History of the Downtown Independent Democrats
By Jim Stratton
Established in 1972, Downtown Independent Democrats covers one of the largest land areas of any Democratic club in Manhattan. Neighborhoods represented by the club include Battery Park City, the Financial District, TriBeCa, SoHo, West SoHo, NoHo, the Washington Square area, Washington Square Village, Silver Towers, and parts of the Lower East Side, the South Village and the East Village, as well as Governors Island.
DID is represented by seven district leaders from three assembly districts: the 66th District Part B, the 65th District Parts B and C and the 61st Assembly District Part A, as well as four state committee members, one each from Assembly Districts 65 and 66 and two from Assembly District 61.
DID is a reform Democratic club, dedicated to support progressive government and issues, help elect intelligent and honest candidates, and to support judicial candidates found Most Highly Qualified by the party's independent screening panel.
It is rare among political clubs in that political ambition has seldom been a divisive issue in DID history. Active members number more than one hundred, and traditionally its headquarters has not been a clubhouse but homes of its members.
The club has often worked peacefully with other political clubs to help elect good candidates.
In the 1950's and '60's, a New York City judge was more likely to be found on the golf links than in a courtroom. Most judges got their jobs the old-fashioned way: by giving money, and favors, to local politicos. Defendants languished in prison without their day in court. Plaintiffs waited in line. The judicial process often took years.
It was only one of the problems of old-style, "Tammany" politics that had come to wreak havoc upon the city. Political payoffs, favoritism, and patronage affected business, real estate, schools.
A spirit of reform arose in the 1950's, and was strong on Manhattan's West Side. By the late 1960's, reform-oriented political clubs were taking on entrenched "regulars" in much of Manhattan. The original Downtown Independent Democrats was put together by reformers in the South Village. Most had been members of a parent club in Greenwich Village until redistricting divided their neighborhood. Dubbed the "Charlton Street Conspiracy," they were only a tiny reform oasis in a huge downtown area.
Their turf was a largely non-residential region of factories, warehouses, and financial buildings. Politically it was dominated by "regulars" in Little Italy and the South Village.
In the late 1960's, artists began taking over empty warehouse spaces throughout the non-residential district. At first, most were much too paranoid to vote. Voter registration would have revealed their illegal homes, and brought down building inspectors to evict them
But by 1971 the influx of loft-dwellers was huge, many of them owners of their own homes and buildings. A rezoning movement had legalized artist residency in SoHo, a 43-block area of manufacturing buildings between Houston and Canal Streets, West Broadway and (roughly) Lafayette.
Everyone below Canal Street remained fair game for building inspectors. And no one, anywhere, had any idea what even the SoHo legalization portended in terms of dealing with the City leviathan.
The mood was optimistic, but pugnacious. Paranoid loft-dwellers were ready to fight for their rights.
Enter the new Downtown Independent Democrats
In 1971 two SoHo loft-dwellers decided that the area needed a strong political voice if their young district's future was to be secure. Larry Tierney and Jim Stratton joined the old DID to press the cause of the loft-dwellers. But they arrived just in time to see the club disbanded by redistricting.
Taking the old name, the two set about to organize the club around the new settlers in SoHo and south of Canal. It was 1972, when anti-Vietnam war sentiment was high. The club registered more than one thousand new voters in only a few months before the 1972 George McGovern primary.
DID put together a multi-faceted fund-raiser for McGovern in SoHo, raising more than $12,000 for the anti-war candidate. Every penny went to the national campaign. DID kept none of it.
The club didn't need it. In one previously safe "regular" election district, the primary vote was 307 to 14 in favor of reform.
In 1975 the club elected its first District Leader, Kathryn Freed, who later was elected to the City Council. After being defeated only by Term Limits, Freed was elected to the Civil Court, retiring from the court in 2021.
The new club immediately joined the New Democratic Coalition, an aggregation of reform-oriented clubs working to elect progressive candidates. A decade later the N.D.C. was put out of business by success. In the early 1980's, reformers rewrote Democratic Party rules to eliminate the last of Tammany influences, and most of Manhattan's leadership was soon working to reform guidelines.
As DID. entered the 1990's, its area ranged from western Chinatown to Battery Park City, stopping at Houston Street to the north and Lafayette Street to the east. But redistricting came again. The area below City Hall was shunted into a new Assembly District.
That lower part of the DID area was combined, non-contiguously, with the Village View area of the East Village. The result was an Executive District that had no active Democratic club within it.
Village View and Lower Manhattan activists (many of them already DID members) decided quickly to combine with the existing DID, and they have remained with the club ever since.
DID early on made close friends of its representatives: State Senator Fred Ohrenstein, Assemblyman Bill Passanante, and Congressman Ted Weiss. These three excellent lawmakers were soon joined by Councilmember Miriam Friedlander, whom the club supported early and helped to elect to nearly two decades in office.
After the death of long-time friend Ted Weiss, the club supported early, and helped to elect, Jerry Nadler to Congress in 1992.
Our club has always pressed its representatives to support good causes in our neighborhoods in exchange for our strong support for them on election day. As a result, the Washington Market Community Park was created, nurtured, and built; P.S. 234 and P.S./I.S. 89 were guided into existence; zoning was modified, landmark districts created; dozens of non-complying high-rises, discos, and other disturbances were fought throughout the district; and all with the help of DID leaders and our elected officials.
The club today continues to operate without a clubhouse, without deep-pocket financial backing, but with great trust from the thousands of residents in the multi-faceted neighborhoods it represents.