As Carolyn Maloney prepares to announce that she's running a primary campaign against Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Maloney has left no doubt that she regards multi-candidate primary fields as an inherent good, and maybe even a right.
“People around the world watched and were inspired as people in Iran risked their lives to vote,” she told The New York Times, referring to her current situation. “New Yorkers deserve the same. They deserve the right to vote, the right to make their own decision.”
But since entering Congress in 1992, Representative Maloney has worked hard to make sure she was the only choice for Democrats in her Congressional district, as her operatives and supporters moved on multiple occasions to block potential Democratic opponents from getting onto the ballot. (It's standard operating procedure to challenge petitions, but it's a tactic that seems pretty starkly at odds with the logic of Maloney's Iran analogy.)
In 1998, a candidate identified in City Board of Elections records as “D. Landis” filed petitions to run in a Democratic primary against Maloney. On August 4, 1998, that candidate was knocked off the ballot. The specific objector was Stuart Osnow, a political consultant at the firm Prime New York, which worked with Maloney’s campaign at the time.
In 2002, publisher and attorney Jeff Brauer tried to run. He plastered mailboxes with colorful posters and offered some voters free books in exchange for their signatures on his petitions. Critics raised questions about the propriety of those tactics. But when Brauer filed petitions to get on the ballot, a legal fight ensued. In the end, he was removed from the ballot by the State Supreme Court. Again, Osnow was an objector.
(Osnow’s business partner, Jerry Skurnik, recalled that the Manhattan Democratic commissioner at the time, Doug Kellner, had to recuse himself from the matter since he was Osnow’s attorney in an unrelated real estate matter. Without Kellner’s vote, Board of Elections commissioners were deadlocked over whether to remove Brauer, which is why it went to court, Skurnik said.)
Then in 2004, came Robert Jereski.
Critical of Maloney’s House votes to authorize the Iraq war and for the Patriot Act, Jereski sought the Democratic nomination in her district. He was removed from the ballot by City Board of Elections officials after objections were filed by six Maloney supporters, including Trudy Mason, a well-known activist in Manhattan Democratic politics, and Micah Kellner, then Maloney’s campaign manager and now an assemblyman on the East Side.
"I am glad that our efforts to have a primary and debate, which she rejected in 2004, has influenced her decision to embrace one now,” said Jereski in an interview with The Observer.
A spokesman for Maloney, Paul Blank, defended her actions then and now. “Voters deserve a choice. Candidates have to qualify to get on the ballot to run. They’re not related.”
Mr. Blank also said, “The fact that they didn’t qualify to get on the ballot has nothing to do with Carolyn Maloney.”
Jereski, in particular, may not agree.
In 2004, he filed 2,166 signatures, 916 more than was needed to appear on the ballot in the Democratic primary. But after Maloney supporters combed through his filing, they managed to disqualify 920 of them, leaving Jereski four signatures shy of the legal minimum requirement.
In response, Mr. Jereski tried taking Maloney and her supporters to court.
According to an affidavit filed with the State Supreme Court of New York, Maloney aides said she was “in Asia,” and therefore could not be contacted.
The process server who filed the affidavit, Robert D’Amato, said he went to Maloney’s legislative office on August 9, 2004, and spoke with “Minna Elias, Maloney’s Chief of Staff. I asked Minna Elias if I could speak with Carolyn B. Maloney as well. Ms. Elias stated to me that Carolyn B. Maloney was in Asia at the time. Elias further declared that she had no fax or phone number where Carolyn B. Maloney could be reached.”
Other aides were just as unhelpful. Mr. D’Amato said he left “the papers on a stack of boxes” in front of another aide, Estelle Head.
D’Amato had a more eventful time when he went to Ms. Maloney’s campaign office at 24 East 93rd Street later that day.
“I knocked on the door of the campaign office Suite 1B. Micah Z. Kellner asked ‘Who is it?’ I responded loudly that my name was Alfred and I was a volunteer. He asked again who it was several times although I answered in a voice adequate for him to hear each time,” wrote D’Amato. “Finally, he pronounced loudly, ‘No, you’re not! Go Away!’
“I waited outside of the office on the stairs above the landing where the office door is. I overheard Micah Kellner in phone conversations, stating the following:
“3:05 p.m. ‘They’re trying to serve me personally.’” And later “ ‘What if he doesn’t serve me personally?’ ”
Mr. D’Amato said that he affixed the court papers on the door and left. He said he also faxed the papers to Ms. Maloney’s Washington, D.C., office, taped them to the front door of her home, as well as the apartment doors of several aides.
Three days later, an independent referee, Leslie Lowenstein, ruled that Jereski would not be reinstated to the ballot, and that D’Amato’s affidavit could not be verified since he failed to personally appear in court on August 11 to substantiate the affidavit.
Lowenstein ruled that D’Amato’s affidavit insufficiently described his efforts to serve Maloney and her aides, noting, for example, that the aide to Maloney, Estelle Head, was described with an approximate age of 55, but the affidavit “does not recite the remaining descriptive requirements set fourth at CPLR [SECTION SYMBOL] 306(b) including height, weight and color of skin.”
The papers D’Amato tried to serve others did not include the words “Personal and Confidential,” wrote Lowenstein. D’Amato also did not use the United States Postal Service, but rather Fed Ex, which the courts do not consider a valid method of delivery.
Ultimately, Jereski was not restored to the ballot.
Skurnik said Maloney’s behavior is not logically inconsistent with her argument that the voting public deserves a primary against Gillibrand.
“If you knock someone off the ballot, that doesn’t mean you oppose democracy,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s just you’re following the rules. They didn’t knock this guy off on technicalities. It was he didn’t meet the minimum requirement of signatures.”
Skurnik knows a lot about verifying signatures on petitions. His company invented the software for it. When it was first launched in 1994, it was called “Cyber Match.”
“We invented it in 1994 when Eliot Spitzer was the outsider” and running for the first time as attorney general, said Skurnik. “It was used to check his signatures to make sure they were good coming in. Then we realized we could run it the other way, and check if signatures were bad.”
It’s now part of the product Skurnik and Osnow call their “Lincoln Program,” which they’ve used with Maloney and other candidates. The cost is “approximately a few thousand bucks,” said Skurnik. “I think they’ve used it whenever they’ve been involved in a challenge.”
Blank, the Maloney spokesman, said there was nothing contradictory with Maloney wanting to challenge Gillibrand in a primary and Maloney preventing opponents from appearing on the ballot.
“It’s totally consistent,” he said.
When I suggested that having supporters successfully block challengers from getting on the ballot is not in keeping with the message of providing voters with more choices, Blank said, “No, that’s ridiculous. Voters deserve a choice. Candidates have to qualify to get on the ballot to run. They’re not related.”
After repeating this point, Blank went further. “She’d welcome a primary from any candidate who’d qualify to get on the ballot.” Referring to Jereski, Blank said, “This person didn’t qualify to get on the ballot. That has nothing to do with her. That is a failure of the person to qualify to get on the ballot, which is required in order to run.”
Referring to the other would-be challengers, Blank said, “The fact that they didn’t qualify to get on the ballot has nothing to do with Carolyn Maloney.”
“Carolyn Maloney believes voters deserve a choice. Carolyn Maloney also believes that you have to qualify to get on the ballot in order to give voters a choice.
“It’s dictated by law,” said Blank.
When I suggested that filing objections to opponents' petitions is not dictated by law, Blank replied, “No, but if they didn’t qualify, they didn’t qualify.”
In a follow-up email, Blank wrote, “It should be pointed out Congresswoman Maloney was re-elected with 81% of the vote — tremendous support. Compare that to Gillibrand who, based on public polling, is an incumbent senator who is losing a potential primary challenge to a candidate who hasn't even begun to campaign.”
Blank, referring to Jereski, wrote, “What does Congresswoman Maloney have to do with this candidate’s failure to qualify to get on the ballot?”