10 Years of Impact: The Four Freedoms Democratic Club

This article was written by Four Freedoms Member Tue Tran.

A dozen civically engaged residents of the Upper East Side gathered in John Wagner’s home in early 2014. Their mission was to form a new Democratic club, one focused on democratizing and demystifying party politics, supporting local candidates, and building community. Many in the political establishment were skeptical, as there had not been a new political club on the UES in decades.

Even before the first official meeting, the name of the club was decided over email. A handful of names had been pitched, but ultimately, “Four Freedoms” resonated with the founders, based on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four freedoms inherent to all mankind: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. 

After many late-night discussions in different apartments and bars on the UES, a constitution was ratified on July 17, 2014, with approximately 26 founding members.* Ten years later, the club has steadily grown to over 100 members who are actively involved at all levels of politics.

Founding Ideals

The goal of the Four Freedoms Democratic Club (FFDC), since its founding, is to empower members by informing them of how party politics works and activating them at the ground level, not simply to be solely for the benefit of politicians. “The real ideal, as it always has been with the club, is to be grassroots up,” said Wagner, co-founder and executive committee member. “We wanted the members to be in control and create what the important issues were going to be for the club.”

Based in the 76th Assembly District of New York, the club was also formed out of a need for a dynamic political organization where its members could engage and build community in new and fun ways. “It couldn’t be right that the Upper East Side couldn’t have a vibrant club,” said Gabriel Panek, co-founder, district leader, and former president of the club, “where people who were getting involved in politics for the first time could feel at home. There was just a lot of energy. ‘Alright, we’re just going to build it from the ground up.’”

“We tried really hard to reach out to lots of different folks,” said Kim Moscaritolo, co-founder, the first president, and former district leader. “So we could honestly say that we were made up of members from lots of different organizations.”

“Then we had a big kick-off event where a lot of people came,” Panek said. “The borough president came. A lot of people in the community came. We said, ‘Okay, this is something that people want.’ There was a feeling that we were going to be okay.”

Actively Campaigning

There are fond memories of the club’s humble beginnings in which members did anything they could to help out with local races, including deciding to urgently send out mail pieces themselves a few days before an election day. “We all got together at my apartment,”   Moscaritolo recalled. “We were up until 2 in the morning, folding and stuffing 1,000 envelopes. Then we divided them by zip code so that in the morning, we could drop off stacks of letters to that zip code’s post office because we thought it would get there more quickly. So we went all over the Upper East Side dropping these letters off. It’s crazy and we were exhausted. But it was just so much fun.”

One perennial activity for members is collecting signatures to put endorsed candidates on the ballot for each election. “I remember a couple times when I would go out and meet up with Kim and we’d be on opposite corners and the weather was so cold,” Wagner said. “I’m shivering and trying to collect signatures. You’re standing out there for a half hour and you just freeze and collect a dozen signatures. It’s tough and goes slowly. But you talk to 20 or 30 people and you get to know the neighborhood.”

The club also has a history of canvassing for candidates in local races, neighboring districts (such as for Rep. Tom Suozzi in the recent special election), and other cities, including Philadelphia and the Hudson Valley. Work on election days and watch parties are especially memorable. “Election days are always super fun,” said Moscaritolo. “Before we had early voting, you’d be out there from 6 in the morning until the polls closed at 9 at night, at a poll site handing out literature. It was always a lot of fun being out there. The culmination of the work for the year.”

In more recent years, club members have also helped with the judicial nomination process.

The club’s work with politicians has helped foster connections between members and those who represent them. Many officials attend FFDC meetings and events, where members get to share their opinions. “Elected officials know us all. They come to us. They talk to us,” Panek said. “People have become integrated with their elected officials, which is what you want out of a political club. You want to connect residents of the neighborhood with their elected officials.”

While the club has a local focus, its members also have connections to other organizations that work on national politics and activate fellow club members in those opportunities, such as phone banking and writing postcards.

Drafting Policies

After the 2016 Presidential Election, there was a jolt of new energy, according to Wagner, as everyone was trying to figure out what to do next. What resulted was a new club structure of committees to tackle different needs. As more and more people became involved, this led to the establishment of working groups to address specific issues and draft policy papers. 

Initially, the 4 working groups included women’s rights, jobs and poverty, the environment, and the Electoral College and voter suppression. Now, there are 10 active working groups, and they evolve with the needs of the community.

Experts on a variety of issues, from healthcare to housing, have also joined the monthly club meetings, sharing their knowledge and experiences and answering questions, helping shape policy papers developed by members. “We pushed for a bill that is still being considered by the legislature on aid in dying. To allow people who are terminally ill to get help passing away,” Wagner said. “So we had a couple of different speakers who are experts in that area. They had an opportunity to educate people, and that is something that we continue to work on.”

Nurturing Candidates

Wagner finds the most exciting thing about the FFDC is how, through the club, members grow in their political activity: “One of the big accomplishments is getting people involved in politics, who I’ve seen grow within the club and were beginners, really get to participate in the club and then get into politics in a more serious way.” Some have even run for office and have been elected, such as Alex Bores, who is now an assembly member. (Ben Wetzler is currently running for city council for District 4.)

Club members and endorsed candidates have also been elected to party leadership, starting in 2015 when Moscaritolo and Adam Roberts were elected district leaders. “In order to have a political club, you can do it without having these party leaders,” Panek said. “But at a certain point, people are going to wonder what are you getting done and you’re not in the room where those conversations are happening. How are you going to make change in the party and drive the party to do the things that you want the party to be doing? Because that’s why we’re involved in this to begin with. This has its own distinct angle. We haven’t won every election that we’ve been in, but our record is very, very good.” 

Since 2018, all state committee members have come out of the FFDC, including, most recently, Jeremy Berman and Erica Vladimer who are working hard to improve the Democratic Party. “That was important for the direction of the state party, not just our club,” Panek said. “There have been a lot of efforts to help push the party to do more, and I really don’t think that that would’ve happened if Jeremy and Erica hadn’t been elected to the state committee. They are able to organize other state committee members. Getting that done may turn out to be the most important thing if the state can elect more Democrats in Congress in November.”

Building a Community of Neighbors

Another major achievement of the FFDC is the community that the club fosters. “There’s just something really nice about being in this organization with your neighbors,” Moscaritolo said. “I run into people from the club all the time at the grocery store, just out on the street, because we all live in the same 10-block square radius. There’s not a lot of opportunity for real community these days. I think that’s a really important part [of the club].”

After each monthly meeting, the group continues to a local bar to connect with each other. The club also hosts casual social events, such as a drag night and a trivia event, partnering with the Lexington Democratic Club.

“Politics is personal,” Panek said. “Politics is working together and enjoying who you work with. It’s not people fighting. It’s not people in their own little silos. We have a lot of social events and we have a lot of opportunities for people to get together. And the fact that those are so successful is emblematic of what makes us a really good organization that’s built well for the future. Because you like to hang out with people who care about politics. And what could be better than that?”

Welcoming Growth

After 10 years, the FFDC is now more established and has procedures, routines, and structure. But the club is anything but stagnant: “What’s great about the club is every meeting, new people show up and get super engaged in the club,” Moscaritolo said. “So that, for me, is what keeps it fun and exciting. Even though a lot of the same people are around, we’re always bringing in new people that bring in new perspectives and new ideas. Kind of shake things up a little bit. Because I think what you don’t want is the same 50 people for years and years and then you get in a rut. But we’ve managed to avoid that by being really welcoming and bringing in new people and new leadership.”

Wagner also sees new people joining and learning about party politics demonstrates the club’s effectiveness: “Seeing other people learn how the Democratic Party works and what are the problems and how we can fix them is very important. We do it in a good spirited way. It’s fun to talk politics with other members and figure out their opinions and then work together on common goals.”

“The ability of people to be self-starters has really increased because they know there’s this solid infrastructure at the heart of everything that is going to support them,” Panek said. “So as we’ve become bigger, we haven’t become spiraling or sprawling. And part of that is due to good leadership. Jerry [Ferguson] has done a really good job as president, able to oversee everything. That’s really crucial to the whole operation.”

Envisioning the Future

For the next 10 years, club leaders aim to continue to grow membership, increase community outreach, and get young people more involved. Moscaritolo also hopes to work more closely with the other Democratic clubs on initiatives to bring more reform and democracy to the Democratic Party and make it a city-wide effort.

Wagner also hopes that the club can move politics forward: “I hope that it really instigates a reform of the structure of the Democratic Party to make the Democratic Party more democratic and more open to people who are members. To be a bottom-up rather than a top-down structure. I hope that we get outstanding politicians who can really work for us effectively in the state and the national legislature. And hopefully we can participate in getting the right person elected for President.”

The FFDC is on track to achieve those goals by focusing on its members and making politics attainable and enjoyable for all. “We didn’t form to further one person’s political ambitions. It was never about helping one candidate,” Moscaritolo said. “We really formed this club with the intention of having a place on the Upper East Side where politically active people could get together and get engaged and do good things.”

*The founding members of the club include: Monica Atiya, Posie Di Sesa, Mike Dillon, Lynne Feibelmann, Jean Fischman, Susan Forootan, Jeff Gold, Devin Gould, Jill Greenberg, Lydia Hall, Yael Jacobson Zieff, Ben Kallos, Greg Krakower, Teresa Malyshev, David Menegon, Kim Moscaritolo, Gabriel Panek, Jonathan Piel, Madelaine Piel, Lance Polivy, Joan Roberts, Joseph Strong, John Wagner, Lee Wiggins, Esther Yang, and Joy Zagoren.

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