Thursday, February 12, 2009

Bare-Knuckled Ballot Challenges Jumble Queens, Staten Island Races by Sal Gentile - City Hall News

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The hardest thing about getting elected to the City Council in this month’s special elections may be keeping the election lawyers at bay.

At a rowdy Board of Elections hearing earlier this month, a swarm of high-powered attorneys tangled over obscure statutes, mangled signatures and fudged math.

In the end, seven of the 22 candidates who filed to run in the three special elections were knocked off the ballot, and several more withstood aggressive challenges.

All of the hardball left at least one race—the one to succeed Queens State Sen. Joseph Addabbo—without a clear front-runner. There, former Addabbo aide Frank Gulluscio was removed when Democratic district leader Geraldine Chapey objected to his petitions and those of two other of her opponents.

Her attorney, bulldozing election lawyer and former State Sen. Martin Connor, single-handedly cleared half the field, arguing at one point that the five-point star Gulluscio had chosen as a symbol for his ballot line was illegal because it too closely resembled the symbol of the Democratic Party. Special elections by law must be non-partisan, and party affiliations cannot be evident in any way.

“She brought out the juggernaut,” said Eric Ulrich, a 24-year-old Republican district leader and one of the few candidates who remains in the race.

Former police officer Glenn DiResto and former real estate broker Sam DiBernardo were also bounced from the ballot, leaving Chapey in the enviable position, her opponents say, of facing off against a Republican in a three-way race along with perennial candidate Lew Simon.

But if anything, her hard-charging tactics may have further fractured a race that was already divided along regional lines.

Chapey is from Rockaway, an area that has been isolated geographically and politically from the rest of the district. Some mainlanders have even said they would rather a Republican represent them than someone from the other side of Jamaica Bay.

“I think she may have done me a favor in getting Gulluscio off the ballot, because now there’s another mainlander, so to speak, out of the race,” Ulrich said. “And I can imagine that a good number of his supporters will switch their support to me.”

Chapey, for her part, refused even to entertain the notion of a regional divide and said her ballot objections were based on legal grounds.

“Can you tell me what’s different about a person who lives in Rockaway over someone who lives in Howard Beach?” she said.

And while Chapey’s challenges may have positioned her as the unexpected front-runner, those who she tripped up with her legal maneuverings have said they will return for the September primary.

DiResto, the former police officer, said to count him among the ones who will be back. He was removed from the ballot after Connor objected to his party line, “Families First,” because it was too similar to the name of an existing party, the Working Families Party.

Asked if his supporters would turn to Chapey now that he was out of the race, DiResto laughed, and said, “No.”

But the election in Queens is not the only one in which the field has been jumbled by bare-knuckled petition challenges.

In the race to succeed Rep. Mike McMahon (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn), his longtime chief of staff Kenneth Mitchell has objected to four of his opponents’ petitions. Three of them have already been knocked off the ballot, and one more who was fighting the objections is taking the dispute to court.

Mitchell has long been seen as McMahon’s heir apparent, and in the early stages of the campaign he added to that sense of inevitability by piling up the endorsements of local unions and political clubs affiliated with McMahon.

But Debi Rose, a local activist and Obama convention delegate, has surged in recent weeks, picking up key support from the Working Families Party, 1199/SEIU, the Hotel and Motel Trades Union, and D.C. 37.

Rose, who lost to McMahon in 2001 by 170 votes, would be the borough’s first black Council member. But she has been competing for the support of the growing black population on the North Shore with Rev. Tony Baker, a longtime pastor at St. Phillips Baptist Church.

Mitchell has been accused of challenging the petitions of four of the white candidates in the race so that Rose and Baker will split the black vote.

“I perceive part of that as a move to affect my voter turnout,” said Rose. “Because then the race becomes one between Reverend Baker and I … one where my base of supporters are being split or divided, and [Mitchell’s] are not.”

Mitchell denied that race was a factor and said his objections were based entirely on a vetting process conducted by his lawyers.

“I find it interesting that people who want to be lawmakers don’t want to follow the law,” he said, defending the challenges.

The challenges may further other ethnic divisions apparent in the race as well. One of the candidates removed from the ballot, Rajiv Gowda, had raised a sizable war chest from the growing South Asian community on the North Shore.

That group of voters would be up for grabs if Gowda abandons his candidacy.

After learning that he had been bounced from the ballot, Gowda swore to continue his campaign and challenge whoever wins the special election again in the primary.

“My campaign started long back, and it’s going all the way to September,” he said. “Whatever I have to do, I will do.”