Life and loss in the club scene

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One was founded in May, the other dates to the 1950s — and the birth of the new political club has placed its hallowed older rival in peril


  • The first membership meeting of the East River Democratic Club, founded in May by defectors from the Lenox Hill Democratic Club, was held July 12 in a co-working space on East 86th Street. Photo: Patrick Bobilin

  • Three of the leaders of the new created East River Democratic Club, all of them defectors from the Lenox Hill Democratic Club, gather petition signatures on the East Side. From left to right, Patrick Bobilin, Josh Kravitz, AJ Handler and Bobilin's dog, Ghostface. Photo: Patrick Bobilin

It isn’t every day that a new Democratic political clubhouse springs into existence on the Upper East Side.

Rarer still, the East River Democratic Club has swiftly moved to position itself as a force to be reckoned with in city and state electoral politics.

Its emergence has also delivered a political body blow to one of the Silk Stocking District’s most venerable clubs.

The Lenox Hill Democratic Club has suffered multiple defections, losing both leaders and members to the upstart over the past three months.

“We searched for greener pastures,” said Alec Hartman, the 32-year-old president of the new club and a former member of its storied rival.

“But this isn’t only about Lenox Hill,” he quickly added. “We believe there’s a better way to do things than the status quo.”

Based in the 76th Assembly District — which runs from 61st Street to 92nd Street east of Third Avenue with some cutouts — the club overlaps much of the territory of both Lenox Hill and the Four Freedoms Democratic Club, which itself arrived on the scene in 2014.

The traditional club model can involve multi-hour meetings, a modest dues structure, an unfocused agenda and a fair amount of bickering. By contrast, the East River Democrats pledge 90-minute meetings, free membership, a succinct agenda and a dose of civility and accountability.

“We thought we could do better in terms of organization, timeliness and effectiveness,” Hartman said.

Indeed, those qualities were in evidence at a co-working space on East 86th Street on August 9 when the club convened its second membership meeting and passed the first resolution in its three-month-old history.

By a show of hands, members voted to endorse Zephyr Teachout’s candidacy in the Democratic primary for state attorney general — while also criticizing the frontrunner, Public Advocate Letitia (Tish) James, for taking big bucks from real estate interests she’d have to regulate as AG.

“A lot of people in this room have knocked on doors,” said Jill Eisner, an East Side Democratic district leader and ex-member of Lenox Hill in the discussion preceding the vote. “By endorsing her, our club will become her ground troops.”

The resolution’s sponsor was community organizer Patrick Bobilin, the vice president of East River and a former Lenox Hill member who had unsuccessfully challenged City Council Member Ben Kallos in last year’s Democratic primary.

A member of the Democratic Socialists of America who is running for a post on the State Democratic Committee, which helps shape the party’s platform, Bobilin sketched out the club’s “material commitment” to the Teachout campaign:

A couple of “phone-banking events” to bring out the vote; canvassing to solicit political support simultaneous to efforts on behalf of other endorsed candidates; and the inclusion of Teachout’s name on palm cards to be distributed between now and the September 13 primary.

That kind of politicking is the bread-and-butter of the political club, which traditionally gathers signatures to put candidates on the ballot, runs get-out-the-vote drives, recruits poll workers for Election Day, selects candidates for the judiciary — and gets its hands dirty in party-building work.

The Lenox Hill Democratic Club has done all that since it was founded in 1956 as an anti-Tammany Hall reform club by volunteers from the East Side who had worked on Democrat Adlai Stevenson’s losing campaign against President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Among the politicians it helped anoint was Carolyn Maloney, who was first elected to the City Council in 1982 before moving up to Congress in 1992.

And old-timers still talk about the “Bobby Beer Bash” of October 1964 when Lenox Hill members sipped suds with Robert F. Kennedy, then running for a U.S. Senate seat from New York, in their old clubhouse at 424 East 71st St.

Despite an illustrious track record, Lenox Hill, fairly or not, had become known in political circles as an older club with aging members, though it had tried, with modest success, to recruit younger members.

In any event, the breaking point came at a contentious Lenox Hill meeting on May 16 at the Church of the Holy Trinity on East 88th Street — the details of which have yet to be fully disclosed on the record by either club — when Josh Kravitz, a co-district leader with Eisner on the East Side, publicly announced he was leaving the club.

Several other Lenox Hill members quickly followed. One week later, on May 23, the East River Democratic Club was founded, and its first membership meeting was held on July 12.

The new club’s 11-member executive committee is almost entirely made up of defectors from the old club.

“We wanted a blank slate,” Kravitz said. “We wanted to start afresh, to start anew, and this was the opportunity to do so.” Saying he wanted to be “diplomatic” and “amp down” tensions, he didn’t elaborate about the flare-up on the record.

A district leader is an elected but unpaid volunteer political-party position within a state Assembly District, and having district leaders as voting members is deemed critical to a club’s viability. Once both Kravitz and Eisner had exited Lenox Hill, its position was substantially weakened.

In fact, the New York County Democratic Committee no longer lists Lenox Hill in its online listing of Democratic clubs, though it has added the East River Democratic Club.

“For 62 years, the Lenox Hill Democratic Club has supported reform Democratic values on the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island, and it will continue to do so,” said Zarah Levin-Fragasso, the club’s president, in a statement.

She did not respond to several follow-up messages asking about her club’s being dropped from the Manhattan Democratic Party’s listing of recognized clubhouses.

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