the community through that lens — like, what would happen if they were elected?” said Gallagher.
In the weeks before this year’s general election, WNYC is taking a magnifying glass to our democracy to explore what it takes to participate. It’s part of a project we’re calling Electionland – with our partners at ProPublica and Google News — that culminates in a nationwide examination of how our electoral system performs on election day.
The incumbent, Linda Minucci, was elected in 1984. She’s not a community activist, but she is a party loyalist who recently retired from a patronage position with the City Council.
“I kind of thought maybe she wouldn’t want to do it anymore,” Gallagher said, “so I was really surprised when it turned out to be a fight.”
There are different versions of this story in every city, and in each of New York’s five boroughs. Some machines are stronger, some are weaker. But they all follow the same narrative: People with power join forces, make deals and traffic in favors and influence. When someone attempts to disrupt the system, that machine steps in to keep them out.
This story — about Emily Gallagher and Linda Minucci — is as Brooklyn as it gets.
Inside the Mind of the Machine
“You can't just walk into a neighborhood and say, 'Oh, I want to run,' and run. It don't work that way,” said Frank Seddio, head of the Kings County Democrats.
He’s known Minucci for 40 years. He met Gallagher once, by phone.
“I didn't see one endorsement from any elected official,” Seddio said. “I didn't see one endorsement from any of the civic groups.”
Gallagher was actually endorsed by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, City Councilman Antonio Reynoso and her would-be counterpart, the male Democratic district leader, Nick Rizzo.
That last one really got under Seddio’s skin.
“I won't speak about Nick Rizzo and his ability to keep his word. That won't be a conversation I'll have with you,” said Seddio.
Except, he cannot stop himself. He starts to talk about how he let Rizzo run unopposed because he thought Rizzo was loyal to the machine. And as Seddio goes off on Rizzo, he reveals how the machine works and how his mind works as a boss.
“Did Nick Rizzo have a race this year?” Seddio asked. “I don't think so. Now why wouldn't Nick Rizzo have a race?
“Could it be possible that he indicated at some point in time that he was going to support the slate of Joe Lentol as assembly member and Linda as district leader with him as another district [leader]? I don’t know, it might just be a fantasy I had. I thought maybe in those hallucinatory moments that Nick Rizzo had agreed to support Linda and Joe,” said Seddio.
“They actually had a petition with Nick and Linda and Joe Lentol together. And wow! He didn't have a race,” said Seddio.
Candidates need hundreds of valid signatures on petitions just to get their name on the ballot, and Seddio made it clear how he feels about being crossed.
“Every time I think I know things about politics I'm fooled by these kind of things occurring,” he said. And then he paused. “I'm sorry, I don't mean to be so sarcastic.”
In other words, the machine was out helping Rizzo while Rizzo was helping out Gallagher. Rizzo admits he was a little coy with Seddio, but he also said Seddio made threats. Nobody does petitions better than the machine. And nobody uses them more to fight back.
“Frank talked to me about Emily several times,” said Rizzo. “They said they would try to knock us off the ballot, which indeed they did investigate our petitions. But they [the petitions] were strong enough that they weren’t able to knock us off the ballot.”
A Very Powerful Neighborhood
So Gallagher started campaigning — knocking on doors, mailing literature, stumping at subway stops, handing out fliers. She raised and spent nearly $13,000; Minucci raised $14,100, but spent only $600. She paid it to a William Smith, at the same address she has on file for herself with the Board of Elections, and she reported that it was for a fundraiser.
Gallagher won 53 election districts. Minucci won 34. But Minucci, with the machine on her side, had another advantage: Williamsburg’s large Hasidic community. Her name was on the posters in Yiddish with a handful of other candidates, each backed by the machine and the local Rabbis.
Minucci won half her votes in just 16 election districts — all of them in Hasidic Williamsburg, according to an analysis by WNYC’s Data News team.
In the end, Minucci beat Gallagher by 344 votes.
“You know this is a very powerful neighborhood,” said Pat Hernandez, who has lived there her whole life and credits her Hasidic Jewish neighbors for bringing more money and services to the community.
Lessons for Next Time
Despite Linda Minucci’s decades in office, she is hard to reach. She didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment or a note WNYC left at her house.
For Gallagher, the whole experience was a lesson in machine politics. She said she’ll use those lessons the next time she runs.
“It seems really like so much is decided in closed rooms by elected officials,” said Gallagher. “I want to be able to get into the room to help make sure the community’s voice is really being heard.”