The mood in the Counting Room, the kind of brick-walled, votive-lit wine bar now ubiquitous in north Williamsburg, is boisterous and celebratory on a late November evening. The New Kings Democrats, a political club, are celebrating their fifth anniversary.
Lawyers, political activists, insiders, and volunteers mingle with Borough Hall and City Hall staffers, sipping beer, shaking hands, and engaging in the intricate dance of simultaneously socializing and networking. Newly elected City Council members Antonio Reynoso and Carlos Menchaca make their way through the crowd, which isn’t that surprising. They’re friends with many of the young people in the room.
A portly, broad-faced man with a quick smile quietly enters the Counting Room and takes a place at the end of the bar, causing heads to turn. It’s Frank Seddio, the current chairman of the Kings County Democratic Committee — a position that puts him effectively in charge of how Brooklyn’s Democratic party operates.
A few years ago, the idea that the party’s chairman could be in the same room with anyone affiliated with New Kings Democrats would have been unthinkable.
The New Kings Democrats are Brooklyn’s newest political club. The club’s spirit is fervently upstart and anti-establishment, its membership largely made up of young, idealistic men and women who cut their teeth during President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Taking a page out of Obama’s playbook, the members formed with a vision of Brooklyn’s Democratic party as more transparent and accountable to citizens. They visualized a county party that increased voter registration and turnout, educated citizens about political and civic issues, and encouraged engagement.
But when the club’s leadership first approached Kings County’s Democratic establishment, the obvious gateway to becoming involved in local politics, they were rebuffed. They became outsiders and decided to go head-to-head against the establishment, the political grassroots version of David versus Goliath.
Starting in 2008, they encouraged Brooklynites to run for spots on the Kings County Democratic Committee, or “county committee.” Committee positions are the lowest level of elected political office in New York State. Members are responsible for governing special elections, establishing party rules, and, most importantly, appointing judges. The committee became dysfunctional and demoralized during Vito Lopez’s tenure as chairman, which began in 2006. His widely documented bullying personality and consolidation of power caused rancor and factionalism within the party. Dissatisfaction with Lopez’s leadership worked in the New Kings’ favor, with candidates they endorsed winning in increasingly greater numbers in the 2008, 2010 and 2012 elections. They impressed and surprised seasoned Brooklyn politicos with their energy and campaign strategy. “It’s a voice and a group of people who’ve really made a big splash in Brooklyn Democratic politics,” says Matt McMorrow, president of the Lambda Independent Democrats, another political club.
A coalition of reform-minded Democrats, including the New Kings, have recently passed the biggest changes to how the county committee works in years: the committee will start meeting more than once every two years, and a public website for the committee will be created, which will include the party’s budget, governing documents, and announcements of public meetings.
In the past year, the increasing presence of the New Kings Democrats in borough politics has coincided with a symbolic shift of power in Brooklyn and the city at large. Vito Lopez resigned his chairmanship of the party in 2012 amid scandal and, in this year’s November election, lost a run for City Council (to Antonio Reynoso, who showed up at the New Kings’ anniversary party). Charles J. Hynes, a Democrat and Brooklyn’s district attorney since 1989, lost to newcomer Ken Thompson. And Bill de Blasio, a populist Brooklynite with deep anti-establishment roots, won a landslide victory in the race for mayor. Whether the New Kings Democrats are responsible for these victories is up for debate — but public sentiment seems to be working in their, and their progressive colleagues’, favor.
The New Kings’ long trumpet call for reform at first made them seem naive and ignorant of how things worked in Brooklyn. But now they are the vanguard of progressive reform in the borough. They have plenty to celebrate.
“They are a breath of fresh air,” says U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, who represents lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and parts of Queens.
But what’s next for the New Kings Democrats is somewhat unclear. That was evident during their anniversary party: many attendees drifted to the back of the room, where a box labeled “SUGGESTION BOX” sat next to a stack of postcards, pens, and a sign-up sheet. The recent reforms made to the county committee were the bread and butter of reforms the New Kings Democrats sought. And now that they no longer have to contend with Lopez and the new chairman, Seddio, considers their club a part of the party, their identity as an anti-establishment political club may change.
“We were outsiders for years,” says one of the founders, Matt Cowherd, summing up the club’s recent acceptance in party politics — symbolically, Frank Seddio sitting at the bar — as “weird.”
In the late summer of 2008, Cowherd, his then-girlfriend Rachel Lauter, and their friend, Alex Low, were eating a dinner of cheap pizza and cheap beer in Cowherd’s Bushwick apartment. They were in their late twenties and basking in the glow of the recently concluded Democratic National Convention, where Barack Obama officially became the Democratic nominee for president. They had worked as organizers for Brooklyn for Barack, and had spent months knocking on doors and talking to voters as part of a new wave of young progressives excited about politics. But they weren’t ready to throw away their precinct maps or spend extra hours sleeping.
“We were like, ‘What are we going to do with all this energy and drive for hope and change?’” Cowherd says.
He and his friends turned to local politics. Cowherd set his sights on the county committee. The county committee is made up of people elected from each election district in Brooklyn, which are only a few square blocks in size and contain 4,000 people at most. The committee has roughly 10,000 seats, but in any given year, roughly half remain unfilled.
“People were telling us that county committee does nothing, it has no power, it’s pointless,” Cowherd says.
But Cowherd and his friends saw potential. County committee representatives could organize the neighborhood and help citizens understand how to get involved in politics. The people elected to the committee ought to be activists, Cowherd thought, for their community and the party.
“County committee is a beautiful thing,” Cowherd says. “It felt like the best way to get plugged in and do grassroots organizing.”
He admits his wonky interest in party committees and how they operate is almost esoteric. The weekend after Bill de Blasio decisively won the mayor’s race, Cowherd’s friends — who were in a car with him on the way to a weekend vacation in Iowa — asked him to reschedule our interview so they wouldn’t have to listen to him talk about Brooklyn politics. “I guess it can get pretty dry and boring sometimes,” he says, sheepishly.
By the fall of 2008, Cowherd and his friends hadn’t yet decided to form a political club. They thought they could simply find a way to become involved with the local county party. Cowherd reached out to Vito Lopez, requesting to meet with him. They met at Lopez’s political club on Wyckoff Avenue, the Bushwick Democratic Organization. But most people simply called it “Vito’s Clubhouse.”
By the time he met with Cowherd in 2008, Lopez was an archetypal party boss. According to nearly everyone involved in Brooklyn Democratic politics, Lopez had shown that machine politics, even in the twenty-first century, were alive and well in Brooklyn.
Their origins are in the nineteenth century, with Tammany Hall, the political organization that controlled New York City politics with an iron fist. Tammany Hall’s control rested in a twofold approach: one person, considered the party boss, ran a top-down structure, controlling the party’s political priorities and appointments. The organization would then engage directly with citizens about political issues — what we now know as grassroots organizing. Tammany provided social services to impoverished citizens who were in need of health care, food, or jobs. Tammany leaders could then, in turn, rely on those citizens for votes and political support. The leader of the organization — most famously, William M. “Boss” Tweed — was able to control voter turnout, as well as who could and couldn’t run for office.
“It’s well oiled; it operates smoothly and efficiently,” says Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College. “It gets things done effectively, such as getting candidates on the ballot, getting the vote out, winning elections, providing constituent services, organizing members in government to act coherently and vote together.”
Whether the Kings County Democratic Committee operates as a machine and whether the chairman is a boss depend upon how openly and transparently the committee operates, and how willingly the chairman accepts diverse opinions within the party.
The structure of the county committee is meant, in part, to keep the chairman in check. Within the county committee is a smaller body of 42 people called the State Committee, also known as the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee is made up of one female and one male member elected from each State Assembly district in Brooklyn. This body elects the county committee’s chairman and advises him on party operations. Members of the Executive Committee are known as district leaders.
There are benefits to running a machine. An aspiring politician who cooperates with the people in charge can potentially get a job somewhere in the party down the line, or help from experienced campaigners if he or she wants to run for office. In Brooklyn, for a long time, working with the county’s head Democrats could lead to political office and perhaps a more stable and successful life. “The machine was the ladder up,” says Chris Owens, a Park Slope district leader in the Executive Committee and longtime reformer.
Sherrill says political machines played the same role as a social-service safety net in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: housing, jobs, health care and food for the needy. “[Party leaders] did it to their friends and people who were loyal to them,” he says. “And it’s how they got their votes.”
Meade Esposito, who was county committee chairman from 1969 to 1982, was as strong a boss as Tweed. During that time, African-American and Latino aspiring political leaders felt shut out of the county party, which was dominated by Italian and Jewish Brooklynites. That period of Brooklyn’s history, Sherill says, represents what’s bad about political machines — people in power can use the political process to retain their power in a way that doesn’t always benefit others.
“They simply did not welcome anybody people purely on the basis of people being interested and wanting to be active,” he says. “They were only interested in who would be loyal to them. They didn’t believe in inclusionary politics.”
People who felt shut out of the county party began what is commonly known as the reform movement, and a number of political clubs formed in the late 1960s — including Lambda Independent Democrats, Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and Independent Neighborhood Democrats.
Political clubs are essentially what they sound like — organizations for like-minded people who are, or want to be, involved with politics. Clubs have voter registration drives, host political forums, and campaign for political candidates.
There are dozens in Brooklyn, and all are slightly different from one another in their scope, demographics, and political ideology. Lambda Independent Democrats, for instance, is the borough’s LGBT political club. CBID formed to advocate for an end to the war in Vietnam and now attracts more middle-aged Democrats, as does IND.
But they all are vocal critics of the county party and advocate reforming it — creating rules and by-laws that make its operations more transparent to the public and operating in a way that is as inclusive as possible. “Reform politics isn’t specifically about liberal or conservative,” says Bobby Carroll, president of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats. “It’s about honest government.”
Tension between reformers and the machine has waxed and waned through the years, at least partially determined by the county chairman’s attitude toward reformers. Esposito’s successor, Howard Golden, was more lax in his style, working closely with the reform movement. Clarence Norman, who succeeded Golden in 1990, was a blend between Esposito and Golden, but tended toward prescriptiveness. “Clarence’s style was more collegial,” Owens, the Park Slope district leader and reformer, says. “He had a soft glove with a little bit of an iron fist in the back. People liked that.”
In 2005, Norman was indicted for accepting illegal campaign contributions, and sentenced to several years in jail. (He was paroled in 2011.) Vito Lopez was appointed chairman in 2006. At the time, no one would have guessed that Lopez would end up being the chairman he ended up becoming. As a state assemblyman, he was extremely liberal, using his position as chair of the Assembly’s Housing Committee to support the expansion of affordable housing. But county committee members recall that as chairman, Lopez took his role to its absolute extreme, recalling intimidating and powerful bosses of yore.
“He was very controlling,” says Jo Anne Simon, another Park Slope district leader and advocate for committee reform. “He believed, I think, that a strong party is one that is unanimous and just follows the leader and doesn’t think.”
If elected officials didn’t agree with Lopez, they quickly learned to fear losing party support when running for reelection. When the county committee met, Lopez allowed members to send in postcards giving permission for a “proxy” to vote for them. Almost always, the proxy was Lopez. “The big message that was sent was, ‘Who cares? It doesn’t matter; I’ve got the votes,’” Simon says. “There is nothing more frustrating to encouraging involvement in local politics than to bring people to a big meeting and ignore the will of the group.” The executive committee met only twice a year — still more frequent than the larger county committee’s meetings, which took place once every two years. One of Lopez’s last acts as chairman was to add “at-large” members to the executive committee, who were selected by Lopez. It essentially ensured that he had the votes for whatever issue came before the committee.
And critics say he engaged in patronage to create loyalty. “Patronage is only patronage in the worst sense when you’re putting people who aren’t qualified for a job into a job,” Owens says. “Vito engaged in patronage. Some people who had no business becoming judges became Supreme Court or Civil Court judges. He put his friends in places. People had jobs far above their salary levels. It’s the sorts of things that give a party boss a really bad name.”
(Despite efforts to contact Lopez to interview him for this story, BKLYNR was unable to obtain contact information from his former Assembly office and colleagues in the party.)
By the time he announced he would not run for chairman again — in 2012, enmeshed in sexual harassment allegations — Democrats in Brooklyn were demoralized and frustrated by what they saw as a party that only served one person.
“He had a terrible effect on Brooklyn politics,” Matt McMorrow, president of Lambda Independent Democrats, says. “We were never unified. Nobody wanted to give money to the county party. It just became a vehicle for cronyism instead of being a vehicle for winning elections for solid, progressive Democratic candidates.”
Seddio, the current county leader and someone who worked with Lopez, agrees. “He didn’t accomplish much as leader,” Seddio says. “He divided the party into different factions. With unity, there is strength. We didn’t have any unity.”
When Cowherd met Lopez at his clubhouse, Lopez did most of the talking. According to Cowherd, Lopez immediately launched into a critique of Obama and explained why Hillary Clinton was the better candidate for president, even though Obama had already become the Democratic candidate. When Cowherd found a place to get a word in edgewise, he said, “We think there are some things the party can do to be more transparent.”
“Who the hell do you think you are?” he remembers Lopez shooting back.
Then, as he would several times throughout the meeting, Lopez changed tack, telling Cowherd that he and his friends were obviously smart and asked what they wanted. Cowherd started talking about re-opening some of the county committee’s subcommittees that could act on specific tasks, like judge appointments.
That wasn’t necessary, Lopez said.
What about having the county committee meet more than once every two years, Cowherd suggested.
No, no, no, Lopez said.
At that point, Cowherd plumbed the depths of his patience to not become incredulous, to remain open to any opportunity Lopez might give to them to get involved in the party. Finally, someone — either Lopez or his chief of staff, records and memories differ — suggested that Cowherd and his friends join their community boards.
Community boards are akin to neighborhood associations and aren’t part of local party politics. Cowherd knew Lopez was essentially suggesting that he not participate in party politics, and to take a hike. Cowherd responded that he and New Kings were more interested in local politics, in part because a number of their friends already served on their community boards.
“You guys are lying,” Lopez said. Then, as Cowherd remembers, Lopez stood up and walked away. The meeting was over.
Cowherd and his friends thus became outsiders to Brooklyn’s political machine. But they realized they were onto something: Lopez had consolidated his power as boss mostly because of the county committee’s dysfunctionality.
They decided to form their own political club, one that would be exclusively devoted to making local politics more transparent and accountable to citizens. After some thought, Cowherd and Lauter settled on naming it the New Kings Democrats.
They began attracting a small group of committed members that would quickly grow in the coming years, and the group started pounding the pavement and trying to make inroads in political circles, they were met with skepticism. People told them they were naive to think they could easily reform the county party and openly oppose Lopez, especially in his home turf of Williamsburg and north Brooklyn. Some thought them obnoxious idealists, interlopers who didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. They were even called hipsters.
They did stick out. New Kings, by far, has the youngest demographic of any political club in Brooklyn. Cowherd, who was New Kings’ first president, sported a gaudy blue knit sweater to the New Kings’ anniversary party, decorated with menorahs and dreidels, with “Happy Hanukkah!” in capital letters. Alex Low, the club’s current president, wears a full beard and, hailing from London, unironically wears tweed suits. Lincoln Restler — perhaps the group’s best-known member because of his zeal for campaigning and his narrow victory against a Lopez-backed candidate for a Williamsburg district leader spot in 2010 — has a round-cheeked, curly-haired face commonly compared to Al Franken’s. He also has a growing reputation for being just cute enough to allow for some obnoxiousness in opinion and mannerism. (Restler denied several requests to be interviewed for this article by saying “I’m just not doing press right now”; he is rumored to have landed a spot in the de Blasio administration). They all have dark circles underneath their eyes, indicative of long campaign hours.
Their youth is not their only defining element. They have also been the only club to focus solely on reforming how the county party works. “We have definitely tried to, I think, focus on … process-based reform, more than necessarily drilling down into … bread-and-butter liberal progressive issues,” Cowherd says.
They spurred the creation of the Brooklyn Reform Coalition, a coalition of Brooklyn’s reform clubs, including Lambda, Independent Neighborhood Democrats, CBID, IND, Bay Ridge Democrats, and others. The clubs were able to leverage their various resources by working together, and their collective strength in numbers proved to be an advantage when endorsing and canvassing for candidates.
“My organization has 35 years of cultivating a vast network of supporters and members, as do IND and CBID,” McMorrow says. “But we lacked the energy New Kings has.”
New Kings’ first test as an effective political club came shortly after their founding, when they got more than 100 people to run for seats on the county committee. Two years later, in 2010, they ran more candidates.
In the 2012 election, New Kings backed 260 people elected to the county committee. Their biggest, and most important, political fight still lay ahead — opposing Vito Lopez in his last-ditch bid for City Council in the 2013 city election.
By then, Lopez’s power had rapidly deteriorated, completely independent of the New Kings’ efforts. Two female staffers accused Lopez of sexual harassment in a lawsuit that sparked an ethics investigation, which revealed he had settled additional, similar allegations in out-of-court settlements. He did not run for party chairman in 2012, and after being stripped of his State Assembly committee chairmanship and censured, he resigned his Assembly seat in May 2013.
But he decided, even with a heavily tarnished reputation, to run for a City Council seat representing parts of Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Queens. His opponent, Antonio Reynoso, was chief of staff to current City Council member, Diana Reyna — who, incidentally, was a former ally of Lopez’s.
New Kings threw all their energy into Reynoso’s campaign, adopting a campaign strategy new to Brooklyn: not just connecting with voters already likely to support Reynoso, but knocking on as many doors as they could, engaging with older and more moderate Democrats who had likely voted for Lopez in the past. They also reached out to people long written off as unlikely to vote. They thereby expanded the number and demographic of people voting in the primary. Reynoso trounced Lopez, getting 49 percent of the vote compared to Lopez’s 37 percent. The same strategy was used to the same success for Carlos Menchacha, who won a council seat representing Sunset Park, despite running against an opponent who was well funded by real estate and business interests.
These days, when people talk about Vito Lopez, it is as if they were giving an oral recitation of his obituary. It is as if his name and influence have been erased from Brooklyn Democratic politics, the same way the pharaoh Hatshepsut’s name was erased from public monuments in ancient Egypt.
To be sure, Lopez’s candidacy was weakened by the sex scandals and his growing reputation for unsavory politicking. But his defeat by a dues-paying member of the New Kings Democrats proved to any last skeptics that the club is more than a group of young idealists.
Many reform-minded Democrats relish, in one way or another, Lopez’s political demise and the way New Kings has created a new space for consensus-building and airing various ideas. During the New Kings’ anniversary party, State Assemblyman Joe Lentol, who has represented his North Brooklyn district since 1972, summed up how many politicians feel. “We’ve lived in a political world for the past several years that has been dominated by fear and intimidation,” he said. “I bought into that for a long time. I guess I’m here to publicly apologize for that.”
New Kings and members of the Brooklyn Reform Coalition worked with Simon to draft rules changes to county committee that were recently adopted. Cowherd, who was elected to his own county committee seat in the most recent election, is now a member of the county committee’s Rules subcommittee, which was reconstituted for the first time in years by the county committee’s new chairman, Frank Seddio.
Seddio, a former assemblyman and surrogate court judge, was an ally of Lopez. But he also has a reputation for maintaining respectful relationships with party members of different ideologies.
He knows he has a lot of damage control to do. “I was born for this job,” Seddio told me the night of the New Kings’ party. He’s been involved with Brooklyn politics since the 1960s, and he says that Meade Esposito, Howard Golden, and Bernard Catcher, a famed Democratic district leader and power broker, were mentors.
When he took the microphone in front of a bar full of people mostly under the age of 30, he struck a conciliatory note of cooperation, referring to Brooklyn’s Democratic party as a “big family.”
“My job is to bring us all together,” he said. “What I see in this room … is the future of Brooklyn.”
He’s quick to dispel the notion that the party operates like a machine, saying that the county’s committee is democratically elected and representative of the electorate. Its main goal, he says, is to elect Democrats and fulfill the goals of the party. “It makes things happen in the borough,” he says, whether those things are political in nature — such as electing particular candidates — or related to affecting social policy.
He reminisces about a time during Ed Koch’s mayoral administration when the speaker of the Assembly, the Senate majority leader, the City Council speaker and a large number of city commissioners all came from Brooklyn, influencing the future of New York City.
“That was a good example of what Brooklyn should be,” he says. “Right now, we have to rebuild what we had.”
“We need to get back to that and help people who have been shut out of the government process, and open those doors again to offer positions to people qualified to do that,” he says. “It’s about participation. It’s about having a seat at the table. I’d like to be a leader to make sure that door stays open.”
One of Seddio’s first acts as leader was doing away with at-large membership on the Executive Committee. And Owens says the Executive Committee is meeting every two months, more frequently than it ever did under Lopez. “It’s a huge difference,” Owens says. “He listens to people. Frank is not imposing his will.”
If that weren’t change enough, he’s working with Owens — one of Lopez’s biggest critics — to write a resolution asking New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to help Brooklyn’s hospitals, many of which face closure because of unstable financing, remain open.
They expect to deliver the resolution to Cuomo by the end of this week. “We are going to present a unified front to the governor,” Seddio says. “That is something we’ve never done before.”
Seddio says he’s not always going to agree with reformers, but in his mind, they are as much a part of the party as more moderate members, if only because inclusion creates a unified and influential party.
McMorrow thinks the reforms pushed by the Brooklyn Reform Coalition and adopted by the county committee will make it less likely that future chairmen could behave like Lopez.
“In the most recent election, [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg has created a space where voters said, ‘No more Bloombergs,’” Owens says. “People are now in a place where they’re saying, ‘No more Vitos.’”
In the coming years, the Brooklyn Reform Coalition plans to continue pushing for reforms. “It takes a chorus of people in order to push for all these changes,” McMorrow says. “I was amazed at how well we worked together, through consensus and bringing together our perspective talents and skills that complimented each other.”
“Individual clubs can have a good impact in their local area,” Alex Low, New Kings’ current president, says. “Together, we will impact the agenda of the borough and the city a lot more. We have great power in numbers.”
Cowherd intends to use his position on the Rules Committee to seek changes to how Kings County’s judges are selected. And New Kings is already eyeing an unspecified number of City Council, Assembly, and Senate seats that it will target in the next election season. Like any other political club, survival depends on membership and winning elections.
“If they do that, they’re cemented. They have to deliver,” Owens says. “That sounds very political and very old-school, but that’s the way to do it. You can’t run people for [office] without some type of disciplined, organized organization.”
What Owens is describing, essentially, is a club that operates as part of county politics instead of outside of it — an operation that can easily turn into a machine, if not monitored closely. Cowherd and Low are cognizant of the slippery slope their club can go down. “With any anti-establishment club, when you start off, if you see something that is wrong with the system, you have your fixes. You have your fixes, and you fight for them. We’ve done that,” Low says. “As long as the county party … continues in good-faith efforts to enact reforms that we implemented, then it’s only right for us to continue cooperating with them.”
“I think that right now, we are having a little bit of soul searching on how we continue to keep our edge now that we have been granted some access,” Cowherd says. “I’m not sure if whether it will completely change things. We want to continue being a gadfly, a bit provocative, and continue to try to educate people in local politics.”
Seddio thinks the more New Kings succeeds at helping elect district leaders, Assembly members, and other elected officials, the more “they’ll become part of the regulars.”
Reform movements have been folded into the larger operation of Brooklyn politics before. In the 1960s, during the first wave of reform, a number of reformers created the Kings County Democratic Coalition, an umbrella organization that coordinated the efforts of the borough’s clubs. The coalition supported a number of African-American and Latino candidates, who’d been shut out of the party at the time. The coalition, says Peter Weiss, one of the coalition’s co-founders, also “brought a lot of issues” to the county committee that would reform how county politics worked — including the creation of screening panels for selecting judges, which are still used today.
But the organization disbanded a little over ten years ago, partially because its leaders got busy with other parts of their life and struggled to attract younger members. Weiss says many involved became “regulars.”
“As reformers become powerful, they become regulars,” he says. “Clubs became more mainstream.”
Owens, who’s been involved in politics since his late father, Major Owens, was elected to the State Senate in the 1970s, says New Kings has set an important precedent by having a heavy presence in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. “We didn’t have that before,” he says, speculating that it will help the reform movement spread its influence into North Brooklyn. Their other biggest contribution, in Owens’s mind, is getting young people excited about local politics and joining political clubs.
Talking about the increasing importance of younger voters in elections and campaigning, Seddio says that the New Kings Democrats, their membership, and the ideals they represent “are the future of the party.”
“It’s only a good thing that New Kings Democrats came into existence,” Owens says. “What we need to do is sustain it. And that’s hard.”
Correction (Dec. 5, 2013): An earlier version of this article stated that Clarence Norman has been in jail since 2007. Norman was actually paroled in 2011.