Young Dems Meet In Sunnyside
The Anorac Young Democrats’ clubhouse at 45-23 47th St. in Sunnyside has photographs on its walls from the 1920s through the era of Congressmember Tom Manton a half-century and more later, so it gives the impression of having been around for awhile but also of living on memories in recent years. An anecdote by a speaker at its recruitment meeting last week confirmed that impression, but the meeting itself indicated that the young Democrats now in charge are hard at work trying to generate a revival in the old place.
The speakers were District Leader Costa Constantinides, a candidate for the City Council seat held by the termed-out Peter Vallone Jr. and five members of a panel seated at the rear of the hall. Constantinides related that he was a Queens College senior in 2004, managing a toy store. He was not politically involved but decided to take a look at involvement by volunteering to work for the Kerry presidential campaign in Pennsylvania. The following year he worked for Congressmember Anthony Weiner in the mayoral primary and the year after that, while in law school, worked on a congressional campaign in Westchester. He told the audience that “I didn’t know what I was doing,” but kept at it anyway. His political education was enhanced by working in “a lot of races you probably haven’t heard of”, and by “knocking on every door of every city council district save one in Queens.” He also worked to bring Anorac back from its state of near-disappearance, banding with four others to become its new face. (He recalled recruitment meetings where he and his comrades hoped that each person coming through the doorway was there to see them and hadn’t just wandered in by mistake.) Those years of work made him a party leader in Astoria and head of the Democratic Lawyers Council, and gave him the confidence to run this year for that open council seat. By “putting yourself in a position to do good things,” he said to the evening’s visitors, “you’ll get recognized.”
The panelists who followed Constantinides had much the same to say, having come into politics at ground level too. They were introduced by Hersh Parekh of Anorac, who asked how many of them majored in political science in college and got five raised hands. Krista Brenner was the first in alphabetical order, followed by Jonathan Chung, Alexis Confer, Jorge Fanjul and Lydon Sleeper.
Brenner is currently head of a two-person consulting firm, Bliss Street Strategies, but got her political start in a campaign upstate and also worked for state Senator Michael Gianaris, then a member of the state Assembly. She got an MBA in Switzerland, worked at the United Nations as an intern and also worked in Peru. Back in this country, she was a translator until she got bored with it and returned to politics, which she said can generate “a high” that requires no controlled substances and which she found utterly lacking in her previous work. Chung is chief of staff to Peter Vallone Jr., now running for Queens borough president as his term in the council expires. He joined the office of Congressmember Gregory Meeks in Brooklyn after college, turned to the private sector for some time and then signed on with Vallone. As the councilmember and BP candidate’s chief of staff, Chung said, he is responsible “for everything”. Confer worked in Kenya after college, and back in this country worked at the Union Square Business Improvement District. She ran a council campaign for Vallone Jr. and was a chief aide to Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer before leaving in 2012 to join President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in Pennsylvania. After working on his second-term inauguration she joined Mayors Against Illegal Guns and currently labors there with an eye to passing firearms legislation eventually, in such states as Ohio and North Carolina.
Fanjul is another everything man, as chief of staff to John Liu, city comptroller and candidate for mayor. He has years of experience in finance (at J.P. Morgan Chase) but keeps coming back to politics, he said, because he ran for and won office in college and found he liked it. Politics is infectious, he said; his financial career has mainly been a means to repay his education loans. Of his current status, he said, “You have a title, but a title never encompasses all that you do.”
The last panelist, Sleeper, currently assistant public advocate in Public Advocate (and mayoral contender) Bill de Blasio’s office, used to be chief of staff for Councilmember Liz Crowley and then chief of staff in New York for Weiner.
Asked to give advice to the potential staffers in the room, Fanjul said that “as long as you’re attentive, you’ll go far”. Be inquisitive too: he and the others all said that young political workers are given an abundance of tasks, assignments and errands, often in a hurry. They can and do become confused and therefore should ask for explanations. Confer said young volunteers should be ready to do anything, and hers will find that she’s ready to pitch in and work with the rest of them. She said to volunteer your intellect too, because your ideas might be quite helpful. Chung stressed being loyal and trustworthy. Brenner said “keep your word”, finish your assignments and don’t try bonding with the candidates; photo-bombing being especially offensive. Sleeper said simply to work hard, and the others agreed, Fanjul adding that the hours are brutal, sometimes consuming half a day or more.
Questions from the audience began with one about handling a difficult staff member. Don’t single anyone out in front of others, Brenner advised, take that person aside and try to improve the situation. Those on the lower end should react to any perceived pressure gracefully, since nobody will appreciate outbursts and badmouthing as a reaction. Sleeper said the unfortunate staffer with a bad boss should bear with it, work as hard as possible and make friends among fellow workers. Asked about compromising one’s principles by working for a candidate with unattractive beliefs, Sleeper said you should concentrate on your agreements and try to stay away from disagreements, citing his experience working with a pro-death penalty candidate though he is fervently opposed to it. Agree to disagree, Brenner advised. At the same time, Chung said you should ask yourself if you can compromise—and if you can’t, don’t.
When the panel was asked to wrap it up with some succinct advice about being a political worker, Confer led off by saying that while you’re working, make friendships and connections. Since that was advice that had been given previously, it evidently bore repeating, as did everyone’s message about working hard, to which Fanjul added: be willing to work for nothing. Brenner advised the young staff worker to “get into the trenches” with your fellow workers; if you do, your superiors will remember you.
At the close of the meeting, none of the guests could say they hadn’t been informed, and there must have been at least a few of them who were inspired to swell the Anorac ranks for the political season that has already begun.