District Leaders

The following explanation of the District Leader position by Paul Newell, District Leader with the Downtown Independent Democrats and friend of Four Freedoms, is linked to by the New York County Democratic Party itself to explain the title: 

No Seriously, What's a District Leader?

Edited with permission from Paul Newell's original post to the Manhattan Young Democrats website on November 30, 2010

What is a District Leader?

District Leader is an unpaid volunteer elected official. All formal parties in New York State are required to have at least one District Leader (DL) per Assembly District (AD). These positions are subject to primary elections every two years. This ostensibly guarantees that any party with formal status in New York State (e.g. a permanent ballot line) is democratically governed by its members. In essence, the District Leader is the representative of the party members in their district to that political party’s apparatus.

Most parties have only one DL per AD, and unify the role with that of the State Committee member – also an elected position. Democrats – being more democratic – do it a bit differently. Each district has two District Leaders, one male and one female, with the same responsibilities. While well intended, this structure works to exclude non-binary Democrats from serving as a DL. [ed. note: the State Committee member position has recently seen its rules reformed to require two members of different genders, or two non-binary individuals. Reformers have the same change in mind for the DL position.] There are currently 70 Democratic District Leaders in Manhattan.

In Manhattan and several other counties, DLs are separated from the State Committee position (though it is legal to hold both positions, and many do). Manhattan’s twelve Assembly Districts are divided in to between two and four “Leadership Parts” labeled A-D, each with two DLs. Thus, I am the Male Democratic District Leader for the (rather absurdly gerrymandered) Part C of the 65th Assembly District.

In Manhattan and Staten Island, District Leader elections are held on Primary Day in odd-numbered years. In most other counties they are held in even numbered years.

Ok, But What Does a District Leader Actually Do?

Good question. The formal powers of a DL are very limited, so the role depends on what the specific DL chooses to make of it. I view the position primarily as a community organizing tool. It is a title that can be used to help build consensus at community meetings. Local media and grassroots groups regularly reach out to active DLs on community issues. Elected officials and administrators generally respond to inquiries from DLs promptly – enabling them to act as conduits to the community.

Now, many District Leaders view the role quite differently. In fact, most District Leaders in Manhattan do almost nothing at all – other than signing proxies for the monthly Executive Committee meetings. Most Manhattan DLs do not attend these meetings in person. Very few of them have ever faced a competitive election.

District Leaders also play a very important role in electing judges for the Civil, Supreme and Surrogate Courts. The Democratic Party’s nomination process is heavily influenced by District Leaders – and in Manhattan that is tantamount to election. If you become a District Leader, you will quickly find current and aspiring judges reaching out to you.

In addition to advocacy, the District Leader performs an essential role in our electoral process. Below is a list of a District Leader’s formal responsibilities.

  • Sits on the Executive Committee of the County Democratic Committee.
  • Hires poll workers and election inspectors for the primary elections every September and the general elections in November.
  • Attends Democratic Party meetings and events on behalf of the district.
  • Listens to the residents of the district to learn what issues are affecting their quality of life, such as housing, employment, education, environment and crime.
  • Organizes meetings and events in the district to give community members a strong voice.
  • Works with the district’s city, state, and federal elected officials to insure that the voices of the community are heard.
  • Organizes opposition when elected officials or state/city agencies ignore local residents. (One of my favorite parts).
  • Provides support to elect good candidates to public office in the district
  • Is an information resource for the district’s voters in numerous ways including poll site locations, election results and general information about candidates
  • Is responsible for promoting Democratic turnout in general elections.
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