“I Believe Changing the System Is Possible”: A Q&A With Newly-Elected District Leader Nick Rizzo

Nick Rizzo. Credit: Will Star

Two weeks ago, New Yorkers went to the polls to cast votes in the Democratic Party primary. Far down the ballot—and far outside the spotlight shone on the Gubernatorial and Lieutenant Governor races—were the District Leader races. The District Leader is a little-known, volunteer position that nevertheless wields key influence in local politics. Each party elects District Leaders for a two-year term to represent at least one Assembly District.

In the District encompassing Greenpoint and Williamsburg, a 29-year-old semi-employed bartender and ex-journalist was running against Michael Brienza, a union organizer and member of Community Board 1. Surprisingly, Nick Rizzo won, although to call it an upset implies there were established expectations to begin with.

This morning, we caught up with Rizzo to discuss Brooklyn development, political apathy, and what it is, exactly, that the District Leader does.

I thought we might actually start in Greenpoint. The neighborhood is the site of a couple of development initiative that augur an unpleasant Brooklyn landscape (we’re already seeing what that looks like, in Williamsburg). How big of an issue is development in North Brooklyn—or maybe Brooklyn in general?

It’s a big issue. Cost of housing is the number one issue in Brooklyn, and development is closely intertwined with that. For both of these issues, it’s a little shocking how little anyone has control over affecting them. Now, I live in Greenpoint, north of Greenpoint Avenue, which is the area that will see the most new development over the next five years, tripling our population. And there’s not a lot we can do about it; much of the development has already been approved. But I’m exploring a lot of ways we can slow down this process, phase it in gradually, and alter these projects a little bit to mitigate their effects. That’s not to say they’re all bad, but I still have a lot of concerns about them, more concerns frankly than I had six months ago.

How can we slow down that process?

Honestly? I don’t really know yet. There are concerns about the environmental effects of what they’re unearthing on these development sites: this needs to researched much more carefully. We very well might have carcinogens blowing all over the neighborhood.

Possibly the speed at which these developments receive permits for different parts of the construction process can be slowed down. If things are being done in violation of regulations on the construction sites, we can call those in and have the sites shut down.

We need more housing in this city, and it’s better to have new building here than in vast suburban subdivisions. And I don’t want to live in an indefinite construction site. But we need a lot more concessions from these developers than what we’ve gotten so far. We need to think about how we can mitigate the changes to the character of this neighborhood, and how our infrastructure will cope with all the new people. Right now, there’s no centralized tracking of all the developments in this neighborhood. As far as I can tell, no one is keeping track of all of them! I’m going to try to change that.

That would be incredibly useful. It does seem like there’s an information gap there—we’re all aware that new development is rampant, of course, but it seems abstract, and the mechanics by which it gets proposed and approved are opaque to most everyone whom it affects.

No, the scary thing is the more you look at it, the less it seems you can affect it, not more. But there is a common misconception that luxury development near you makes your rent go up. I hear that every week, and that’s not true. Rents rise as development occurs because they’re both being driven by the same demand. Rents are going to increase in Brooklyn no matter what. Vastly increasing the housing supply will slow that to some degree. Making developers devote a larger portion to affordable housing will have some effect, especially for the people who get those apartments. And if Democrats retake the state senate, we might be able to get some stronger rent regulations again, and that will have a real effect. I obviously support Brad Hoylman’s pied-a-tierre tax. In fact, I’ve been calling for it for years. But the fact of the matter is we’re pushing against these global macroeconomic trends that are difficult to hold back. There’s only so much a city councilmember or a state legislator or the mayor can do, and I have infinitely less power on this front than any of those people.

That actually sets up my next question nicely: can you explain what the district leader does?

Not a lot.

There are 21 state assembly districts in Brooklyn, with about 130,000 people each. Mine is all of Greenpoint, most of Williamsburg, and a little bit of Clinton Hill just south of the Navy Yard. The Democrats in each district elect a male and a female, a bit like The Hunger Games, except the situation is a bit less dystopian and we’re not trying to kill each other.

These 42 district leaders form the executive committee of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, which has been running things in this borough for over a century. Formally, all the district leader does is pick all the Brooklyn Supreme Court judges, and half of the people who work at the Brooklyn Board of Elections. It does have some influence on who else gets elected, and I want to use this position to do a lot of community organizing here in North Brooklyn. I think that the party has gotten overly concerned with fighting over who fills these positions, and we’re not paying enough attention to how else we can be altering politics in this borough.

Rizzo with Zephyr Teachout.

That’s what I wanted to ask you about next. What do you think will get more people involved—particularly people who’ve lived in these communities for decades, and young people moving in who might help shape the direction of the party in the future?

So there’s this position called County Committee, where 2 or 4 people represent a few square blocks on this body that technically controls the Brooklyn Democratic Party. (More information here.) Right now, the positions are mostly vacant, and the people in them aren’t asked to do anything. Just rubber stamp these party decisions every two years. If we can get 3,000 people across Brooklyn into these positions, come up with something for them to do, spending a few hours a month talking to their neighbors, going to meetings. Once a year, spending part of a few days campaigning. If we can get 3,000 people involved that way, it will change the face of New York politics.

But they have to believe that their involvement will have an effect. So right now, the 160 county committee members I helped elect are trying to come up with little governmental changes we can fight for in our neighborhoods.

What have you come up with so far?

A lot of stuff that seems to involve NYPD or Department of Transportation: trying to get a stop sign or stop light on this corner, get some cops to ticket illegal truck traffic on that block. Trying to get NYCHA to fix certain problems that for example are preventing the residents of Cooper Park Houses from voting in their normal location. Plus we’re going to discuss how we’re going to fight for reform of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

What kind of reform does the Brooklyn Democratic Party need? Obviously it’s been plagued by corruption and croneyism in recent decades, but how can we clean that up?

We need completely open meetings. There’s this real culture within the party of exclusion—they are not interested in outsiders coming in to mess up their club. The door to the county party headquarters is kept locked. And there has been no urgency in developing a website, which we still don’t have. We’ll have a pretty good one within a couple months, I’m excited to announce, but it’s crazy that the largest county Democratic Party on the East Coast made it to 2014 without one.

Also, it’s rather difficult if you’re not on the executive committee to get information about the rules or county committee or what have you. There are very strong ethics guidelines in the rules, and, it turns out, the rules as written are actually really good. They’re just not followed. Any ethics issues are referred to an ethics commission that is supposed to be elected by County Committee but never has been. There are standing committees called for in the rules that haven’t been used for at least 25 years.  And it’s not just the rules within the party. The system is corrupt primarily because it is a de facto one party system—Democrats always win.

So the real elections are not the general elections where most people vote, but these low-turnout Democratic primaries which right now occur in September. And if you are not a registered Democrat, you have no say. If you want to switch to being a registered Democrat, it takes a year after your switch before you can vote in the primaries. If you fill out a voter registration form and drop it in the mail, there is a very, very good chance your registration will not be recorded. I’m trying to make it possible to register to vote online. I learned two days ago that the executive director of the Brooklyn Democratic Party is very opposed to that. His reasons seem pretty bogus to me, frankly.

What made you decide you wanted to get involved in politics? Was there a tipping point or had you always been interested?

I’ve wanted to be a politician since I was 14. Maybe earlier. This is not a rational thing: it means giving over huge portions of your life, making really really big sacrifices, for a tiny amount of power and a stupid title.

Now, I spent several years mostly out of politics, in journalism. And it gave me even more contempt for this system, and all the bullshit that you find in it. All the false outrage. But I have real outrage over how the system has been set up to make it almost impossible for anyone less crazy than me to get involved. At least I recognize that there’s something wrong with me. But here’s where we’re at: for years, I’ve had to live in a specific neighborhood. I’ve had to call up everybody I’ve ever met and ask them for money for my campaign. I still owe money from that campaign. I have to be careful about who I date. I’ve never sexted. There are a lot of sacrifices here, and the people who are willing to make them are generally scary people.

But I also believe changing the system is possible. It’s a hell of a lot less corrupt than it used to be. I have a tattoo of George Orwell’s signature on my left arm, to remind myself that I am a dissident. I have no way of knowing this, but I believe I’d be doing the same thing, even if I were in a country with a much more repressive government. So compared to being put in prison for this, the strictures I’m under are not that intense. But I also need to remember that those Central and Eastern European dissidents I so admire, they didn’t join their one party system. So in some way I feel like Gorbachev or something. I recognize that’s an insanely grandiose comparison, but maybe I can get away with it because Americans don’t give a shit about Gorbachev.

I take it you want a career in politics, then?

My ambitions are to get to the State Legislature, and to keep speaking the truth. Everything else will sort itself out.

I just want people to know that you don’t need to devote your whole life to changing local politics, in fact I know you won’t. The great thing about New York is that there are 100 different goals people here are striving for, and local politics is very low on that list. But please get slightly involved. Register Democrat and vote in the primaries. Consider running for this county committee position. Our system is genuinely fucked up, but we have the power to peacefully improve it. If one in five hundred people in Brooklyn devoted a few hours a month to this, and one in ten people here who don’t vote started voting in Democratic primaries, the whole system changes. Moneyed and special interests, the well-connected, they’d become way less powerful. All it takes is 100,000 people in Brooklyn giving a shit to the tune of half an hour a year’s effort, and 3,000 people across Brooklyn working on this 50 hours a year, and this whole thing changes. That’s all it takes.

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.

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