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Not-So-Special Elections

by Mark Berkey-Gerard and Joshua Brustein, Feb 17, 2006

Democracy seemed at work in a basement auditorium on the Upper West Side recently, when about 40 residents attended a debate for a Special Election -- except that each of the candidates said the race was undemocratic.

One candidate called the race for an open Assembly seat left vacant after Scott Stringer was elected as Manhattan Borough President "bizarre” and “insider.” Another described it as a “travesty.” Stringer himself said it was "ridiculous."

However, none of that prevented Stringer from using the process to make sure that his favorite candidate, Linda Rosenthal, won the Democratic nomination. And it didn’t stop Rosenthal, who admitted that the “process may stink,” from accepting the nomination.

On Tuesday, February 28, voters on the West and East Side of Manhattan and in Southeast Brooklyn will elect three new State Assembly members in "Special Elections."

Most of the people who live in these areas are unaware that the elections are taking place. And even those few who do bother to go to the polls will find that the field of candidates has already been narrowed by an arcane political process and the influence of Democratic Party leaders.

The whole system of choosing a party nominee and getting on the ballot in a Special Election is so complex and inexplicable that even trying to explain it might kill off some of our readers (which we don't want to do; if you want a detailed explanation, you'll have to click here.)

Whoever wins will have to run again this fall, but given that incumbents have a nearly 100 percent reelection rate in New York, the victors have a good chance of serving a lifetime in office.

“The whole system of elections in New York State is rigged,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Special Elections just exacerbate the existing problems because no one knows it’s happening.”

Here is a look at the three Special Elections in New York City on February 28 and the political shenanigans leading up to them.

Stacking the Deck

67th Assembly District – West Side of Manhattan

Tom Weiss spent 45 minutes last week describing how he was different from the other candidates running for State Assembly seat on the Upper West Side. Then he stopped, saying that these differences don't matter anymore because the party bosses had already decided who would win – depriving the voters of the chance to do so.

"The powers that be could have taken any of the candidates and that candidate would have won," said Weiss. "You can't tell me that's not an appointment."

Last week, Weiss – who is the son of the former Congressman Ted Weiss and presumably knows a few things about running a campaign – was kicked off the ballot because of technical problems in his petitions.

Most of the other candidates also agree that Special Elections are fundamentally flawed. The only candidate who does not seem to take offense at the process is the Republican candidate, Emily Csendes. “Being the Republican candidate - for better or for worse - is a lonely process,” she said. “Hopefully someday this might be an issue for us.”

Criticism or no, this is how public officials on the West Side have historically earned their jobs. And even those who call for reform aren't shy about using the system for their own benefit.

This year, Jerrold Nadler and Scott Stringer, who both became the Democratic nominee for Congress and the Assembly seats respectively through similar clubhouse votes, decided to anoint Nadler's aide, Linda Rosenthal, as the Democratic nominee. (For the details of how they did this, again click here.)

In most Special Elections, this is generally the end of the story. Once the power brokers choose a candidate everyone else bows out.

Indeed, several Democrats did drop out once the party picked Rosenthal. But Charles Simon and Michael Lupinacci stayed in the race by getting on the ballot on newly-created minor party lines. Simon is running on the "West Side Progressive Party" line; Lupinacci is running on the "New Leadership" line.

There are not many major philosophical differences between the candidates from the Upper West Side, but they are trying to distinguish themselves from one another.

Rosenthal believes her lengthy experience in Nadler’s office sets her apart. She wants to focus on Albany's refusal to abide by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit and on overdevelopment in the district.

Charles Simon, who also serves on community board 7, says his priorities are to repeal the Urstadt Law (which took away rent regulation from city officials and gave it to the state), address gang activity in local high schools, and monitor the city's plans to use a waterfront facility on 59th Street to load commercial garbage onto barges.

Michael Lupinacci wants to push Albany on the school funding lawsuit and restructure schools so more students go to one school for kindergarten through 12th grade.

Emily Csendes is a teacher at a public high school in Harlem who ran for the seat in 2004. Her platform calls for investment in school construction to reduce class sizes and targeted tax incentives for technology.

All the candidates also agree that reforming Albany's dysfunctional system of governance should be on the list of priorities.

Linda Rosenthal, however, bristles at the idea that she is a beneficiary of an unfair system.

"While the process may stink, I think I'm the right choice," she said.

Courting the Democratic Party

59th State Assembly District - Canarsie, Bergen Beach, Mill Basin, Marine Park, Flatlands Brooklyn

Last summer, a few hours before the New York State Legislature ended its session for the year, Governor George Pataki and Senate and Assembly leaders decided to create an additional Surrogate’s Court seat in Brooklyn.

The decision was criticized for several reasons:
• Nearly every other county in the state only has one Surrogate’s Court judge – who handles wills and estates. There was no evidence that a new post was needed in Brooklyn.
• One of the sitting Surrogate's Court judges, Michael Feinberg, was removedfrom the bench for improperly awarding $9 million in fees to his friend, an attorney.
• Albany leaders carefully crafted the deal so that the Brooklyn Democratic Party leaders, the same people who selected Feinberg – not the voters - would choose the new judge.

(For more on corruption in the Brooklyn judicial system, play Gotham Gazette’s Judges Game.)

Still, despite all of the suspicion about the new seat, Brooklyn State Assemblymember Frank Seddio openly campaigned among his fellow Democrats for the post -– and reportedly gave $32,000 in donations to elected officials and local clubs in the weeks leading up to the appointment.

In September, Brooklyn Democratic Party leaders nominated Frank Seddio as the new Surrogate’s Court Judge -- thus opening up his seat in the Assembly. A few months later, Democratic leaders in Brooklyn chose Alan Maisel, Seddio’s chief-of-staff, as their nominee to replace Seddio in the 59th Assembly District. (For the details on the process by which this happened, again click here.)

Alan Maisel defends his former boss and the process by which he was selected by the local party.

“None of the people that [Seddio] gave money to -– with the exception of one or two people -– had any role in selecting him as a judge,” said Maisel.

“I have been very involved in local Democratic politics for years,” he added. “Nobody else presented themselves as a candidate.”

When voters go to the polls they will see two other candidates on the ballot: Republican Ronald Haugstatter and Conservative Alice Gaffney. (Neither candidate returned phone calls seeking an interview.)

Even if a voter wanted to attend a candidate forum and hear how the various people differ on the issues, it would be impossible; there hasn’t been one.

“I did go to one event that was supposed to be a candidate forum,” said Alan Maisel. “But no one else showed up. It was a one person forum.”

Fight in the East Side Political Clubhouse

74th Assembly District – East Side of Manhattan

Last fall, East Side State Assemblymember Steve Sanders, who had recently undergone quadruple-bypass heart surgery, announced that he was retiring from the New York State Legislature after 28 years in office.

The announcement immediately generated speculation about who might run for his seat. But after Sanders endorsed his chief-of-staff Steven Kaufman, many other Democrats like former City Councilmember Margarita Lopez said they would stay out of the race in deference to the former Assemblymember.

The race for the Democratic nomination then became a two-person affair between Steven Kaufman and Sylvia Friedman, a longtime Democratic activist on the East Side.

While Steven Kaufman had the support of outgoing Assemblymember Sanders, Sylvia Friedman relied on her ties to the four local Democratic clubs, whose members would ultimately vote on the nominee – and she scored an upset win over Kaufman. (For the details of how the process works, again click here.)

“Steve didn’t have any clubs behind him,” she said.

Steven Kaufman said that the vote came down to which committee members showed up and which did not. “There were people in Hawaii and Aruba,” he said. “One guy who supported me had tickets for the ballet that night and couldn’t make it.”

He also believes that some of the Democratic committee members cast their ballot with an eye toward the Democratic Primary in September, when a larger field of candidates might be encouraged to run.

“There were people who were looking forward to the Democratic Primary and wanted an outcome in the Special Election that is better for their plans,” said Kaufman. “That’s part of politics.”

Sylvia Friedman, who also has the Working Families Party line, will face Republican Frank Scala in the Special Election.

Frank Scala, a Republican activist on the Upper East Side dating back to Governor Nelson Rockefeller's administration, believes that he actually has a better chance in a Special Election because only residents who are extremely active in the neighborhood know that the election is happening.

“In New York, people vote for the Democrat and they don’t even know who the people are,” said Scala. “But people in the neighborhood [who show up for a Special Election] know who I am.”