Thursday, August 20, 2009

Gov's Special Election Call Leads to Criticism

By Conor Greene

The governor’s decision to once again call for a September 15 special election to fill the vacancy in the 38th Assembly District created by Tony Seminerio’s resignation has led to criticism from candidates who won’t be on the ballot as a result.

Gov. David Paterson’s announcement, which came last Friday, meant that the county Democratic and Republican party leaders got to choose which one of their candidates will run for the seat. If a regular election had instead been held, any candidate who received enough signatures would have qualified for the ballot.

The governor’s announcement came a week after he first called for a special election before issuing a press release several hours later stating that no final decision had been made. “Although there were concerns raised about last week’s announcement, after a comprehensive review of the issues at stake, I have determined that a special election on Primary Day is the most cost-effective, expeditious way to ensure the people of the 38th District are appropriately represented in the Assembly,” said Paterson in a statement.

Following the announcement, the local Democratic district leaders voted 2-1 to nominate Michael Miller of Glendale for the ballot spot. Seminerio, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to influence-peddling, was eligible to cast a vote but did not take part in the selection process. On the Republican side, Donna Marie Caltabiano, executive director of the Forest Park Senior Citizens Center, is the only candidate running.

The governor’s sudden about face two weeks ago led to speculation that Paterson was caught between two competing factions within the Democratic Party: county leader Rep. Joseph Crowley, who sought a special election, and State Senator Malcolm Smith and Rep. Gregory Meeks, who reportedly pushed for a regular election so that Ozone Park attorney Albert Baldeo could continue with his candidacy.

Paterson’s decision was predictably met with harsh criticism from the candidates who had completed the petitioning process but now will not appear on the ballot. One candidate – Farouk Samaroo – has already filed a legal challenge to the governor’s decision to call a special election. The matter was scheduled to be heard on Thursday morning in U.S District Court.

“Our right to vote in a free and fair election is being violated by the governor’s action. I am suing under the Voting Rights Act and asking the court to set aside the bad joke played on the electoral process,” said Samaroo, a veteran of the Afghanistan war.

Baldeo, who has previously run for City Council and State Senate, said he is also considering his next step. “We are still going through our options. We’re very disappointed now,” he said. “It’s a sad day for democracy as the decision was taken out of the hands of the voters… We don’t know why [the special was called]. There was such a diverse mix of candidates on the ballot, so it’s very troubling.”

Particularly outraged over the decision is Nick Comaianni, who told The Forum that the district leaders were initially set to back him 2-1 before Crowley, the county party leader, pressured the district leaders to vote for Miller.

“The Queens County Democratic Party is anything but democratic,” said Comaianni, president of Community Education Council 24 and a Community Board 9 member. “The whole system was a disappointment to me. It was very shady the way the vote went,” he said, adding, “one leader obviously flipped” positions before the vote this week.

“Crowley took every leader into a room by themselves and he grilled them until they changed their minds,” continued Comaianni. “This was obviously a big thing for him [since] he promised Miller they would give him the race. I’m upset this entire election is decided by a handful of people. I would have been more comfortable if I ran and lost because as much as I wouldn’t have liked that, the people would have spoken.”

Messages left on Miller’s cell phone were not returned by deadline Wednesday.

Queens Democratic Party Executive Secretary Michael Reich denied claims that leaders were pressured into voting for Miller, who he noted is a lifelong Democrat who was also endorsed by the Conservative Party. “He has the Democratic and Conservative lines in a district that tends to be more conservative,” said Reich, adding that Comaianni recently switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat.

While Miller has not been especially active in local party politics, his extensive community involvement helped him secure the nomination. “That’s all we’re looking for, someone who is active in the community on the grassroots level. None of the district leaders who would have had a leg up on this were interested in running, so it was natural to go into the community to find someone active there who has support,” said Reich.

Reich refuted claims that the district leaders were pressured to switch their support from Comaianni to Miller. “There was no pressuring. There was a meeting here of district leaders, it was a very friendly meeting and there was only one vote. How could there be pressure? It would make no sense… The district leaders decided he was the candidate best able to represent the party and get elected.”

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