Bronx Pol’s Bid for DNC Vice Chair Breeds Division at Home

Assemblyman Michael Blake.

Assemblyman Michael Blake. Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

The candidacy of a 34-year-old Bronx assemblyman—and veteran of President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and White House—become a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee has drawn more enthusiasm nationally than in his native borough, where party leadership perceives him as an overly ambitious interloper using his local office as stepping stone on his way to glory in Washington.

Political insiders say the Bronx County Democratic Committee—which opposed Blake’s election in 2014 and tried to get him booted from the ballot on the grounds that he hadn’t lived in New York long enough—is not enthusiastic about his candidacy. And good government groups blasted his decision last year to join Hilltop Public Solutions, a campaign consulting firm with close ties to Mayor Bill de Blasio, a job he later opted to decline amid public outrage.

FROM D.C. TO THE BRONX AND BACK 

The election for vice chair will take place next February among around 450 voting members of the DNC, who will collectively elect the chair, five vice chairs, a treasurer, a secretary and a national finance chair.

Current DNC Vice Chairman R.T. Rybak—former mayor of Minneapolis and the first big-city mayor to endorse Obama for president—said he was nominated by Obama, and that people typically go by the recommendation of the sitting president.

“Someone could have run against me but it would have been going against the recommendation of the president,” Rybak said. “I think what we have (now) is healthier which is anyone who wants makes a case and that’s what Mike is doing.” 

In the absence of a Democratic president, however, the seats become competitive, as evidenced in the hot contest for the chairmanship.

Following Hillary Clinton’s bruising defeat by now President-elect Donald Trump last month, Blake sees an opportunity to draw from the election’s “learning lessons”: continuously mobilizing and organizing among communities of color, millennials and women and a consistent economic message for all communities “regardless of your zip code.”

“Proper preparation prevents poor performance and so we have to prepare and we have to recruit and we have to train and we have to mobilize and we have to organize,” Blake told the Observer. “We have to take those steps and I would like to be a part of the team to help rebuild the strength of the party.”

Blake’s platform—”Build Our Bench. Strengthen Our Party. Embrace Our Future.”—includes cultivating dynamic candidates for local offices and enlisting top strategists in the DNC, leading a mentorship-based candidate support program, convening a quarterly messaging workshop with top party staff and officials and serving as a national surrogate for statewide and local party fundraisers, trainings and meetings. The campaign Twitter page has 119 followers.

Born in the Bronx to Jamaican immigrant parents, Blake relocated to Illinois at age 18 to attend Northwestern University. While working as an associate producer in Chicago in 2005, Blake interned for Illinois State Senator Jeff Schoenberg. He applied for a job at the union UNITE HERE, but the organization’s president encouraged him to instead join then-Sen. Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” program for ambitious minority youth.

In February 2007, he applied to work on Obama’s presidential campaign and moved to Iowa, where he served as outreach director for the campaign and helped lead the organizing campaign that culminated in the senator’s victory in the state’s caucuses. He then helped run the campaign in seven different states.

After Obama took office in 2009, Blake served in the White House as Associate Director of Public Engagement and Deputy Associate Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, where he administered outreach to minority business owners, then oversaw Reshma Saujani’s unsuccessful campaign for public advocate in 2013.

SKEPTICISM AT HOME

Former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, who represented the 79th District four years before Blake, reported widespread surprise and consternation at the young lawmaker’s aims for a party perch (Benjamin made clear that he was speaking only as a private citizen, and not in his capacity as a member of the editorial board of the New York Post).

Benjamin said Older elected officials, members of the New York State legislature and the Democratic State Committee told him they had never heard of a freshman running for such a position, though one active committee member said he could triumph “based on his national network.”

The former assemblyman acknowledged Blake’s work in the White House conducting outreach and countrywide reach, calling his bid an “audacious move.” But he highlighted the assemblyman’s rookie status, and what he described as the risk of having two New Yorkers as vice chairs, as Queens Congresswoman Grace Meng already holds one of the posts.

“He’s a freshman New York City political elected official legislator,” Benjamin said. “Grace had the same baggage of being a liberal New Yorker, a liberal progressive New Yorker in the DNC. I think we need to have more centrists running the DNC.”

Meng’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

One source said the Bronx County Democratic Party “could be wary,” describing Blake as one of a small circle of “non-County loyalists.” Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, a protege of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., chairs the local party, having succeeded Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie—who ranks alongside Gov. Andrew Cuomo as the most powerful Democrat in New York State, and remains a major force in local politics.

“Definitely the chair Marcos Crespo wouldn’t be happy that someone who is not a County loyalist is running for higher Democratic office,” the insider said.

The insider also said “it’s a little bit odd” for an Assembly member to seek a vice chairmanship but that Blake has strong ties in Washington, D.C. and that it could be a benefit to the city and the borough.

“From an outsider perspective, I would say that he’s viable and he has a chance because he’s well-liked in terms of nationally, he’s well networked,” he said.

A Bronx Democratic insider alluded to rumors that Blake has eyed the seat of Congressman José Serrano, expected to retire in the next few years, and that Crespo “would probably feel a certain way” about the assemblyman using the vice chairmanship to help launch a run for the House.

The insider said Blake may have a chance, but that he has not seen a “big ground swell of support.”

“It absolutely reeks of him just thinking he’s a much bigger deal than he really is,” he said. 

Crespo’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Blake professed ignorance of any resistance to his candidacy. But he pointed out Obama was a first-term U.S. senator when he won the White House, and he touted his experience working on presidential campaigns, in the Oval Office and in the state Assembly—a record that includes advocacy for  minority- and women-owned businesses and securing funding for the My Brother’s Keeper program that Obama launched in the Bronx.

Answering Benjamin’s concerns about too many New Yorkers in the upper echelons of the national party, he noted the recent appointments of Brooklyn Congressman Hakeem Jeffries as one of three co-chairs of the Democratic delegation’s Policy and Communications Committee and Cuomo as policy chairman of the Democratic Governors Association—saying that all are a “good thing.”

“That should not be seen as a negative and honestly, my career before getting here was helping get Democrats elected across the country,” he said. “If this is not a moment to try to use what I’ve learned to try to help the party, then when is that moment?”

Blake’s bid does enjoy support from some of the other local “non-County loyalists.”

Bronx State Senator Gustavo Rivera said it was no surprise Blake faced opposition from the local establishment. He dismissed concerns about Empire State overrepresentation by pointing  out that Queens Congressman Joseph Crowley—the Democratic boss of that borough, and a Heastie ally—was recently elected as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

“I don’t share the concerns and more importantly, the work speaks for itself,” he said.

Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres gave an even stronger endorsement.

“When you have a young man of color from humble beginnings from the Bronx seeking higher office in the Democratic Party, we should be cheering him on rather than denigrating him,” Torres said.

He added that Blake has a “singular talent and a singular rolodex” given his direct relationship with Obama and relationships across the country and the party “would be well-served by infusion of new energies” given the 2016 election results.

MIDWEST JOINS THE BANDWAGON

Although there is some division in his home borough, Blake has enjoyed support from prominent Midwestern party leaders. 

Rybak first met Blake in 2008, when the young Obama campaign operative “lived in our basement,” he said, noting that he conducted “incredibly effective organizing” in Minnesota to get people engaged.

“We elected a president who’s a community organizer and I want a DNC that’s a much more activist organization filled with community organizers who can not only get traditional voters but go out and get people who are now at Standing Rock, who are mobilizing to protect choice or equity,” Rybak said. “Politics right now needs to be broadening the table and energizing people who aren’t engaged—and that’s what Mike is best at.”

And he recalled the ugliness that attended the resignation of Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz‘s as DNC chair earlier this year, after Wikileaks’ release of embarrassing internal emails hacked by Russian government agents. Rybak said the committee could use Blake—a “truth teller” and an “honest person with guts.”

“Having been frustrated that there weren’t enough people willing to stand up and speak up when something is wrong, I wanna make sure we have people like Mike Blake who I believe would not sit still or keep quiet if there was another leader like Debbie Wasserman Schultz who was hurting the party,” Rybak continued.

David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, heard Blake speak at a forum hosted jointly by his party and the Indiana Democratic Party State Central Executive Committee—and despite not having met the assemblyman before the forum, he’s heard positive reviews of him. He said Blake “got a lot of state house races” in Michigan and intends to support him. 

“States like ours, we wanna play a huge role in bringing back the White House in ‘20…we have to win statehouse races, we have to win local races and this is someone whose career has been all about that,” Pepper said.

He does not see a heavy New York presence or his relative inexperience in the State Legislature as barriers.

“I just think people are so distraught that I think new energetic people coming forward like he is who’ve got the interesting experience he has, I think people honestly are energized about that,” Pepper continued.

Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.