Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Sometimes You're Held Accountable
A rising star finally falls
There aren’t many reasons to know who Diana Richardson is. A Democrat, she never won an election beyond the State Assembly in Brooklyn. She was not a national leader. She did not enjoy any particular clout in the state legislature. She never found her way to a sizable social media following.
But she was, especially before the rise of the Democratic Socialists America, something of a hero for progressives looking to strike back against the conservative forces that had dominated the state for many years. Richardson was elected to the Assembly in 2015, winning a chaotic special election on the Working Families Party line. The Brooklyn Democratic Party, for various and confusing reasons, could not get their candidate on the Democratic line, so Richardson won an election against machine-backed contender on another third party line. Nevertheless, it was a significant win for the left because Richardson ran a campaign on rejecting real estate developer donations and standing up for tenants. At the time, with the real estate lobby ascendant, it was a novel campaign strategy that paid off. Richardson won and went to Albany.
On Monday, the news broke that she was being fired from her patronage post at Brooklyn Borough Hall, the one she abandoned an Assembly seat for earlier this year. Richardson was deputy borough president to Antonio Reynoso, who holds the mostly ceremonial—but politically relevant—job as Brooklyn borough president. Reynoso’s predecessor, of course, was Eric Adams, and Reynoso will probably run for mayor or seek another office in the future. There’s a decent argument for abolishing the office of borough president altogether, since it plays no meaningful role in governing the city, and the well-paid deputies are even less relevant. But Reynoso’s hiring of Richardson was seen as the foundation of a progressive alliance and perhaps something of an olive branch to Black voters in Central Brooklyn.
Richardson’s firing is remarkable because it’s very difficult to be dismissed from a job that has such a limited impact. Showing up to the office occasionally and saying hello is probably enough to keep collecting a taxpayer-funded paycheck. But Richardson was reportedly physically and verbally abusive. She cursed out staffers, stored vodka in her office, and almost came to blows with the head of an anti-violence program. She was told to work remotely because her behavior was alienating, even frightening. Simple tasks like email and scheduling were beyond her, but she had plenty of time to berate people when she came to Borough Hall.
None of this was surprising if you paid any attention to Richardson. In 2017, she was charged with misdemeanor assault, harassment and menacing for allegedly beating her 12-year-old son with a broomstick. She confessed to beating him and defended the use of corporal punishment in a video posted to Facebook. “If I was not elected and I tap up my son’s ass, I’ll just call it what it is. I beat him,” she said. “And I grew up receiving plenty lickings and I’m doing real good right now. So don’t come to judge me and judge my family. I’m sick of it. It is disrespectful.” She also, unrelatedly, went on a tirade against the speaker of the Assembly, screaming at him over funding for a project in her district.
The reason I’m bothering with any of this is that there is no way Richardson would lose her job as a state assemblywoman if she berated staff or even attempted to punch out a community leader. Child abuse certainly didn’t lead to the loss of her seat. Elected officials, of course, are held accountable by voters, but it’s worth remembering that there is little that is ever done about politicians who are too egotistical or unstable to treat their staff or colleagues with any dignity. Expulsions for behavioral sins are rare; the New York City Council booted Andy King, but most other serial harassers and malcontents remain in elected office until they lose an election or decide to retire. Staff themselves, for the most part, do not enjoy union protections or any serious oversight from HR departments. The politician, in many cases, is HR.
From a career standpoint, Richardson’s gravest error was leaving the State Assembly. Had she stayed in Albany, she could threaten to fight nonprofit bosses, beat her child, defend anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and stop checking email for as long as she wanted. She certainly could have kept drinking on the job. Who was going to stop her? Even Heastie, offended by her rant, didn’t move to eject her from the body. He verbally censured her and moved on. If Richardson’s staff lived in terror of her, they had no recourse other than to seek employment elsewhere. Once Richardson decided to be in the employ of someone else, her fate was sealed. She answered to Borough President Reynoso, not an election cycle, and her antics grew to be too much.
It’s worth considering, too, how Richardson was able to persist for this long. The progressive movement largely covered for her because her politics were considered “good.” Had she been a Republican, her defense of child abuse would have drawn the ire of almost every liberal activist, elected official, and journalist in New York. Imagine, for a moment, the reaction to someone like Lee Zeldin or Nicole Malliotakis declaring in a Facebook live rant it was fine to “tap up my son’s ass.” Or imagine, even, if a less popular local Democrat went on such a tirade, like Erik Dilan or Elizabeth Crowley.
All political factions close ranks. Donald Trump backers circle the wagons around Trump and his ilk to a revolting degree. They explain away every Republican insanity, like that Joe Biden stole the election from an unpopular president who deeply alienated at least half the country. The left is not so cultish, but it has a habit of trying to save those who aren’t worth saving on the grounds of politics or identity. Richardson came up in the correct circles, battled the correct people, and checked the correct boxes. She was an enemy of big Real Estate and the Brooklyn Democratic machine. Progressives, whites in particular, saw much to celebrate, and looked away as her transgressions piled up. Reynoso certainly did, until Richardson’s derangement blew up his own office. He was forced to decide she wasn’t worth protecting any longer.
Political Currents by Ross Barkan is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.