by Geoff Kelly
Sometimes it seems a rotten little club, our local politics, and it’s fair to wonder what kind of fools are inclined to wade through its hazing rituals in order to do public service.
Take, for example, the case of Gillian Brown, currently an attorney with Colucci & Gallaher and formerly counsel to and interim executive director of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. Brown is trying to run for a seat on Buffalo City Court this fall. Specifically, he’s campaigning on his desire and qualifications to preside over city housing court and carry on the much-lauded work of Hank Nowak, who left that job for a seat on New York State Supreme Court at the beginning of this year.
Brown lacks what one local politician called “a godfather,” however, and so his path to the primary ballot has been rocky. There are four incumbent judges, all supported by both Mayor Byron Brown and Democratic Party headquarters, a rare ecumenical moment. There are two challengers, Brown and attorney Diane Wray. Brown is considered a special threat because he is endorsed by the Working Families Party and has drawn the second spot on the Democratic primary ballot—a huge advantage, especially in a judicial race, where voters often know little about the candidates. (Incumbent Robert Russell has name recognition and legions of supporters, and Brown is no threat to his re-election. But Joseph Fiorella? David Manz? Sue Eagan? How many folks even know they’re judges?) With his favorable ballot position and his wide circle of friends—in addition to being an attorney, Brown has spent many years tending bar, which is not a bad apprenticeship to politics—Brown might well oust one of the lesser known incumbent Democrats.
To prevent that from happening, Manz has sought assiduously to disqualify Brown from the ballot, personally vetting his nominating petition for invalid signatures. As is the custom, a surrogate filed a challenge to Brown’s petitions with the Erie County Board of Elections, based on Manz’s work. (Manz’s surrogate is Katie M. Bartolotta, who works for the Erie County Democratic Committee.) Last week, the BOE’s two commissioners, Republican Ralph Mohr and Democrat Dennis Ward, rejected Brown’s petition, deeming invalid 831 of his 2,502 submitting signatures, leaving just 1,671 valid signatures, shy of the 2,000 required to make the ballot.
Brown has filed an order to show cause in New York State Supreme Court, naming Bartolotta, Ward, and Mohr, seeking to overturn their objections to his signatures.
Several pages of signatures are deemed invalid because of some perceived fault in the signature of the person who acted as witness to the petition. (Each page of a petition must be witnessed by a qualified Democrat.) Many of the those perceived faults seem unreasonable.
Take the case of Melinda Gullo, witness to three pages disqualified by BOE. She is disqualified as a witness because she identified her town of residence on those three pages as Lakeview. As it turns out, there is no such place as Lakeview, so far as the BOE commissioners are concerned: Her address is in Hamburg. This, despite the fact that the BOE’s own computer records for Gullo identify her as living in Lakeview. Lakeview is what’s written on her voter registration card and on her driver’s license. In his court filing, Brown says that when he tried to present this information to the BOE commissioners, he was in essence told to save his objections for a judge.
Another witness, Mary Cannan, provided her current address in Buffalo. Because the BOE still had her registered to vote at a previous address in Buffalo, they tossed the signatures she witnessed, although they did not dispute her identity or her qualifications as a witness, and although case law holds that a change of address is insufficient grounds to disqualify a witness.
Brown also objects to the exclusion of many signatures based on the commissioners’ determination that they were difficult to read or did not sufficiently resemble the signatures on voter registration cards on file with the BOE. As an example of “the seemingly random manner” in which those determinations were made, Brown offers the signature of South District Councilman Mickey Kearns (petition page 209, line 25): While Kearns’s address on Brown’s petition matched his address on file with the BOE, his signature—unintelligible on the petition and in the BOE file—was rejected because the two signatures just seemed somehow different.
Kearns’s signature is not unknown to the BOE commissioners, nor is he inaccessible: With a phone call they might have determined whether he signed Brown’s petition. (I called. He did.) Instead they tossed it.
Nominating petitions are not rocket science, but they do offer a formidable tool for keeping undesirables out of politics. If you are not an attorney or can’t afford one, if you don’t have access to experts who can keep your petitions clean, you’re likely out of luck. Brown is an attorney with access to campaign expertise, and still he’s knee-deep in shinola. His court date is August 25, before Judge Joseph R. Glownia, though he may try to move up the date. He will have a place on the Working Families Party line, lower on the ballot, regardless of the outcome.blog comments powered by Disqus
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