Harlem Candidates Accuse Democratic Machine Of Rigging Contest

The Observer reports that three outsider candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for a Harlem State Senate seat penned a letter lashing out at New York County Chairman Keith Wright, accusing the party boss of acts tantamount to “voter suppression” in his bid to install his favored contender in office, and threatening him with legal action.

District leaders John Ruiz and Rev. Al Taylor and activist Joyce Johnson signed the missive, which accused Wright of using his position to attempt to deliver the seat that formerly belonged to now-Councilman Bill Perkins to his favored candidate, local community board chairman Brian Benjamin. Special elections for state seats—like the one Gov. Andrew Cuomo scheduled in Harlem for May 23—do not have an open primary: instead, the county committee, a panel of party insiders, selects who gets to run on the ballot line at a formal nominating convention.

In heavily Democratic areas like Harlem, securing the party line virtually secures the election, and the candidates warned that the convention scheduled for Saturday could be “tainted” unless Wright allowed an outside overseer.

“As candidates for the 30th Senate District Democratic nomination, we write to express our profound disappointment and alarm at the undemocratic actions taken by the party leading up to Saturday’s meeting,” the three wrote in their message. “Therefore, to safeguard the integrity of the process, trust in the result and promote the values in which our party has always stood, it is critical that you bring in an independent third party to conduct Saturday’s vote.”

The Manhattan machine is badly fractured, but maintains sway in parts of Harlem and enjoys control over internal party processes. Benjamin is the fiancé of Cathleen McCadden, who worked in Wright’s Assembly office until he stepped down from the State Legislature in January and who served as the New York County party’s executive director until late last year.

Jeanine Johnson, another former Wright aide, has taken her place.

Joyce, Ruiz and Taylor alleged in their letter that only members of the county committee loyal to Wright received the requisite five-day notice of Saturday’s meeting, and that their campaigns were deprived of the most recent list of people on the committee until Wednesday. They also argued that Johnson and Wright could not impartially adjudicate a nominating convention, and called for a third party to count the ballots.

“It is unacceptable for you and your staff to be the only parties able to view the ballots cast and act as both a player and the referee in this contest,” the message reads. “These tactics amount to voter suppression, and the integrity of the democratic process is too important to jeopardize.”

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County committee members’ ballots in the nomination process are weighted according to what percentage of the vote in their area went to Cuomo in 2014. This necessitates that members sign their names to their ballots in the convention—and several anti-Wright sources worried to the Observer that this could influence their vote, as a number either hold jobs at the city Board of Elections that the county machine has influence over, or have relatives who do.

Taylor, Joyce and Ruiz complained that Wright’s operation failed to inform them of which county committee members enjoyed the greatest clout in the nomination process.

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