Democrats in a New York County Refuse to Pledge Loyalty to Candidates Just Because Party Endorses Them

Progressives on the Chemung County Democratic Committee viewed the proposed loyalty oath as an attempt by establishment Democrats to silence dissent.

A county Democratic committee in New York voted down an extreme proposal on Tuesday night that would have required all members to pledge loyalty to candidates endorsed by the state, local, or national party.

Progressives on the committee in Chemung County, on the Pennsylvania border, viewed the proposed loyalty pledge as an attempt by establishment Democrats to silence their dissent; they spent the week leading up to the meeting organizing opposition from members of the 20-person committee.

At the meeting, the committee voted down the oath in its current format, but did not get rid of it entirely.

“First we voted on removing that paragraph entirely, and we lost,” said Deb Lynch, first vice chair of the committee. “Then we voted on rewriting it in a way that was palatable to everyone in a month, so that’s where we’re at.”


A Chemung County Democratic Committee meeting during the summer of 2017.

Photo: Courtesy of the Chemung County Democratic Committee

The controversy started last week when Jim Carr, the party chair, sent an email to the executive committee announcing that they’d convene on Tuesday, an hour before their already-scheduled Chemung County Democrats meeting.

The agenda would consist of one thing, Carr wrote: a newly proposed code of ethics for all committee members to sign and related changes to the bylaws.

The code of ethics document, which seemed to come out of the blue, proposed that all committee members “promise to be loyal” to the Chemung County Democratic Committee “by supporting the activities and candidate endorsements made by CCDC, State or National Democratic Committees. Such examples of disloyalty include, but are not limited to, activities such as displaying political signs or other activities for candidates opposing Democratic candidates. This also includes any form of social media.”

Cindy Emmer, another Chemung County Democratic Committee member, sent the language at Carr’s request. Both Emmer and Carr sit on the New York State Democratic Committee, a body that is closely aligned with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is now facing a primary challenge from the left.

Emmer and Carr did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment.

“It’s totally undemocratic and unconstitutional to tell me I would need to support a Democrat even if they don’t display Democratic values,” Lynch said. “This has nothing to do with party loyalty — it has to do with the establishment wing of the party not understanding why some of us are still so upset about the 2016 primary.”

Loyalty oaths aren’t totally uncommon for officials who serve on political committees, but they typically bar only support for candidates outside the party. The Washington County Democratic Committee in New York, for example, recently established a policy that says all committee members must pledge to support only Democratic candidates. “That is a lot different than what’s being discussed in Chemung County,” said Jay Bellanca, first vice chair for the Washington County Democratic Committee, who reviewed the language that the Chemung County Democrats considered.

Lynch disagreed — even with the pared down Washington County version — and said she would refuse to sign any sort of loyalty oath.

The Democratic Committee in Tioga County, New York, next door to Chemung County, has also had language around “party loyalty” in its bylaws since at least 2011, but it’s not clear what this means in practice. Reached for comment, Diane Lechner, the committee chair, would not answer The Intercept’s questions about how her committee defines loyalty.

Some New York progressive activists suspect the new Chemung County loyalty oath can be traced back to the governor. Bellanca, of the Washington County Democrats, noted that the timing of the ethics directive came down in the middle of a big gubernatorial primary contest and just weeks before the state’s Democratic convention. “They’re basically trying to close the primary,” he said. “It looks like they’re trying to say, ‘You can’t support anyone but who the group supports, even if they’re a Democrat.'”

“I’m very familiar with the New York state Democratic Party, and everything is structured in a way to benefit Andrew Cuomo and his agenda,” said Nomiki Konst, a Bernie Sanders-appointee to the Democratic National Committee’s Unity Reform Commission. “He uses fear tactics and deal-making, and the New York state committee is made up entirely of Cuomo loyalists.”

Geoff Berman, executive director of the New York State Democratic Committee, did not return a request for comment and neither did Dani Lever, Cuomo’s press secretary.

Mary Thorpe, who serves on the Chemung County executive committee, spent the last week distraught over how this language would affect her involvement in the local party. Thorpe also leads her local chapter of the New York Progressive Action Network, which has already endorsed Nixon in the gubernatorial race. “I’m just so upset about this whole thing,” she told The Intercept a few days after receiving Carr’s email.

The state’s Democratic convention will be held from May 23 to 24, and the gubernatorial primary is set for September 13.

Correction: May 10, 2018
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story stated that Jay Bellanca is the second vice chair of the Washington County Democratic Committee in New York. The story has been revised to reflect that he is the first vice chair of the committee.

Join The Conversation