Petition challenges persist in local races despite pandemic

petition challenges
Candidates for the 46th Council District spoke out about petition challenges outside the Thomas Jefferson Political Club.
Courtesy Dimple Willabus

After clearing the necessary 270 signatures required for their names to appear on the ballot, a number of City Council hopefuls have received challenges to their petitions from opponents claiming that the signatures are illegitimate — but the would-be pols are shooting back, accusing their detractors of engaging in dirty politics during a pandemic. 

“It’s ridiculous to be challenging signatures during a pandemic because candidates like myself and our volunteers are literally risking our lives to collect these signatures, and we’re also putting voters at risk to sign these petitions,” said Chí Osse, a candidate running for the 36th District in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The petitioning process

Under election laws, politicians and their supporters need to physically collect the 270 signatures from registered voters in their districts. While that threshold has been lowered from the previous requirement of 900 signatures due to the pandemic, many politicos had wanted the signature provision abolished completely — saying that in-person contact put them and their constituents at risk. 

Signatures can be deemed illegitimate for a number of reasons — including by proving the person doesn’t live in the district, or they simply signed in the wrong place. If a judge tosses out enough signatures to knock candidates below the required threshold, their name won’t appear on the ballot for the June 2021 primary elections. 

Often, however, opponents who file petition challenges are simply looking to tie candidates up in costly and timely litigation. 

Ossè, for example, filed over 2,000 signatures, meaning the challenge would need to find that over 1,700 are illegitimate, which would be far-fetched — and yet, he still needs to shell out the resources to defend himself in court. 

‘Democracy is being manipulated’

In the race to succeed term-limited Councilmember Alan Maisel in southeast Brooklyn, members of a political club headed by former Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Frank Seddio filed objections against five of the ten candidates.

“It does not surprise me in the middle of the pandemic… that Frank Seddio and his candidate would challenge our petitions to run for office,” said Mercedes Narcisse, a candidate running for the 46th District.

The candidates — Narcisse, Dimple Willabus, Donald Cranston, Shirley Paul, and Stanley Scutt — are running in the election where Seddio’s Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club has endorsed two other candidates, former Community Board 18 chair Gardy Brazela and retired NYPD detective Judy Newton.

“In this instance, democracy is being manipulated in an attempt to benefit those who are intertwined with the political establishment,” Willabus told Brooklyn Paper. “It is a blatant misuse of democracy. A simple review of the objectors exposes the fact that they are all TJ club loyalists, including its current president.”

Narcisse said the tactic was not surprising, as she’d received similar treatment in her previous run for the seat.

“I have been bullied,” Narcisse said. “The last time I ran… and now he’s doing it again.”

Seddio defended the practice in an interview with Brooklyn Paper — arguing the tactic is regularly used in the game of politics 

“Quite frankly I am more upset about the fact that they’re amateurs,” Seddio said. “It’s a game. this is what we do, this is part of the profession of being in politics. We do our absolute best to win for our candidates.” 

The former party boss said the club’s duel candidates have both shown their loyalty to the club for many years, and have earned their turn to take an elected post. 

“It’s a concept that very few people in politics understand, it’s called loyalty,” Seddio said. “It’s a magical word that people use but don’t often follow.” 

Not anyone can run for an elected position in their district, but Seddio contends candidates must have taken the time to nurture ties in the community, and furthermore argued that crowded races suck up tax dollars due to the city’s campaign matching programs. 

“Everybody wants things handed them to them. The most important thing if you decide you want to run for office, you have to earn the respect of volunteers and others who are going to help you get on the ballot,” Seddio said. “We have over 500 people in the city of New York running for the 51 council seats… if each of them meet the commitment of what we’ve done with public funding, which is 8 to 1, we are going to pay a billion dollars!” 

After reviewing the petitions that the club objected to, Seddio said one male candidate will see their petition challenged, but the other four petitions reviewed appeared to be valid. 

“We have completed [the review process] as of last night and there is one candidate who’s on the ballot who we will be challenging,” he said. “There will be one that we are challenging and who will most likely be knocked off the ballot. He had 190 legitimate signatures when he needed 270.”

Politics, petitions, and a pandemic

Still, while the practice is common in politics, many politicos hoped the pandemic would lead to dissuade objectors, with many vowing not to file petition challenges under any circumstances. That comes as multiple candidates, including northern Brooklyn’s Lincoln Restler, tested positive for COVID-19 during the petitioning period, when candidates are on the streets interacting with voters. 

In the race for East New York’s 42nd District, Wilfredo Florentino, a candidate for city council in the 42nd District, submitted around 1,500 signatures — and, yet, Florentino and two others received an objection from someone with a listed address that matched another candidate in the race, Nikki Lucas. 

“Challenging petitions during a regular election cycle reeks of old school desperation,” Florentino said. “During a pandemic, candidates teams have put themselves at extraordinary risk and these challenges undermine the hard work of so many dedicated folks.”

Lucas’ campaign did not return a request for comment.

Now, the political hopefuls will head to court, where they’ll be forced to defend their signatures as legitimate against the tactic they say “eliminates the competition.”

“They are utilizing the age-old tactic of eliminating the competition, through ballot exclusion and tying up campaign resources in the defense of baseless allegations,” Willabus said. “They are hoping that voters are not aware or educated about these tactics, or of the lack of transparency that the TJ club and the political establishment has utilized to oppress our votes.”