NEW YORK — In a one-party town, the party boss reigned supreme.
Nowhere was this truer than in New York City, where the shadow of William M. Tweed, known to most everyone as Boss Tweed, loomed over Democratic politics for generations. Slowly, the grip of party leaders waned elsewhere. But in Queens, the machine rolled on — until Tuesday.
If Rep. Joseph Crowley’s loss this week to a young insurgent candidate, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, rattled the national Democratic Party, it did a great deal more to upend the political order in New York City, where Crowley was perhaps the last powerful party boss in a city once defined by them.
Under Crowley, the Queens Democratic machine played local kingmaker, holding sway over judicial races, Surrogate’s Court, even the speakership of the New York City Council. Very little of consequence seemed to occur in Queens politics that Crowley or his cohorts did not have a hand in.
“It’s the end of an era,” said Councilman Daniel Dromm of Queens, chairman of the finance committee, an influential position he garnered after aligning himself more closely with Crowley.
The era of the party boss had long been on the wane across the nation. Gone are the days when James Michael Curley loomed over Boston, the Daleys dominated Chicago and E.H. Crump controlled Memphis, Tennessee.
Old-style party machines have been variously felled by court decisions limiting political patronage, corruption scandals, the expansion of voting rights, and, more recently, an increase in polarization, political scientists said. Powerful Democratic organizations still exist in big cities, but they have become weaker.
“Political machines have been on the decline almost everywhere for decades, and that process has accelerated,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Those who get involved in politics now are more likely to view it as a cause than a means to a patronage job or a payoff, he said.
“Crowley is a perfect example,” Sabato added. “He grew up in another time and another way of doing business.”
Crowley was a product of Queens, New York City’s most stubborn stronghold of party bosses. The Democratic machine there persevered even after the 1986 suicide of its powerful leader, Donald R. Manes, who took his own life amid a corruption scandal. It marched on despite demographic changes that transformed the borough from a bedroom community synonymous with the cantankerous conservatism of Archie Bunker to the teeming home of some of the nation’s most diverse neighborhoods — and an increasingly progressive Democratic base.
As chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party, Crowley directed a party apparatus that held the power to make or break candidates through endorsements and nuts-and-bolts campaign help. He helped make the careers of many, including a who’s who of elected leaders who packed his victory-party-turned-political-wake Tuesday night. He helped elevate others to perches they might not otherwise have reached.
But faced with an energetic challenge for the first time in years, he could not help himself.
The loss sent reverberations throughout local races.
Insurgent candidates running for state offices and those who have bucked the county organization in the past rejoiced. Party officials licked their wounds and privately bemoaned the defeat by an upstart challenger who dared to run a primary campaign.
The aftermath could also be seen in more public gestures: On Thursday, the council speaker, Corey Johnson, announced he would back four upstart challengers to Democratic incumbents in state Senate primary races in September. Johnson said the endorsements had been planned before Tuesday’s election results were known. But it was a move Johnson might not have done in such an overt way out of deference to Crowley, whose support was critical in landing Johnson his role as speaker.
“Clearly the Democratic base is extremely angry, hungering for change and they showed that,” Johnson said. He waxed philosophical when asked about Crowley’s defeat. “In the political world, one day you’re up, the next day you’re down,” he said. “Politics is cyclical; life is cyclical.” Crowley took over the perch 12 years ago from his mentor and predecessor in Congress, Thomas J. Manton, whom many credited with saving the local party after a corruption scandal under Manes in the mid-1980s. Crowley led the county party and, through an alliance with the Bronx Democratic leaders, gave officials from both counties a greater voice in citywide politics.
“The Queens machine was part of the coalition that put Ed Koch in office,” said Michael Krasner, a professor of political science at Queens College. “They were extremely influential in terms of nominations, elections and also in terms of land-use decisions.”
The influence has long been apparent in judicial appointments and at the Surrogate’s Court, where the law firm of Sweeney, Reich and Bolz — whose partners are closely affiliated with the Queens Democratic Party — has for years collected handsome fees administering estates. Gerald J. Sweeney, a partner in the firm, has long been and remains the counsel to the surrogate court administrator. At the party’s fundraising dinners, an array of lawyers and would-be judges can be found.
“In Manhattan and Brooklyn there are often primaries for Surrogate’s Court. In Queens, I don’t think there’s ever been a primary,” said Jerry Skurnik, a veteran Democratic political consultant. “Whoever the county organization has wanted has been elected, unopposed, as long as I remember, at least since the 1970s.” Much the same goes for civil court judges, he said.
Its power is even more evident in the quadrennial contest for City Council speaker, when interested Council members make repeated visits to Queens to see Crowley and sometimes dance as he plays guitar.
Cracks in the machine had been emerging in recent years. Crowley was not able to deliver his preferred candidate for council speaker in 2013, outmaneuvered by the newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio. Three years later, the county-backed incumbent, Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, lost in a Democratic primary to a young insurgent. The county organization could not prevent Crowley’s cousin, Elizabeth Crowley, from losing to a more conservative Democrat.
“There is a very significant losing streak here,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, a Democrat who bucked the party leadership with his own run in 2009 and whose district voted heavily in favor of Ocasio-Cortez.
“If it couldn’t mobilize for the chairman of the Democratic Party,” Van Bramer said of the Queens county machine, “who is it going to mobilize for?” Crowley’s organization appeared to have been regaining some of its influence last year: It secured its pick for council speaker and brought a reluctant mayor along with its choice. De Blasio backed Crowley for re-election, albeit mostly from the sidelines.
Indeed, the party apparatus, built in large measure around the Queens law firm, remains intact. For that to change, elected officials and political consultants said, challengers would need to emerge to defeat local district leaders and then chose their own chairman.
Sweeney, the firm’s partner and party official, declined to discuss the ramifications of Crowley’s defeat on the party. “We’ve lost elections before,” he said. “But it was a bit of a surprise.”
Some chalked up his loss to the diverse demographics of Queens, where a quarter of the residents are white — down from about 50 percent in 1990 — finally catching up with the party leadership, as a female candidate of color challenged an established white male leader in an anti-establishment year. Others pointed to how Ocasio-Cortez outperformed Crowley in Sunnyside and Astoria, where a younger and more liberal collection of white Democrats has replaced some older, more centrist ones.
Crowley’s defeat underscored how candidates, angry at the status quo and looking for change, increasingly are not content to wait their turn — and are less fearful of the party than they might have been a decade ago.
“I am running against the machine,” said Jessica Ramos, a former City Hall aide who is challenging an incumbent state senator, Jose Peralta, in Jackson Heights, Queens, in the September primary.
“There is an awakened giant,” she said. “The Democratic Party is changing.”
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