When Ramdat Singh and Abigail Martin were knocking on doors this past spring to become the new district leaders for the 81st Assembly district, they campaigned on the idea of increasing voter participation in the greater Riverdale and Kingsbridge areas.
“I think there are factions of voters in our districts who feel disenfranchised, and feel left out of the conversation,” Martin told The Riverdale Press in the lead up to the election. “I think (there’s) a sense that the system is rigged — that their vote, an individual vote, doesn’t necessarily matter. That’s a big issue.”
Just three months into their tenure and the newly-elected district leaders are already trying to make good on their campaign promise. On Monday evening, the duo announced at The Bronx Public that they are forming the Unity Democratic Club to bring new energy and leadership to the party in the northwest Bronx.
“We want to engage the electorate. So it’s not just about endorsing, it’s about addressing the voter apathy that permeates the Bronx,” Martin said to a cheering crowd that included Sen. Gustavo Rivera, Sen. Robert Jackson and former Assembly candidate Jessica Altagracia Woolford.
On the campaign trail, “People said to us, ‘I went to that other club and they turned me away. I didn’t feel welcome,’” Martin told the audience. “Our job is to serve the community. And the community has expressed a need. And their need is that they want a place — a Democratic club — where everybody feels welcome.”
That “other” club Martin referenced is, of course, the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club — indisputably the most active and powerful political club in the northwest Bronx
And while unity is the name of the new club, and inclusivity is the game, there is one group of Democrats in the northwest Bronx that may be not welcome: those who are a part of that “other” club. “You can only be a member of one club in the northwest Bronx,” said Betsey Knapp, who is serving as the acting president of the Unity Democratic Club.
So in order to be a part of the Unity club, you can’t be a part of the Ben Franklin club, Knapp told The Press shortly after the evening’s speeches. “We don’t want them to flood our club,” she said. “They are not open. People felt like they could not join.”
When asked for clarification on Tuesday morning, district leader Singh said that this non-compete policy is not set in stone, but is something the club is considering. While the organization’s preliminary bylaws have been written, they still need to be ratified by the club’s members.
Ben Franklin president Virginia Krompinger, after learning about the club’s formation, told The Press that her organization has no such restriction. “If another group would exclude people based on membership in other Democratic clubs or our club in particular, it seems counter to Democratic principles,” she said. “BFRDC has prided itself on including people in its meetings, even those who have actively worked against the club and the club’s endorsed candidates in the past.”
While the Unity club mulls over this non-compete policy, its soon-to-be members have been competing with those at the Ben Franklin club for quite some time. In the June election for the district leader spots — which have almost exclusively been held by those endorsed by the Ben Franklin Club for quite some time — Singh and Martin faced off against a slate of candidates put up by the Ben Franklin Club.
For the male position, Bill Weitz — the longtime chief of staff to former Congressman Eliot Engel — lost to Singh by just 373 votes. Martin, who ran for city council in a 2021 special election, had the more decisive victory of the evening, beating out Sara Liss by 1,893 votes.
Singh and Martin’s victories caught the Ben Franklin Club off guard.
“They worked very hard for this election,” Michael Heller, a former president of the Franklin club, said days after the race. “We won’t be caught flat-footed again like this. That I can assure you.” Heller added at the time that he “didn’t have a clue” why Singh and Martin were running other than to be “in opposition to the Ben Franklin Club.”
Yet on Monday evening, Singh and Martin were clear about why they ran in the first place. “The founding members of this club represent a spectrum of Democratic ideologies. This club is an experiment. It is as eclectic as the district is,” Martin said. “We will work together to ensure that our democratic values are represented and that there’s transparency here in the democratic process.”
“The mission of the Unity Democratic club is to be the voice of its membership,” Knapp added. “The club recognizes there is strength in unity and we will work to achieve unity across the Northwest Bronx.”
The name of the group was taken from the Bronx Unity Coalition, a group started by Knapp and Norwood resident Danielle Guggenheim almost a year ago. Guggenheim is serving as the acting vice president of the new club.
Even though the group was formed just earlier this week, the Unity club is already getting down to business. On Oct. 23 and Oct. 30 they will canvass in the Hudson Valley for Congressman Pat Ryan, who is facing off against Republican Marc Molinaro, in a closely watched race.
The club’s first meeting is scheduled for Oct. 27.
“You’ve had political organizations that are organized around the notion that ‘it’s just an us’ thing. And you’re not included,” Rivera said that night. “It’s like a reelection club.”
Yet he gave a full-throated endorsement of this new club, saying, “They believe we can make our neighborhood better,” he said. “We can actually involve ourselves and try to advocate on behalf of our neighborhood — and not just do it sitting quietly behind an elected.”
When asked if he plans on joining the club, Rivera said absolutely.