Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ulrich Proves the Power of Incumbency by Andrew Petrie - Interactive Journalism I

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“We don’t consider Ulrich an incumbent.” -Nathan Smith, consultant and spokesperson for the Frank Gulluscio campaign, when asked about the election for the 32nd District Council Seat

Last winter current State Senator Joseph P. Addabbo vacated his city council seat for the 32nd district in southeast Queens to head to Albany. This set up a special election in this heavily Democratic district where Frank Gulluscio, the popular district manager of community board 6 in Queens, was expected to win easily with the full support of Addabbo and local Democrats.

But before that contest rival Geraldine Chapey managed to knock Gulluscio off the ballot, along with a number of others, after a ruling that stated the signatures he collected to get on the ballot were invalid. That’s because these special elections in New York City are supposed to be nonpartisan, and a five-point star on Gulluscio’s ballot apparently resembled that of the Queens Democratic Party.

The Gulluscio campaign howled, calling the rules “archaic,” but the damage was done. The field was splintered and Republican Eric Ulrich, only 24 years old, managed to grab the seat after winning by 752 votes.

So this November the rematch of the election that never was took place with Gulluscio squaring off against Ulrich. Many in this community debated if Ulrich was vulnerable, as he only had a few months to solidify his role in a community where he was a political minority. Nathan Smith, a consultant for the Gulluscio campaign, scoffed at the notion that Ulrich possessed any incumbent advantage and said there was no doubt his man would’ve won if he was allowed to run last winter.

“The reality is the Democratic forces were divided last February,” he said in October. “With the entire party unified now we’ll be tough to beat.”

The Ulrich campaign played down his political affiliation and ran ads with Ulrich saying, “I have always believed government is about public service, not partisanship. After all, there is no Democratic or Republican way to clean the streets.” They also tried to embrace his youth after Gulluscio supporters said his young age was a liability.

“We think the community appreciates his youth,” said Ulrich’s campaign manager, Liam McCabe, last month. “Besides, he’s a very mature person for his age. We think of him as 24 going on 30.”

An extra wrinkle as thrown into the contest too. Some Democrats may have voted for Ulrich in February after Gulluscio, their top choice, was thrown off the ballot. The thinking here was Gulluscio would have a better shot to beat an incumbent Republican in the fall instead of a Democrat. David Quintana, who operates the local blog Lost in the Ozone, said he believed that factor would equal an Ulrich loss in November.

But Ulrich ended up winning the election by a surprisingly large margin, garnering 60% of the vote. An endorsement from Mayor Michael Bloomberg might have helped, as he also won the district in the 2009 election.

So despite the difference in voter registration and having to deal with a popular local politician running against him, Ulrich proved the incumbent advantage is real. In an off-year election cycle with extremely low turnout the 24-year-old was able to hold on to his seat and remain as one of only 5 Republicans on the city council. And since Ulrich is young enough to be a super senior on a college campus, Chapey and other Democrats may be kicking themselves for throwing Gulluscio off the ballot last winter for years to come.