History of the Downtown Independent Democrats
By Jim Stratton
The Downtown Independent Democrats is the reigning Democratic club in a wide swath of Lower Manhattan. The club covers one of the largest land areas of any in Manhattan. Neighborhoods represented by the club include Battery Park City, the Financial District, TriBeCa, Hudson Square, SoHo, NoHo, the South Village, the Washington Square area, Washington Square Village, Silver Towers, Village View, and parts of the Lower East Side and the East Village, as well as Governors Island. D.I.D. is represented by four District Leaders from two State Assembly districts, the 66th District, Part B and the 64th District, Part C.
The D.I.D. is a reform Democratic club, dedicated to support progressive government and issues, help elect intelligent and honest candidates, and to support judicial candidates found Most Highly Qualified by the party's independent screening panel.
It is rare among political clubs in that political ambition has seldom been a divisive issue in the D.I.D. history. Active members number more than one hundred, and traditionally its headquarters has not been a clubhouse but homes of its members.
The club has often worked peacefully with other political clubs to help elect good candidates.
In the 1950's and '60's, a New York City judge was more likely to be found on the golf links than in a courtroom. Most judges got their jobs the old-fashioned way: by giving money, and favors, to local politicos. Defendants languished in prison without their day in court. Plaintiffs waited in line. The judicial process often took years.
It was only one of the problems of old-style, "Tammany" politics that had come to wreak havoc upon the city. Political pay-offs, favoritism, and patronage affected business, real estate, schools.
A spirit of reform arose in the 1950's, and was strong on Manhattan's West Side. By the late 1960's, reform-oriented political clubs were taking on entrenched "regulars" in much of Manhattan.
The original Downtown Independent Democrats was put together by reformers in the South Village. Most had been members of a parent club in Greenwich Village until redistricting divided their neighborhood. Dubbed the "Charlton Street Conspiracy," they were only a tiny reform oasis in a huge downtown area.
Their turf was a largely non-residential region of factories, warehouses, and financial buildings. Politically it was dominated by "regulars" in Little Italy and the South Village.
In the late 1960's, artists began taking over empty warehouse spaces throughout the non-residential district. At first, most were much too paranoid to vote. Voter registration would have revealed their illegal homes, and brought down building inspectors to evict them.
But by 1971 the influx of loft-dwellers was huge, many of them owners of their own homes and buildings. A rezoning movement had legalized artist residency in SoHo, a 43-block area of manufacturing buildings between Houston and Canal Streets, West Broadway and (roughly) Lafayette.
Everyone below Canal Street remained fair game for building inspectors. And no one, anywhere, had any idea what even the SoHo legalization portended in terms of dealing with the City leviathan.
The mood was optimistic, but pugnacious. Paranoid loft-dwellers were ready to fight for their rights.
Enter the New D.I.D.
In 1971 two SoHo loft-dwellers decided that the area needed a strong political voice if their young district's future was to be secure. Larry Tierney and Jim Stratton joined the old D.I.D. to press the cause of the loft-dwellers. But they arrived just in time to see the club disbanded by redistricting.
Taking the old name, the two set about to organize the club around the new settlers in SoHo and south of Canal. It was 1972, when anti-Viet Nam war sentiment was high. The club registered more than one thousand new voters in only a few months before the 1972 George McGovern primary.
The D.I.D. put together a multi-faceted fund-raiser for McGovern in SoHo, raising more than $12,000 for the anti-war candidate. Every penny went to the national campaign. The D.I.D. kept none of it.
The club didn't need it. In one previously safe "regular" election district, the primary vote was 307 to 14 in favor of reform.
In 1975 the club elected its first District Leader, Kathryn Freed, who later was elected to the City Council. After being defeated only by Term Limits, Freed was elected to the Civil Court where she still sits today.
The new club immediately joined the New Democratic Coalition, an aggregation of reform-oriented clubs working to elect progressive candidates. A decade later the N.D.C. was put out of business by success. In the early 1980's, reformers rewrote Democratic Party rules to eliminate the last of Tammany influences, and most of Manhattan's leadership was soon working to reform guidelines.
As the D.I.D. entered the 1990's, its area ranged from western Chinatown to Battery Park City, stopping at Houston Street to the north and Lafayette Street to the east. But redistricting came again. The area below City Hall was shunted into a new Assembly District.
That lower part of the D.I.D. area was combined, non-contiguously, with the Village View area of the East Village. The result was an Executive District (see Overview below) that had no active Democratic club within it.
Village View and Lower Manhattan activists (many of them already D.I.D. members) decided quickly to combine with the existing D.I.D., and they have remained with the club ever since.
The D.I.D. early on made close friends of its representatives: State Senator Fred Ohrenstein, Assemblyman Bill Passanante, and Congressman Ted Weiss. These three excellent lawmakers were soon joined by Councilmember Miriam Friedlander, whom the club supported early and helped to elect to nearly two decades in office.
After the death of long-time friend Ted Weiss, the club supported early, and helped to elect, Jerry Nadler to Congress in 1992.
Our club has always pressed its representatives to support good causes in our neighborhoods in exchange for our strong support for them on election day. As a result, the Washington Market Community Park was created, nurtured, and built; P.S. 234 and P.S./I.S. 89 were guided into existence; zoning was modified, landmark districts created; dozens of non-complying high-rises, discos, and other disturbances were fought throughout the district; and all with the help of D.I.D. leaders and our elected officials.
The club today continues to operate without a clubhouse, without deep-pocket financial backing, but with great trust from the thousands of residents in the multi-faceted neighborhoods it represents.
Manhattan Political Overview
Getting on the Ballot
District Leaders and County Committee Members
Political clubs generally organize within "Executive Districts," referred to as "Parts," which are areas carved out of State Assembly Districts. Each "A.D." has two to four Executive Districts, and rival clubs often battle in the September primary to elect candidates for "District Leader."
Democratic voters of each Executive District elect two District Leaders, one male and one female. These leaders help Democratic candidates get on the ballot in their area, and help get them elected at the polls.
Manhattan usually has sixty or so District Leaders, who as a group comprise the County Executive.
More than 100 years ago the County Executive went by the nickname "Tammany Hall," famed for corruption and misuse of power. Coincidentally, two of Tammany's most famous bosses, William Marcy (Boss) Tweed and George Washington Plunkett, both held leaderships in what is now the D.I.D. area.
In the early 1980's the last vestiges of Tammany were erased when reformers enacted rules in the Democratic County Committee that severely limited the power of district leaders. The D.I.D. was part of that reform make-over.
The party's rule-making body is called County Committee, and is as democratic as the rules can make it. County Committee members represent the smallest possible political area, the Election District. An Election District (called a precinct elsewhere) is essentially the area whose voters use a single voting machine on election day. An E.D. can be as small as a single large apartment building or as large as a few residential blocks.
A typical E.D. has 400 to 800 voters, never more than 1,000. From two to four County Committee members are elected from each E.D., depending on the number of registered voters in the E.D.
County Committee is therefore very large. More than one thousand committee members often show up to vote at the September meeting.
When a person wants to run for office as a Democrat, the candidate must first win the Democratic primary. In order to appear on the primary ballot, the candidate must file a petition carrying the signatures of a large number of Democratic voters.
The number of signatures required depends on the size of the district. A District Leader candidate, for instance, must file 500 verifiable signatures; for State Assembly, the number is 1,500. (Signing such a petition does NOT require a signer to vote for the candidate so endorsed; it is simply the voter's agreement that the person deserves to appear on the ballot.)
Political clubs are of vital importance to candidates because clubs assist with the manpower to collect signatures and get out the vote on election day. The endorsement of a political club is often the determining factor on Election Day. District leaders of clubs like the D.I.D. remind their office-holders of that support when issues arise that affect their voters and communities.
To download and view the DID Bylaws as a pdf file, click here (220kb)