When he moved to Riverdale in the early 1950s, Frank Montero didn’t exactly blend in with his neighbors.
His parents — a baseball player and school teacher — had been one of the first black families to move into Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where he was “regularly beaten by his white classmates,” New York Times reporter Robert Mcg. Thomas Jr., would later write.
He would grow up making a name for himself with the National Urban League, and it was there he met his wife, heiress Anne Mather, who would bring him to the Bronx.
Living in Riverdale opened some new doors for Montero, and put him on the radar of some of politics’ biggest families with names like Roosevelt and Kennedy. He also made friends rather quickly, and by the early 1960s, he was working closely with Peter and Cora Weiss, as well as Mary Hamanaka. Together they created what would become a program that brought bright African students to study in American universities.
One of those students was a young Kenyan named Barack Obama Sr., who found himself going to school in Hawaii. While there, he met a woman named Ann Dunham, and well, you know the story.
But Montero was instrumental in another group. In 1959, he worked with Bob Rubinstein — then a recent Manhattan transplant active in Eleanor Roosevelt’s Lexington Democratic Club — and Riverdale Press reporter Stan Cohen to create a club designed to fight what appeared to be a resurging Tammany Hall political machine.
They named it the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club, which continues to define politics in this part of the Bronx even today.
At its heart, the Ben Franklin Club is all volunteers, ready to do what it takes to get good Democrats elected.
Yet, they get little say on who those “good Democrats” are. When it comes to presidential races, club members are free to support and volunteer for any Democrat they choose. Even Councilman Andrew Cohen was out recently, collecting signatures for Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar.
Once the party nominates someone, the whole club gets together and fights for that nominee.
But when it comes to candidates closer to home, that freedom ends. Club members are forced to choose between Democrats in contested primary races, and if you end up on the wrong side, you’re out of luck.
It’s machine politics at its worst. It’s what Eleanor Roosevelt fought against. It’s what Bob Rubinstein fought against. It’s what Frank Montero fought against.
A Democrat is a Democrat. No one should be pushed into backing one over another, just because a club told them to. No one should be shunned because the machine doesn’t like the candidate.
It’s not that the club is bad. It’s not. But this has been the “way it is” for so long, many have been blinded from what it should be.
Machines shouldn’t pick candidates. Voters should. Once the Ben Franklin Club rediscovers that, once it opens its doors again to inclusivity, many of its current problems will finally go away.