By Kevin Deutsch and Sasha Gonzales
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Bare-knuckle politics – and a series of filing blunders – helped end the campaigns of at least 22 Bronx Democrats running for local and state positions, city election records show.
The candidate disqualifications, ruled on by the Board of Elections last week, came in response to a seemingly well-organized effort by veteran Party operatives, officials, and well-connected candidates looking to keep competitors off the ballot ahead of the June 23 primary. Similar challenges were filed in Brooklyn and Queens.
Objections to candidate petitions are a routine feature of New York’s byzantine election system, going all the way back to Tammany Hall. Party bosses typically enlist trusted operatives and veteran legal hands to pursue such challenges. Their goal: eliminate contenders on a range of technical issues including paperwork oversights, procedural errors, and questions over voter signatures.
Some petition challenges are successful, many are not. BOE officials, too, search for filing errors and violations each election cycle; mistakes that can end candidacies in their infancy.
The aggressiveness of last month’s petition challenges surprised many newcomers to the city’s hard-nosed political world, including Uniqua Smith.
The Port Chester High School teacher and activist successfully petitioned for a spot on the ballot in the Bronx County Committee election in Assembly District 77, Election District 25. She is also an announced candidate for City Council in 2021.
Seeing the petition challenge process unfold “definitely opened my eyes,” Smith told Bronx Justice News.
“It’s sad to see candidates who have worked very hard for a very long time get tripped up in the process,” Smith said, adding that new candidates for office should get help from experts and attorneys whenever possible, given the city’s convoluted filing rules.
The recently disqualified candidates in the Bronx included 20 residents who were seeking either party positions, or elected office, in the borough’s 79th Assembly District and 87th Assembly Districts.
All were ruled ineligible for the June ballot because Hector Cruz, a Democratic Delegate to the party’s Judicial Convention, filed a petition packet after the BOE deadline, records show. Since the 20 candidates all relied on the same voter signatures in Cruz’s paperwork, all were disqualified from their respective races.
Assembly candidates Shanequa Charles and Irene Estrada were also barred from the ballot in the 78th and 80th Assembly District races, officials said, after their respective petitions were personally challenged by Angel Santana, executive director for the Bronx Democratic Party, and John Zaccaro Jr., chief of staff to Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., BOE records show.
The petition challenges spurred outcry from many politicos, in part because they were carried out amid a public health crisis that’s killed more than 18,200 New York City residents, and infected more than 164,000. The scale of COVID-19 infection and death across the five boroughs is greater than any municipality in the U.S., city data show.
Still, the BOE said, it would stay open and try to maintain business as usual ahead of the June primary, already delayed from April 28. At least two BOE workers have died from COVID-19, with an unknown number of additional workers sickened.
The list of Bronxites filing objections against Bronx candidates included both veteran party hands and newcomers. Among them: Yves Filius, Government Relations Strategist for the ACLU of New York; Justin Westbrook-Lowery, a candidate for Democratic Male District Leader in the 87th Assembly District; and Egidio Sementilli, an Assembly candidate in District 82. Sementilli objected to petition papers filed by John Collazzi, co-founder of the Bronx Times Reporter newspaper and ex-Chief of Staff for Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, who represents the 82nd Assembly District.
Other candidates who saw their petition filings challenged: District Leader candidates Carlton Curry, Juan Pena, and Dion Powell; Democratic State Committee Chair candidates Luis Compres and Faviola Soto; party convention delegate candidates Cherese Hernandez , George Diaz, Felix Soto, and Reinaldo Gonzalez; and longtime Bronx Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo.
Attorney Stanley Schlein, perhaps the Bronx’s most influential political power broker, represented the party in multiple petition challenges before the BOE. The arguments were made during remote hearings, which can be viewed here.