There is a story they like to tell at the Lenox Hill Democratic Club, a little ruefully but with affection and good cheer, that speaks volumes about the political life of the Upper East Side. It is a story about the rain.
Longtime incumbent Democratic district leader Pauline Dana-Bashian was running for reelection in 2015. She had the backing of her venerable club, which has been electing politicians in the Silk Stocking district since 1956.
Her opponent for the district leader post was Kim Moscaritolo, former president of the newly minted Four Freedoms Democratic Club. Founded in 2014, the upstart has proved itself a potent political force ever since.
It is never easy to topple an incumbent. But come Election Day, it rained in the morning, drizzled midday, poured in the evening — and that might have made all the difference in Moscaritolo’s upset triumph.
Rainfall as kingmaker? Actually, yes. “I lost because of the rain,” Dana-Bashian says matter-of-factly. “My voters were older. She had younger people. A lot of my supporters were on walkers or canes and couldn’t get out that day.”
No surprise: A record 1.58-inch rainfall was recorded in Central Park on September 10, 2015, according to the Weather Underground — with most of the downpour coming as Democratic Party primary voters selected their district leaders for the East Side’s 76th Assembly District.
Meanwhile, Four Freedoms, which has tended to draw support from a younger demographic, was more successful in delivering its voters to the polls, helping to boost Moscaritolo comfortably over the top. Now 39 years old, the East 91st Street resident defeated Dana-Bashian, now 76, by a 480-to-316 margin out of a total of 802 votes cast.
One can always present reasons for loss, Moscaritolo argues. While she acknowledges the age differential between the two clubhouses, she adds, “You can just as easily argue that younger voters are traditionally less committed — and the rain could have kept them away, too!”
So what is a district leader anyway? It’s an elected but unpaid volunteer political-party position within a state Assembly District. Typically, there are at least two district leaders in each AD, a male co-district leader and a female co-district leader.
What do they do? They get their hands dirty in party-building work, collect signatures to put candidates on a ballot, run get-out-the-vote drives to get them elected, recruit poll workers for Election Day and perform the nuts-and-bolts chores needed to keep a party in power.
Every two years, they must stand for reelection, often facing primary challenges. That means the registered voters of a political party in a given district determine whether they get to keep or lose their seats.
It is in this arena that Lenox Hill and Four Freedoms are staging their latest battle:
Madelaine Piel — the 66-year-old president of the Lenox Hill Democrats and a former Community Board 8 member who has lived on the Upper East Side for nearly half her life — is seeking to oust Moscaritolo, who is up for reelection, as district leader in the September 12 Democratic primary.
“Go into Glaser’s Bake Shop or the Mansion Restaurant, Dorian’s Fish Market, We Deliver Videos, Sartorius Cleaners, the newsstand on 86th Street, the C-Town or the Shaggy Dog, and you’re going to find either me or my campaign literature in there — and for a very good reason,” Piel said, referring to popular local businesses along First and York Avenues.
“I’ve been a customer of those shops and stores in the neighborhood for over 20 years.”
Piel, who was schooled at the Dominican Academy on East 68th Street, is an East End Avenue resident who has lived variously in the East 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. She’s an Election Day poll inspector, ex-principal-for-a-day in the public schools, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaign volunteer in 2008 and a Clinton volunteer again in 2016.
“We’re here to engage the community in the Democratic process,” Piel declared during a campaign kickoff-cum-fundraising event for her club on August 30 at Daisy Restaurant’s Back Bar on Second Avenue and 85th Street. She noted proudly that her backers in the Back Bar hailed from Pakistan, Korea, Sweden, Germany, Venezuela and elsewhere.
Lenox Hill traces its lineage to Democrat Adlai Stevenson’s losing campaign against President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Founded as an anti-Tammany Hall reform club by ex-Stevenson volunteers from the neighborhood, it was also inspired by the crusading spirit and guiding principles of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Four Freedoms takes its name from the famous 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt speech immortalizing the “four freedoms” inherent to all mankind — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. It was founded to bring fresh blood into the party and revitalize progressive, activist East Side Democratic politics.
Lenox Hill has roughly 80 dues-paying members, while Four Freedoms has more than 100. Both clubs champion outreach to non-member Democratic voters; each charges only $20 annually for membership.
Their shared turf is the 76th Assembly District, which itself is divided into two sub-districts, Part A and Part B.
Piel and Moscaritolo are vying for the female co-district leader post in Part B, which runs from the north side of 78th Street to the south side of 92nd Street and from Third Avenue to the East River.
The challenger faces an uphill climb. The incumbent she wants to unseat, who helmed Four Freedoms in 2014, also served as president of Manhattan Young Democrats in 2012, which, as the name suggests, is geared to younger party members who age out when they hit 36.
For her efforts to bring more youth participation into Upper East Side politics, Moscaritolo was named “Manhattan’s Young Democrat of the Year” by the New York County Democratic Party in 2014.
She has also garnered an array of key endorsements from the East Side’s Democratic elite, including Rep. Carolyn Maloney, state Senator Liz Krueger, City Council member Ben Kallos and state Assembly member Rebecca Seawright.
A technical worker at Bloomberg TV, Moscaritolo had her first encounter with the East Side when she moved into the city in 2002 and lived briefly in the 92nd Street Y. After stints in Brooklyn and Staten Island, she settled in Yorkville in 2009.
Referring to Four Freedoms, she said, “We wanted to have a club that was, not younger necessarily, but that was more active, more involved in the community, more progressive. We wanted to build a larger organization that would hold more meetings and bring more people into the party and the process, and that’s what we did.”
For its part, Lenox Hill says that in the past couple of years, it has drawn younger members and supporters, and that the age differential that might have pertained back in 2015 is far less an issue today.
The challenger for the male co-district leader position in Part B, for instance, is 27-year-old Josh Kravitz, a first-time candidate who is executive vice president of the Lenox Hill Democrats — and got his start in politics as a 16-year-old intern for Sen. Chuck Schumer and a 17-year-old page for Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Born and raised in Yorkville, Kravitz is an attorney who works in his family’s federally licensed, small-business lending institution on the East Side.
The incumbent in Part B is male co-district leader Adam Roberts, a 25-year-old Four Freedoms activist who was elected as Moscaritolo’s running mate in 2015, and who also cut his political teeth working for Schumer in a high school internship.
Producer of a PBS documentary series on American foreign affairs and a former fundraiser for UJA-Federation, Roberts also worked on the political campaigns of Kallos and Comptroller Scott Stringer.
Despite differing demographics, Four Freedom and Lenox Hill share two things: a progressive political outlook and a dim view of President Donald Trump.
As Piel puts it, “When things are this low nationally you have to go local.”