S.I. Front-Runner Defends Petition Challenges, Says ‘It’s Not Do the Best You Can’

In the latest candidate forum for the most crowded City Council race slated for February 24, the topics were supposed to be housing, education and the economy. But after nearly all of the candidates in the race had their candidacies threatened by technical objections raised by the front-runner, Ken Mitchell, many in the race wanted to talk about process instead.

Before the forum began, co-moderator Theo Dorian, head of a local civic organization, warned the candidates to speak “about the issues, not about politics or any such thing.”

Nice try.

Before they took the stage, the sniping began. Ken Mitchell, the chief of staff to the Councilman who just vacated the seat after being elected to congress in November, is supported by many of the Democratic party’s regular and is widely perceived as the front-runner. He’s also the one trying to kick almost everyone off the ballot, primarily over technicalities with how they filed petition signatures to the city’s Board of Elections. The challenges drew protest outside his campaign office earlier in the day from most of the candidates in the race.

By the start of last night’s forum, Mitchell was smiling, albeit a little awkwardly, as he shook hands with some of his rivals in the race. Among the hands he shook was that of rival John Tabacco, who said, “I find what your henchmen are doing reprehensible.”

Like the others, Tabacco’s petitions are being challenged by Mitchell’s campaign. One candidate, Tom Curitore, showed up an hour late to the forum last night after having spent five hours at the B.O.E.’s hearing in Manhattan to defend himself against Mitchell’s challenges. He said his matter will be finalized at the end of the week.

Mitchell, still smiling, removed the hand he had placed on Tabacco’s shoulder a moment earlier, gestured to the back of the room – a gymnasium inside a church near the Staten Island ferry — and asked, “Can we talk about it another time?”

“I’d rather do it here than up there,” Tabacco said, referring to the stage where they’d be seated a few minutes later.

Mitchell walked away.

The vacancy here was created by the election of McMahon, a Democrat, to Congress in November. The district covers the North Shore of Staten Island, which is the only Democratic stronghold in the conservative-leaning borough.

It’s more racially diverse, has fewer spacious homes than the South Shore, and, on its best day, aspires to be the “next” Williamsburg – a run-down neighborhood turned around by artists and up-and-comers priced out of other parts of the city.

The race is drawing a wide cast of characters.

Mitchell is the party regular, but is a behind-the-scenes operator only just getting acclimated to life in the spotlight. After the forum, Mitchell got off stage, walked to the back of the still-crowded room, and exited the building.

“It was a great forum,” he told me after I caught up with him in snowy driveway next to the building.

When asked about the petition challenges, he said, “The Board of Election law says you’re supposed to collect X amount of signatures to get on the ballot. We reviewed some of the petitions – we reviewed all the petitions and we felt some of the candidate had not met the threshold.” He added, “It’s not ‘do the best you can.’ It’s a process to get on the ballot.”

During the forum, Mitchell dropped McMahon’s name often, even saying at one point that he’s “always got to give McMahon a plug.” Mitchell was detailed at times, but often failed to use the entire three minutes allotted to each candidate to answer the questions. Some audience members later said they felt he was “smug” and that he simply “phoned-in” his answers. But one of these same people also said, “’When I had a problem Kenny fixed it.’ A lot of people will tell you that.”

Mitchell spent the entire night on stage sitting next to Tabacco, who repeatedly professed to not have detailed answers to the questions.

One his most specific proposals was to attract artists to the area by housing them in a planned facility for mentally unstable residents.

Tabacco also alluded to the petition challenges, saying that as a first-time candidate for public office, he’s now learned you have to “pay attention to each and every technicality.”

Tony Baker, a reverend at a local church who is African-American, told the audience, “Within me there is something greater that I can do far beyond the Port Richmond area.”

When asked if he’d oppose the facility for mentally unstable residents, Baker said no. “I feel they’re part of my community” and that “certainly I would not just throw people away.”

Debi Rose, a former school board member who ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 2001, introduced herself next and said, “I’m sure all of you sitting out there can notice a difference. I am the only woman in this race.”

Afterwards, she declined to say there was anything she could do that her male counterparts couldn’t do if elected.

Don Pagano, an electrician with his own company, said he felt he had the “most passion” of all the candidates, and often drew on his experience as a member of the local Community Education Council to explain his qualifications. Pagano also said he wouldn’t vote to re-elect Michael Bloomberg and expressed disgust at his extension of term limits.

Before the forum, Pagano expressed puzzlement about why Mitchell would challenge the petitions of all but two candidates in the race. “Why stop there,” Pagano asked.

Paul Saryian, who worked for 23 years with the police department and went to Iraq as a “a police liaison officer,” touted his extensive law-enforcement credentials and grew animated near the end of the event. Claiming that the city’s smaller police and fire departments aren’t ready for another terrorist attack, Sariyan said, “I’m the only person here trained in citywide city management systems. I can run this entire city – I can run the central services and the emergency services for this entire city.”

When asked about boosting the local economy by creating more parking spaces, Sariyan said, “If we want to increase commerce on the North Shore, we shouldn’t be building parking lots. We should be building transportation systems.”

Curitore, a former Commissioner in the Community Assistance Unit in the Bloomberg administration, arrived an hour late and with his tie slightly askew.

He cited his work in the police department and with the C.A.U. and said, “I’m running for a very simple reason: government can work. You just have to know how it works.”

Two other candidates who were removed from the ballot, Rajiv Gowda and Anthony Cosentino, did not attend.

S.I. Front-Runner Defends Petition Challenges, Says ‘It’s Not Do the Best You Can’