Crowley's Flexible Approach in Queens
The borough's demographics require a pliable approach from Democratic leadership.
Standing before supporters in September at Sullivan’s in Bayside, state Sen. Tony Avella gave a victory speech highlighting his triumph over his Queens Democratic Party-backed challenger, John Liu, who had four times as much campaign cash. Avella declared the primary tally a statement to “Crowley’s cronies” that “you can’t do this anymore.”
Half a year later, Queens County Democratic Party loyalists said the Michelangelo Hotel in Manhattan echoed with praise for the Queens County Democratic Party chairman, U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, at the annual, $1,000-a-plate Special Friends of Queens fundraiser. Newly anointed Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie headlined the event, after supporters said Crowley played a role in his ascension by rounding up members’ votes. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul showed up unannounced.
Both narratives show how friends and foes alike paint Crowley as an autocrat. But political pundits say Crowley’s stewardship of the party has remained secure precisely because he understands that navigating such a diverse borough requires flexibility.
His tenure has relied on the county tradition of having loyalists in the borough president’s office—which has a say in land-use decisions—the court system—which offers lucrative pay to connected attorneys—and the District Attorney’s Office, according to political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. But Crowley has fared better than some of his counterparts by integrating immigrants, observers say. Under Crowley, they say, the county organization functions like a rubber band, binding ethnic enclaves together by stretching when it comes to endorsements and primaries but snapping back when it comes to speakership decisions.
“The extraordinary nature of it is that they’ve been able to adjust to changing populations. If you look at other county organizations, they’ve generally had to go through some significant changes as different populations shift,” Sheinkopf said. “This organization has been under the same management for years.”
Crowley has continued his predecessor’s tradition of appointing district leaders at large, a role that other boroughs’ Democratic Party officials do not have. Unlike the traditional district leaders elected by registered Democrats to represent their geographic community within the party, district leaders at large are not confined to Assembly districts and cannot vote for party leaders. But they offer emerging communities a say in the party platform when they may not have the numbers to elect traditional district leaders, according to Evan Stavisky, an eastern Queens district leader and consultant with the Parkside Group.
“Francisco Moya was an at-large district leader before he was a state assemblyman,” Stavisky said of the Corona assemblyman who claims to be the first Ecuadorian elected to office in the U.S. “It’s a victory for the Ecuadorian community, but it’s also an opportunity for the Ecuadorian community to recognize that Joe Crowley is on their side,” Stavisky said.
That’s not to say the borough always incubates integration. Endorsements can be particularly thorny. For instance, the party’s backing of Christine Quinn for mayor in 2013 was difficult for some elected officials in the Asian community, given Liu’s candidacy, and for others in the black community because of Bill Thompson’s campaign.
“It’s very difficult, but Joe Crowley does a great job,” said Sen. Michael Gianaris, who backed his colleague, state Sen. Daniel Squadron, for public advocate when the organization supported Reshma Saujani in 2013. “Everyone understood why each party was doing what they had to do.”
Tribalism has spilled into primaries, too. When former U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman retired, Crowley endorsed then-Assemblywoman Grace Meng to replace him. She won after contending with then-Assemblyman Rory Lancman and the chairman’s cousin, City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley. Lancman, who is Jewish, accused the Queens party of planting a candidate in the primary to divide the Jewish vote. After the election, Lancman briefly relinquished his district leader post, then mended fences and won his current City Council seat with the party’s blessing.
“I was a loyal Queens member in the fight for the (City Council) speaker’s race, and that is more valuable to the party than trying to make an example out of me,” he said. “Politics is best practiced when there’s a lot more carrot than stick, and that’s what the Queens Democratic Party has mastered.”
Crowley may not flinch when endorsements break along ethnic lines or when primaries emerge, but county loyalists and pundits say allegiance is expected in internal political plays, such as speakership races and caucusing decisions. Avella said his relationship with the county party soured after he joined the Independent Democratic Conference last February. The eastern Queens senator said he did not expect Crowley to care about the move because “Joe Crowley never seemed to have an interest in what was going on in the Senate.”
Avella described his win over Liu as coming after the party began to fracture under Crowley. The state senator said Crowley leads like a dictator, supports questionable candidates like Liu—who had two mayoral race staffers convicted in a campaign finance scheme—and presides over a leadership structure composed of Long Island residents who work for the Queens firm Sweeney, Gallo, Reich & Bolz.
Crowley’s “reaction was over the top, in my opinion, and extremely vicious,” Avella said of his recent primary. “He used it to try to gain control and to show his power. And guess what? The reverse happened.”
Sheinkopf and Scott Levenson, founder of The Advance Group political consulting and lobbying firm, however, disputed this assessment.
“That’s an anomaly that points to the strength of Tony Avella, that’s particularly unique to that district,” Levenson said. “It doesn’t in any way suggest Queens County had some failure.”
Elsewhere, the county organization closed ranks—the rubber band snapping back, as it were. It steered state Sen. Leroy Comrie to victory over his now-convicted predecessor, state Sen. Malcolm Smith. A third challenger, Clyde Vanel, dropped out of the race, which sources said came as Vanel’s ally and current boss, state Sen. James Sanders Jr., made amends with the county organization. Party attorneys also successfully challenged the petitions of Jessica Ramos, a former district leader who claimed she lost the organization’s support when she endorsed New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito ahead of the county organization.
Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan of Queens pitched herself as an Assembly speaker candidate, but behind the scenes, Crowley’s delegation stood behind Heastie. Crowley was out of the country during part of the negotiations, but Queens party representatives communicated to Heastie that its ties with suburban members were expected to bring in several votes ahead of the formal announcement, a source said. County loyalists said Heastie’s ascent benefited Queens, and pointed out how southern Queens Assemblywoman Michele Titus assumed the Labor Committee chairmanship Heastie vacated.
“It’s hard to read too much into any one election as being indicative of a trend,” Doug Forand, founder of Red Horse Strategies, said. “But I do think Joe came out of the Assembly speaker’s race definitely looking like somebody who has a good relationship with his membership.”