First Reform Club
Founded in 1949, Lexington was the first Reform Club, serving as a model for the movement that came to dominate Democratic politics in Manhattan. The Lex Club was largely the result of the experiences of a group of young college and law school graduates who wanted to get involved in the Democratic Party, and had their eyes opened – fast – about politics at the local level.
They started by joining the Grover Cleveland Club, the “official” club for the Upper East Side Assembly District (then known as the 9th) where most of them lived. The people who ran it were happy to take their dues. But that was about it. They were “allowed” to campaign for Democratic candidates. Most disturbing to the newcomers was that the average member was totally unaware of how any decisions were made. This was a prerogative of the leaders, who made all the decisions. The rank and file need not ask questions.
Different Kind of Political Club
This experience convinced the young people that the Grover Cleveland Club was totally out of step with the times. They were determined to create a political club that would be completely different, both in concept and in operation. Openness was the key ingredient of the Lexington Democratic Club – and its sister clubs that sprouted up in other parts of the county. Membership was open to all. Decisions were made at open meetings of the membership.
Better Way to Choose Judges
Since most founders of the Lex Club were lawyers, they were particularly appalled by the way judges were selected in old-line clubs. Once again, the modus operandi was selection by political leaders in a back room. It was a way to reward people who had served the party faithful, not a way to improve the quality of justice administered in the county.
From the beginning the Lex Club involved its members in the selection of judicial candidates. In time Club leaders were in the forefront of the creation of the panel system, which became the accepted Reform approach to judicial selection. Under the panel system a group of independent experts is put together – outside the clubhouse – to screen applicants. The panel then recommends candidates (three for every opening) to the participating clubs, who proceed to meet – openly – and make endorsement decisions.
Eventually the panel system became the vehicle for judicial selection, not only in reform clubs but for countywide seats as well. Certainly a major accomplishment of the Lex Club – and the Reform Movement – has been the improvement in the quality of the judiciary in New York County.
Taking Over Leadership
Lex Club’s membership in the early years burgeoned, but the members understood that the Club would not be able to effect real change until it became the “official” club in the Assembly District. That meant that its candidates for District Leader were successful at polls. The Lex Club, therefore, had to field candidates for District Leader and beat the old-line incumbents. Unlike today when District Leaders are elected directly by the voters, in 1949 they were elected by the local county committeemen. In order to take over, then, the Lexington Club had to elect enough County Committee members, election district by election district within the Assembly District, to seat their District Leader candidates.
In the 1953 Primary, its third attempt, the Lex Club became the first reform club in New York City to elect District Leaders. In 1955, The Lex Club was instrumental in changing the procedure for electing District Leaders from election by the County Committee to direct election by Democratic primary voters. The Lex Club also led the way by not allowing District Leaders to serve on the State Committee.
The Lex Club did more than pave the way for the Reform Movement. It registered significant successes at the polls. In 1949 the Upper East Side was essentially a Republican fiefdom – and had been for decades. We had a Republican Congressman, a Republican State Senator, a Republican Assemblyman and a Republican City Councilman.
Today there isn’t a Republican in sight. In fact, the East Side has been Republican free since 2003.
Carolyn Maloney, a product of the Lexington Democratic Club, is in her ninth term as our Congresswoman. Council Members Dan Garodnick (District 4) and Ben Kallos (District 5) now serve as our representatives in city government. Liz Krueger is our State Senator and Dan Quart, a long time Lex Club member, is our Democratic Assemblymember.
Looking back The Lexington Club has every reason to be proud of its many accomplishments. It has made a large and telling contribution to Democratic politics in New York County.