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The Vital Role & Impact of District Leaders: Insights from Brooklyn Democratic Party Vice-Chair and District Leader Henry Butler 

Who Is Your District Leader & What Do They Do? We spoke with Brooklyn Dems’ Vice-Chair Henry Butler to find out

January 18, 2023 Special from In Public Service
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The New York State legislature in Albany has kicked off the new year with a flurry of state-wide political action in the spotlight of an ever-present press core. But at the hyper-local grassroots level, where the rubber meets the road, a very special political operative is just as busy, often under the radar of the press corps. While Brooklyn’s vitality in politics is more heavily represented by the Democratic Party, each party represented in the state assembly (for example, Republicans and Conservatives) elect district leaders for each of Brooklyn’s 44 districts. That represents a lot of grassroots political activity that is taking place, often under the radar of press coverage of candidates.

District Leaders (DLs), who serve elected, unpaid positions, are pivotal as “the peoples’ most local voice.” So says Henry Butler, a longtime District Leader for the 56th Assembly District in Bedford-Stuyvesent. Butler, who is also the Vice-Chair for the county Democratic Party, serves locally as the District Manager of Community Board 3 as well.

The Brooklyn Eagle’s affiliate website IN PUBLIC SERVICE (IPS) spoke with Butler, a 30-year public servant, to learn more about what exactly District Leaders do, how they make an impact on the community and about some of the future initiatives of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

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IN PUBLIC SERVICE (IPS): Most of us are aware of District Leaders, but can you tell us what exactly they do?

Henry Butler (HB): (Chuckles) This is a question I get asked constantly. A Democratic State Committee Member, what we in Brooklyn call a District Leader, is an unpaid volunteer elected official position within the Democratic Party. 

All political parties in New York State are required to have two District Leaders per Assembly District. With the Brooklyn Democratic Party (the largest county political party in the nation), we have 22 Assembly Districts, so 44 District Leaders across our borough (one male and one female leader for each district).

Officially, the District Leader is the representative of the party members in their district to that political party’s apparatus.

 

IPS: Most people assume District Leaders may have larger political aspirations. But even if they don’t, their role is key in support of their party in the county. Can you elaborate on some of the District Leader roles?

HB: Of course.

DLs serve as liaisons for legislators and community advocates. 

What some don’t realize is that you can call on your DL to help solve problems in your district. I assumed the role during the pandemic, which hit Bed-Stuy hard. We all stepped up to hold community forums, distribute PPE and advocate for resources.

Bed-Stuy is a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC), and with an aging population, we stepped up to the plate to do desperately needed food giveaways and deliveries.

Although legislators are extremely attuned to their communities’ needs, they sometimes aren’t around — because they are doing their job in Albany legislating. District Leaders are around every day, getting to know the community better, and legislators work with us to get issues resolved.

Just one example is when, with my fellow 56th AD District Leader Kenesha Traynham-Cooper, we helped fight for justice and better housing for NYCHA residents. We got help and repairs done by advocating and bringing light to the issues; doing tours with Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams, Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus and other electeds. As a NYCHA kid, I found this very rewarding.

 

IPS: You seem very proud of your long-term involvement in the process. How has the role affected you personally?

HB: The role is what you make of it.

I’m often asked why people run for DL when it’s an unpaid position where you cannot legislate (beyond the Party). But we make the role so much bigger than what it is. It serves as a vehicle to get resources and help to your community at the most grassroots level. 

District Leaders here often play a massive role by helping out the people, how they go about living in their community and getting the services and resources in their community.

 

IPS: How do District Leaders get involved in the election process?

HB: We also staff polling sites on election days, help select polling sites and get our community informed and motivated to vote.

With an aging population, my co-District Leader and I ensured the poll sites in the 56th AD were ADA-compliant. And, all DLs are familiar with their communities, so they make sure the poll sites are staffed and accessible to the community. 

As we saw in the General Election, voter engagement is crucial. And, Brooklyn is the largest Democratic voting bloc in all of NYS. District Leaders play a massive role in getting our community out to vote by going door-to-door, holding forums, getting resources from the Party and more.  

It paid off. More voters headed to the polls in Brooklyn on Election Day than in any other borough. Now our borough is in the national limelight — we helped Gov. Hochul win, and elected Brooklynites to some of the top positions in the U.S. Both the Dem House and Senate Leaders are Brooklynites. And, now we have our Party Chair as the NYS Assembly Majority Whip.

Butler (second on left) going door-to-door with 1199 SEIU union volunteers to get out the vote for Rev. Warnock. Photo courtesy of Henry Butler

IPS: Don’t District Leaders play a role in choosing the judiciary?

HB: Yes, DLs nominate Judges for the Party and for special elections.

We are delegates to the New York State Democratic Judicial Convention and nominate judges. In August, we nominated the most diverse slate of New York Supreme Court Justices in history — all who won the General Election. 

We broke barriers by sending six Black women to the Supreme Court of New York State. These Justices don’t just reflect the diversity of our borough, they’re extremely qualified. We really vet these judges, and also bring them to our community, holding forums to let them tell their stories and ensure they are culturally competent. 

As Vice-Chair, this historical win is one of my proudest moments.

Also importantly, District Leaders choose the Party nominee for candidates in Special Elections (filling a vacancy when an elected leaves office midterm). This year, we secured three vital victories in special NYS Assembly elections with Party nominated and endorsed candidates.

Nikki Lucas won the February special election to become Assemblymember for the 60th AD. Photo courtesy of Nikki Lucas
Brian Cunningham won the March special election to become Assemblymember for the 43rd AD. Photo courtesy of Brian Cunningham
Monique Chandler-Waterman won the May special election to become Assemblymember for the 58th AD. Photo courtesy of Monique Chandler-Waterman

IPS: Theoretically, and in reality, don’t District Leaders also play a key role in running the party functions?

HB: Oh, yes. We vote for the Executive Committee, including our Party Chair, of the Democratic Party of Brooklyn. As you’re aware, we recently re-elected Chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, the first woman to lead the Party, who had accomplished so much during her first two-year term.

We also vote on any resolutions, including the passage of the Party budget, and can advance resolutions. Just one example is changing antiquated party rules that only allowed males and females to serve on the county committee. We expanded voting rights for every Democrat who wants to run for office.

With over three decades of community service in various positions, including president of the Vanguard Independent Democratic Association (VIDA), former chairman of the Labor Committee for the Brooklyn NAACP, and at the TWU Local 100, this is my lifelong passion, and I can’t think of a bigger honor than serving the Brooklyn Democratic Party. 

 

IN PUBLIC SERVICE, in cooperation with Brooklyn Daily Eagle, offers readers photographs (below) of all the Democratic District Leaders in Brooklyn. Readers are urged to refer to the official website of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, brooklyndems.com, to discover profiles of their own District Leaders.

 


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