Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Candidates Challenge Each Others Petitions in Court; Not All Survive by Lee Landor - Queens Chronicle

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Everybody’s doing it. Challenging nominating petitions is part of the political process — it’s even expected, according to several participants in the 32nd Council District special election.

Still, it appears those who use petition challenging as a campaign strategy are met with resentment. Such was the case in this election, when objections filed by Rockaway Democratic District Leader Geraldine Chapey got two of her competitors, Glenn DiResto and Frank Gulluscio, taken off the ballot.

The objections generated criticism from the two, who called Chapey’s actions disgraceful, undemocratic cheap tricks.

The reality is their petitions were simply “no good,” according to Chapey spokesman James Wu. “This is the first thing you need to do to become a candidate for City Council, for the voters to consider you for office. If you cannot fulfill this requirement, it would be a reasonable belief that you can’t do what we need you to do for us in city council,” Wu said.

He called filing of petitions with voters’ signatures “a fundamental test of a candidate’s competency,” and noted that those who made it on the ballot fulfilled their requirements. “The challenge process is an ordinary component of elections throughout the country,” Wu wrote in a statement. “It measures the functional competence of a candidate to attain ballot [by] obtaining signatures to demonstrate the support of the voters and to comply with simple rules.”

DiResto, a retired NYPD lieutenant and political newbie, disagreed. He was able to gather the required number of signatures needed to file a petition (1,098), meet deadlines, fill out paperwork and obtain certifications, among other things.

The only thing DiResto failed to do was choose the right party name. Chapey challenged the name DiResto chose, Families First, saying it was too similar to the name of an established party, the Working Families Party.

A judge agreed and took him off the ballot, but DiResto quickly returned to court to make his case. “I don’t have these high-powered, expensive attorneys, I don’t have these expensive political consulting companies, I don’t have an expensive billboard on Liberty Avenue,” DiResto said. “But what I do have is a lot of support in grassroots, from people in the community who want to vote for change, a new direction, who are sick of city politics.”

As of press time, a judge had not yet ruled on whether DiResto would be placed back on the ballot. Spokesman Steven Stites said DiResto was continuing his campaign activities and meeting with voters on Wednesday afternoon.

Gulluscio, who spent less than an hour in court before the judge made his ruling, also has tremendous support in the community, particularly in Howard Beach. Gulluscio was a Democratic Party favorite and received an endorsement from state Sen. Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Ozone Park) who was the 32nd Council District representative for seven years.

In a statement made Tuesday, Gulluscio said he was taken off the ballot because of a legal technicality about the nature in which his validating petition was served.

Both Wu and candidate Eric Ulrich, who was challenged by Chapey and candidate Michael Ricatto, said Gulluscio failed to meet certain deadlines and the signature requirement, and that he used the symbol of the Democratic Party on his documents.

But Gulluscio cried foul. “Geraldine Chapey has been on what can only be described as a witch hunt, dragging her opponents into court, causing us hours of wasted time and thousands of dollars in lawyer’s fees,” the Howard Beach Democratic district leader said.

“She obviously feels that the only way she can win is to eliminate the competition using her lawyer rather than in a fair election by the will of the people. I cannot imagine that the voters of the 32nd Council District would want to be represented by someone like that,” he added.

Agreeing with the sentiment, DiResto said, “I think her strategy is actually backfiring on her — she’s going to create a lot of resentment among other voters.” He, too, criticized Chapey’s successful challenges, saying “She is trying to control the political process in the courtroom as opposed to in the voting booth.”

Although he made it onto the ballot, Ricatto, a Howard Beach businessman whose petitions were challenged by Ulrich’s campaign said in a statement, “I am extremely disappointed that some candidates have been thrown off the ballot.”

Expressing his opposition to the elimination of candidates from the ballot for legal technicalities, Ricatto said, “The democratic process is about giving voters a choice and the opportunity to vote for candidates who share their values, ideals and vision for better government.”

Ricatto also criticized both the Chapey and Ulrich campaigns for having “successfully tied up candidates in court, preventing them from reaching their voters.”

Ulrich claims he had no intention of tying up anyone anywhere. He said there was a legitimate reason to challenge Ricatto: his petition was fraudulent.

A judge agreed — to an extent — and found that about two-thirds of Ricatto’s petition was invalid, as it contained illegible signatures or those of people who weren’t registered to vote or didn’t live in the district. Still, Ricatto survived the challenge, ending up with about 100 more signatures than required.

With some 1,280 signatures on his petition, Ulrich escaped removal from the ballot: Chapey’s campaign recognized there was nothing on which to challenge the young candidate and withdrew its opposition, according to Ulrich.

While he admitted that Gulluscio’s removal from the ballot is a benefit to his campaign, Ulrich expressed regret about the situation. “[Voters are] being denied the opportunity to vote for their candidate. I think, philosophically, that’s wrong,” the Ozone Park Republican District Leader said. “It’s just not right. They use all these antiquated rules and laws to slice and dice and divide people.”

Speculating on whether he believes any of his competitors will run again in the November election for the seat, Ulrich said he doubted it. “This whole process taught a lot of people a lot.”

None of the candidates challenged Rockaway Democratic District Leader Lew Simon, who collected more than 4,100 signatures. “I’ve been doing this for many, many years,” Simon said. “When you know what you’re doing and you’re out there ... and you know who’s registered to vote, you should not have a problem.” Simon did not challenge any of his competitors.

Another candidate who escaped challenge is Sam DiBernardo, a 74-year-old retired Howard Beach teacher. He never even made it past the Board of Elections: taking his petition of only 250 signatures, on face value, the board removed DiBernardo almost immediately.

Those who remain on the ballot will campaign until Feb. 24, when the voters will choose the new council member.