By Anna Merlan
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Leaders of the upstart Green Partywhose platform calls for broader ballot access for candidatesare picking up a new electoral skill: booting foes off the ballot.
And in the party's own mayoral primary, three of five candidates were knocked out as a result of challenges by other Greens; a fourth survived objections only because his opponents missed a filing deadline.
The use of old-fashioned political tools has kicked up a storm inside the tiny 7000-member party. "Some people see me as the Antichrist because of this," said Ray Dowd, the party's Manhattan chairman, who has guided most of the Greens' ballot challenges. "But if we are going to be serious, we have to learn the rules."
Dowd stunned longtime pols in both major parties last year when he proved in court that petitions were filled with phony signatures.
Dowd started the party's petition-investigating trend last year when he not only forced his GOP rival for a state assembly seat off the ballot, but won the first criminal convictions for petition fraud in more than a decade.
"We're advocating petition challenges this year over pheasant shooting as a sport," said Dowd, 36, an attorney who joined the party in late 1999.
Dowd stunned longtime pols in both major parties last year when he proved in court that petitions submitted by Leonard Wertheim, a perennial Republican candidate for State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's Lower East Side seat, were filled with phony signatures. Wertheim had run against Silver eight times, waging almost invisible campaigns against the state's second most powerful official. Such friendly candidacies are often mounted by Republicans in overwhelmingly Democratic districts simply to show the party's flag. And no one had ever challenged Wertheim's petitions before.
But 90 minutes after walking into the election board offices on Varick Street for the second time in his life, Dowd spotted what he said appeared to be obvious forgeries. "They were table-topping," said Dowd last week, who has since learned the electoral slang for petitions that are fraudulently compiled by people sitting at a table copying the names of registered voters. A judge agreed and bounced Wertheim from the ballot.
Most challenges end right there. But Dowd went several steps further. He presented the judge's finding of fraud to commissioners of the Board of Elections, where Wertheim was an $80,500-a-year senior administrator and where three of his key petition gatherers were also employed. All four were later forced out of their jobs. Dowd also went to the Manhattan district attorney's office, which after a lengthy investigation, pressed criminal charges against the three aides. The three pled guilty and were sentenced this month to probation. Wertheim wasn't charged.
Dowd did less well at the polls, where he got just 15 percent of the vote. But by Green Party standards, it was a major victory. As one of the state's newest and smallest parties, Greens don't expect to actually win too many elections at this point. Instead, the organization is trying to build membership and clout by running campaigns that emphasize the party's pro-environment, pro-grassroots-democracy ideology.
One of the party's strongest planks is democratic reform of the electoral process. The platform of the national Green Party calls for a federal law dramatically reducing the number of votes needed by a party's candidate to qualify for a ballot line. (New York State Greens won their line in 1998 when gubernatorial candidate Al "Grandpa" Lewis squeaked past the 50,000 minimum required.)
And Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader championed ballot reforms repeatedly throughout his campaign last year. "We have the most burdensome ballot-access statutes of any Western country," thundered Nader last August at an Illinois state elections board hearing, where the Greens demanded a spot on the ballot even though they were 2000 petition signatures short of the 25,000 required.
The two Republicans in the 33rd Council District in north Brooklyn who were knocked off the ballot by Green Party candidate Craig Seeman also had too few signatures. One filed just 117 of the 382 required; the other filed 341. Both were swiftly erased from the ballot after Seeman raised objections.
"The Green Party has been doing a job," sighed Brooklyn Republican leader Arthur Bramwell.
But how does that job square with Green principles of ballot democracy?
"They do the same thing to us," said Seeman. "Then they don't like it when someone uses the same tools against them. If I was in the Albany legislature, I'd love to change ballot-access rules. But I'm not. So, they threaten uswe threaten back."
With Dowd serving as his election lawyer, Green candidate Paul Graziano is also waging a tough-love campaign in the Flushing council district, where Asians are trying to win their first-ever City Council seat. Graziano, 30, an urban planner, said he challenged Republican candidate Ryan Walsh because of "blatant fraud." Graziano said his line-by-line examination of petitions submitted by Walsh, also a political novice, found that more than 20 percent of the 611 signatures were false. In several instances cited by Graziano, one family member appeared to have signed for others in the same householda common petition violation.
As in Wertheim's case, the Greens took it a step further. Last week Graziano asked the district attorney to pursue a criminal investigation. "I'm not going after him for frivolous reasons," said Graziano. "This is someone approving forged signatures. That's just wrong."
Walsh's lawyer, Queens Republican leader and City Councilman Thomas Ognibene, has denied the fraud charges but has told the judge the case should've been dismissed already, pointing to technical defects in Graziano's motions.
Whatever defects exist shouldn't stand in the way of finding real fraud, however, insisted Dowd. "What we are doing is a public service," said the insurgent lawyer. "When you have candidates actually going out there and committing forgeries, I don't think voter choice comes into play here. I believe in liberal ballot-access laws, but on the other hand if we have this rope out thereif I can spend a few hours finding forgeries in the filingsI am going to use it to hang them."
That kind of talk is a little spooky for old-time party regulars, who see a fair share of suspicious petitions in every election. Jeff Feldman, executive director of the Kings County Democratic Committee, spent most of last week along with many Brooklyn Democrats observing hearings on the candidacy of Sandra Roper, an attorney seeking to run in a Democratic primary against Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. Hynes's lawyers have alleged that some two-thirds of the 14,000 signatures submitted by Roper are invalid, many because of fraud. Roper has denied it. But Feldman said getting her off the ballot would be ample reward. "This isn't a blood sport," he said. "No one's looking to get anyone locked up."