Lincoln Restler joined his field director Chris McCreight on the stage Friday night at Spike Hill for a fundraiser. In the September primary, Restler beat back the Brooklyn Democrats’ candidate for an unpaid party position known as district leader. Now he’s Brooklyn’s bespectacled political wunderkind.
He resembles Al Franken during his Harvard days, sporting horn-rimmed glasses and curly black hair. At 26, the Brooklyn native is seen as the clearest harbinger of what some call “the hipster vote.” It’s not because he wears a pair of skinny jeans (he doesn’t) but because of his team’s ability to get enough voters in Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Fort Greene to cast a ballot for him despite being unaware of this obscure position.
This Williamsburg happy hour event was designed to solicit money for New Kings Democrats, Restler’s home club started by local Barack Obama organizers Matt Cowherd and Rachel Lauter. The club formed after they felt rebuffed from participating in county politics by Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Vito Lopez of Bushwick.
The two-man panel discussion detailed just how they beat Warren Cohn, the son of the man who held the district leader spot for nearly three decades and who had inherited the support of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. A few dozen mingled in the bar dressed in businesscasual for the after-work event, and even had note pads to jot down campaign tips.
Restler’s victory means more than having one more self-described reformer in a party position—also known as a state Democratic committee member—that is low on the totem poll of local politics. It shows the borough’s movement is seeping outside of its Brownstone Belt base.
Restler’s campaign needed to register like-minded Democrats in north and central Brooklyn, so he and a band of insurgent district leader candidates took up a classic party reform message that railed against the Brooklyn Boss, the patronage, the cronyism and the selection of unqualified judges.
But that message was married with one about increasing community involvement. They sold participation in party politics as a way to get a supermarket in Fort Greene or a new park space.
New Kings Democrats’ next step is to now register and educate more Democrats about local politics. The campaign is starting a registration effort aimed to tap into the same sensibilities that are driving residents to start a boycott of the new Duane Reade that recently opened across the street from local mainstay Kings Pharmacy on Bedford Avenue.
“It’s shop local, eat local, vote local,” Restler says.
The registration drive has fertile ground in its target neighborhoods. “Especially in north Brooklyn, you’ve got large communities of folks who are new to New York,” Restler explains.
The campaign can now be used as a blueprint for reformers who want a bit of power in their local Democratic Party but have little or no access to Democratic constituencies or political patrons that can get candidates elected.
“Without a doubt the model we put forward on this campaign is replicable,” Restler says.
In politics, of course, money adds legitimacy to a campaign. But district leader races rarely attract big bucks. The Restler campaign raised more than $61,000—almost enough money to run a competitive City Council race. The most raised in competitive primaries such as this is a fraction of what Restler’s campaign accomplished. A candidate for state committee in the Upper West Side, for example, raised a little more than $13,000 to go against a man that held the seat for 30 years. Paul Newell, the candidate who gave Speaker Sheldon Silver his first real primary race in decades two years ago, only raised $3,000 for his recent district leader race in Lower Manhattan.
“We ran it like it was a race for any real paid office,” Sarah Baker, Restler’s campaign manager, says.
The press Restler received included not only the city’s big political blogs that cover New York State and local politics, but the community papers and the New York Times’ hyper-local Fort Greene blog. Restler was getting write-ups in the daily news blogs that obsess over city- and statewide politics. Websites and newsletters for Brooklyn’s culturally adept gave Restler a platform. It was direct mail for free. That’s the kind of attention that would make candidates for an actual office, much less a district leader, envious.
Low-level elected offices such as these typically only bring out the most politically aware person or someone that works in the Democratic Party. The small pool of votes gives the “machine” the upper hand. A hurdle for the Restler campaign was offsetting the reliable Satmar Jewish community in Williamsburg, which derives its political power from voting en masse.
While Cohn scored a lopsided 80 percent of the vote in the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood, according to Restler’s campaign, Restler had an aggressive door-knocking operation that helped rack up a similar percentage in the creative underclass hubs of north Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Fort Greene.
“That was enough to win by 120 votes,” Restler tells the audience at his fundraiser.
The desire to bring in new Democratic voters is expanding to other neighborhoods. I recently met with three Prospect Heights residents who formed a reform Democratic club for the neighborhood. The two clubs share the same ideals: registration drives, opening up the county party and educational campaigns that highlight the importance of local politics.
“Our club wants to educate and make people aware of the [political] process,” Frampton Tolbert says. He also works at Historic Districts Council, the landmark advocacy group. “Our primary goal is not to be a club house for politicians.”
The focus is educating their neighbors to “understand what local politics is for,” says Ede Fox, a City Council staffer and club member.
Raul Rothblatt, who owns a worldmusic management company, got involved in city politics because of Atlantic Yards, a development only a short walk from his Prospect Heights apartment. He found the club to be an access point for politically motivated people, especially the growing number of new arrivals.
According to Rothblatt, “It’s not easy to find out about local stuff.” Rothblatt is also the first vice president of Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, so he has experience in political clubs, but the reform clubs in the borough were started during the Vietnam War. Try as they might, attracting newer and younger members is difficult. “In a lot of existing clubs, often, the members are older,” Rothblatt says.
Already, the club has held events about the recent ballot initiatives on term limits and new voting machines, and they will plan more on redistricting, the decennial process of redrawing legislative districts. These sorts of topics, dealing with the minutiae of municipal government, can make a lay person’s eyes glaze over, but it’s key in realizing the goal of opening up local party politics.
This was a theme in Restler’s campaign, which attacked “Boss Vito Lopez” for keeping a lid on the party. Restler’s message is more political and pointed, but the desired effect is the same. “This is a broader vision, in my eyes,” Restler said, “for how we can advance our local community agendas more effectively through the political process.”