Political stalemate in filling top job comes as roll-out of new voting machines looms
Despite a Senate Republican Campaign Committee poll that he said showed him neck-in-neck in a potential race for the Queens Senate seat once held by his political mentor Serph Maltese, former Council Member Anthony Como has decided against challenging State Sen. Joe Addabbo in November.
Como’s decision may be cause for relief among Democrats worried about Addabbo’s vulnerability as he seeks to hold the seat he swung away from the Republicans in 2008, helping deliver their slim majority. But it seems likely to disappoint several Democratic power players in the city who had been hoping his candidacy would take him out of the running to be the new Board of Elections executive director. That job, a $172,000-a-year patronage plum, has been vacant since February, when Marcus Cederqvist resigned.
The executive director is selected by a majority, or six, of the Board’s 10 commissioners, who come two from each borough, with one Republican and one Democrat selected by their respective county leaders. Como is the Republican choice, whereas the Democrats are backing the Board’s current deputy director, George Gonzalez, in an effort being propelled by the Bronx Democratic county leader, Assembly Member Carl Heastie, and orchestrated by Stanley Schlein, the Bronx elections attorney who also lobbies on behalf of the Yankees and a variety of powerful real estate interests.
But the stalemate is not fully along partisan lines: according to people familiar with the situation, the Democrats from Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens supporting Gonzalez have been joined by Staten Island Republican commissioner John Sipp, apparently under the influence of John Haggerty—the operative currently being investigated by the Manhattan district attorney for how he spent $750,000 paid to him by the Independence Party out of a $1.2 million donation it received from Mayor Michael Bloomberg during last year’s campaign—whose ties to the Staten Island Republicans date back to his time working with former Rep. Vito Fossella. The Staten Island Democrats, however, have sided with the remaining four Republican commissioners in supporting Como. Instead of 5-5 then, the breakdown is 4 and 1 vs. 4 and 1, though the decision has not been discussed openly at the commissioners’ biweekly Tuesday meetings, the next of which is scheduled for June 8, for months.
Neither Sipp nor Staten Island Democratic commissioner Michael Ryan responded to requests for comment.
Had Como decided to run for Senate, Bronx Democrats were going to use the opportunity to push for Gonzalez’s selection. But Como said he felt an obligation to pursue the job he had gotten people to back him for earlier this year.
“Make no mistakes about it, would I ever want to be senator one day? Sure,” Como said on Sunday, after he began informing allies of his decision not to run. “But at this point in my life, and upon making certain promises and assurances to people, the Board of Elections is the place where I believe I can most benefit the city and the state right now.”
Como said he hoped ending the uncertainty over his Senate aspirations would spur the commissioners to coalesce behind him for the job.
Como had also been under consideration for a job as a NYCHA housing commissioner as part of what appeared to be a political deal with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in exchange for Queens Republicans’ support in last year’s election. As for that, “no one’s ever said no, or you can’t have it,” Como said, “but obviously, no one’s said yes.”
With the Senate race now behind him, Como eagerly listed his qualifications for the executive director position, citing his experience as a former commissioner and president of the Board, as well as being a former Queens assistant district attorney and member of the Council for six months, between beating Liz Crowley in a June 2008 special election and then losing to her in the November 2008 election.
Como also criticized Gonzalez, pointing in particular to a video which surfaced in April that showed the deputy director smoking in his office at the Board, in violation of Department of Health regulations. That and other failures on Gonzalez’s watch were reason to stop the deputy’s promotion, Como said.
“When you take everything as a whole, I don’t see how he gets the majority of the votes to be executive director,” Como said. “I don’t see how commissioners can give somebody support for someone who’s blatantly violating the law.”
Gonzalez, though, said he believed the smoking incident was in the past and would not effect his prospects.
“One thing has nothing to do with the other,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez also dismissed other complaints about agency operations, asserting that the lack of the executive director had had no impact.
“Yes, we do need an executive director because it is required by law,” Gonzalez said. “But the commissioners are in charge of the agency. I take the guidance and direction from them.”
Julie Dent, the Brooklyn Democratic commissioner who currently serves as president, referred all questions to the Board’s press secretary, Valerie Vasquez-Rivera. Through last week, though, Vasquez-Rivera was out sick and not responding to phone calls or emails.
The vacancy for the top job—which, at four months, is the longest in recent history—comes as the Board enters what many involved expect to be its most difficult election season in decades. In addition to the standard work of petition hearings and poll site selection, this fall, the Board will be rolling out new voting machines for the fall elections. The Board is also facing a tightened budget that at the moment, only provides enough money for one pick-up and one drop-off of voting machines in the fall, or enough to pay for the operations on Primary Day in September but not on Election Day in November.
So given the many controversies and delays surrounding the new machines, there is widespread worry with how the lack of an executive director will effect operations even as commissioners have tried to step into the void, taking more active roles.
“Of all the years since they rolled out the change from paper ballots to lever machines back in about 1925, this is the year,” said Judy Stupp, the Queens Republican commissioner who officially submitted Como’s name for consideration in February, of the need to have an executive director in place.
In light of this and other considerations, Stupp bemoaned the stalemate, saying, “It should not go on. People should be up in arms about it.”