By Kimberly Strobl and David Schwartz
happens when five lawyers and a judge are running in an
The answer is the most heavily litigated fight of the election season,
involving the delivery of about 200 subpoenas and the testimony of more than
100 witnesses over five days, including five ex-candidates, a handwriting
expert, and the first person since suffragette Susan B. Anthony to be
convicted for voting.
The Democratic party organization can work hard to knock a candidate off the
ballot. And every year, there is one case that shows just how hard.
This year, that case is the race for Brooklyn district
attorney (See Campaign
Tangle 3). The incumbent, Charles "Joe" Hynes, has
challenged the petitions of newcomer Sandra Roper. Actually,
there are two other races that are really part of the
same story -- two candidates for civil court judge, whose
petitions were challenged by two Hynes' allies and fellow
And the outcome?
The short answer is, this is Brooklyn.
THE LONGER ANSWER
Last April, Roper decided to run for district attorney and challenge Hynes, a
12 year -incumbent. Hynes does not face the term limits law because the
district attorney is a state position.
"Brooklyn is the most diverse borough and I didn't feel like everyone in the
community was being represented," says Roper, who is black and was born in
In May, John Kennedy O'Hara approached Roper and offered to help with her
campaign by becoming in charge of collecting enough signatures to get her on
the ballot. Roper accepted his offer. An outsider knowing O'Hara's past
might wonder why.
O'Hara had been a perennial candidate over the years, challenging and losing
to Democratic organization candidates five times in city and state
elections. But in 1996, O'Hara was arrested for voting in a district
where he did not live, and falsifying his voter registration four years
earlier while running for the state legislature.
Registering to vote in a district where one does not
live is usually treated as a civil case or is ignored.
As the Daily
News wrote, "The worst that happens to most gadflies
who challenge Brooklyn's Democratic organization is that
party-linked judges throw them off the ballot." But the
Brooklyn district attorney took O'Hara's case to trial
three times. That district attorney was Hynes.
Last June, O'Hara became the first New Yorker ever to be convicted
for, as the New York Law Journal put it, "illegal voting and false
O'Hara received a $20,000 fine and 1,500 hours of community service. He was
"Similar charges have failed to derail many Democratic
organization loyalists, such as a Bronx councilwoman who
said she lived in her district even though her children
were enrolled in Rockland County schools," wrote the Daily
Not only was this unfair, O'Hara charged, it was hypocritical; he started
calling Hynes "Breezy Point
Joe", because Hynes owns a house in Breezy Point, Queens, even though he is
the D.A. in Brooklyn .
After the verdict, Hynes sounded stern: "The Court has sent a clear,
message that one cannot defraud the voters of Kings County."
So it is not hard to imagine that O'Hara thought of helping Roper as a way
to get back at Hynes.
But, O'Hara denies that. "I saw a candidate I thought was very good," he
says, "and I wanted to help out."
Why didn't Sandra Roper hesitate to get involved with O'Hara? "He
help, and he had experience with petitioning," Roper says.
GETTING THE SIGNATURES
O'Hara took over the petitioning for the campaign, the court found. He
suggested that her name be put together on petitions with two candidates for
civil court judge, Eileen Nadelson and Peter Sweeney. Five candidates for
City Council also agreed to attach Roper, Nadelson and Sweeney's names to
Combining names on a petition, which is called joint petitioning, is commonly
used, and is not illegal. It enables a voter to sign once for numerous
candidates, making it easier for all the candidates to collect enough
In addition, O'Hara told the candidates they would not have to pay for the
cost of printing the petitions, he would raise money for their campaigns,
and that if objections were filed to their petitions, legal representation
would be provided.
Workers, both paid and unpaid, collected 12,839 signatures for Roper,
Nadelson and Sweeney, almost three times more than the 4,000 signatures
With the backing of the Brooklyn Democratic organization, Hynes challenged
Roper's signatures. At the same time, Nadelson and Sweeney's opponents --
Mark Partnow and incumbent Howard A. Ruditsky, also both the choices of the
Brooklyn machine -- challenged their signatures. The board ruled for Roper's side.
But that wasn't the end, as the case went to court.
At the New York State Supreme Court trial held in a Brooklyn courthouse,
campaign workers testified that they forged signatures and filled in missing
information. Another testified that he was paid by the number of signatures
collected. (A flat fee is legal; being paid per signature is not). Witnesses
testified that though their names were on petitions, they did not know
anything about it. It even came out that one Marie Alvey Williams,
collecting signatures for city council candidate Yolanda Martin (along with
Roper, Nadelson, and
Sweeney) alphabetically copied 400 signatures from the list of enrolled
Democrats in the 40th Assembly District.
Roper admits that there were some irregularities, but that it was neither
intentional nor widespread. "If you serve that many
subpoenas, you're bound to find mistakes," she says. "You're dealing with
novices, senior citizens, people without experience."
The judge saw it differently. He ruled that there were too many problems with
the petitions, and he declared them invalid.
"A candidate may not turn a blind eye to the actions taken by his or her
campaign staff or campaign volunteers," Judge Lewis L. Douglass wrote in the
Roper vows to challenge the decision, and blames the
Brooklyn Democratic organization. "I'm flabbergasted by the might and power
the Brooklyn Democratic organization holds. I will continue to fight.
Something needs to be done to change the ballot process," she says. "A lot of
my support was from immigrants who had never been involved in an
Roper, a civil rights attorney, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General John
Ashcroft asking him to step in because the case against her was racist.
"If you look at the courtroom, you see most of my supporters are from Haiti,
the Dominican Republic, are Latino or black. Imagine how disenfranchising
this is for them to have to be in court because they wanted to get
Why, indeed, did such a high-profile incumbent like Charles Hynes go to such
lengths to kick off an opponent that was considered a longshot to win?
"Mr. Hynes is not available for comment," says a spokesman for Hynes'
campaign, Mortimer Matz. But Matz is: "Mr. Hynes was not afraid of losing,"
he says. " In such an egregious case of fraud, the petitions had to be
challenged." "Fraud and invalidity," echoes Jeffrey Feldman, executive
director of the
Brooklyn Democratic Party.
One theory is that Roper was not necessarily the major target of all those
Eileen Nadelson, a woman in a field of male candidates, could have posed a
challenge to incumbent Civil Court judge Howard Ruditsky.
"Howard Ruditsky has been a judge for 10 years, and how many people have
heard of him?" one insider said. "He's very vulnerable."
Another theory is that this is just something that the Democratic
party does. Every election year, it seems, there is at least one candidate
that gets it good.
"This is the most heavily fought legal challenge this year," says one
observer. "But definitely not in history."