Harlem Candidates Accuse Democratic Machine of Rigging Contest for State Senate Seat

County Chairman Keith Wright, center, with Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams, left, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Congressman Adriano Espaillat. William Alatriste/NYC Council

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.

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 Wright and his staff 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.”

County committee members’ ballots in the nomination process are weighted according to how many votes 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.

The Observer also obtained a letter that Benjamin sent to some county committee members days before the County party shared the lists of names and addresses with the candidates. Benjamin’s team said they relied on older, potentially out-of-date rosters publicly available through the state Board of Elections.

Wright dismissed the concerns Taylor, Joyce and Ruiz named—asserting that he sent notices to all county committee members in a proper and timely fashion, that he had not and would not exert  undue influence or favoritism in the process and that the Manhattan Democratic Party had a history of carrying itself with integrity.

The chairman coffed at the idea of bringing in an independent overseer.

“We are compelled to administer this convention. We’ve done them before, and we’re doing it again, and we are doing the best we can do,” Wright said in a phone interview.

The candidates’ letter alleges that the previous County chairman, Upper Manhattan Assemblyman Herman “Denny” Farrell, had allowed third party oversight of conventions. But in a phone conversation with the Observer, Farrell—who has backed Taylor for the seat—said he could not recall doing so.

Wright responded later this afternoon with a letter of his own, accusing the trio of making “baseless” allegations. He insisted he had sent notification of the convention to all committee members by mail on Monday, and had confirmed that many had received the advisory.

The chairman also denied withholding county committee members’ information from the contenders, and insisted that “competent tellers” would handle the ballot count.

“Saturday’s meeting is being conducted with utmost integrity and transparency and with all the expediency possible given the timeframe,”

Read the letter in its entirety below:

Chairman Wright:

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.

If left unaddressed, these serious problems will undermine the legitimacy of the outcome of the coming vote, and could lead to action. 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.

Our specific concerns include:

• Lack of Notification: While the New York County Democratic Committee by-laws state that county committee members must be notified by mail several days before the vote to ensure that all members are properly informed and given a chance to attend, this has not occurred. With the exception of county insiders and supporters of your handpicked candidate, county committee members have not received any notice in the mail and have not been informed. This is a legal requirement and could lead to future litigation.

• Lack of access to county committee List: While the vote is open to all Democratic County Committee members within the district, we were not supplied a current list of eligible voters until late this week. We were also not given any contact information, including phone numbers and email addresses for eligible voters, even though you maintain this contact information. This means we have been unable to communicate with the actual voters in the district. The fact that you have access to this information while actively whipping votes for your handpicked candidate is an unfair advantage. Withholding this information is even more unprincipled given the lack of notification outlined above.

• Lack of Access to Voting Formula: As you know, county committee members have weighted votes determined by the percentage Democratic votes cast in that district in the most recent gubernatorial election. However despite the fact that this election occurred nearly three years ago, this information has not been made available. Consequently, our campaigns are unable to verify the numbers that will be used to decide the winner or even determine the percentage of our own support.

• Lack of Independent Oversight: Although the previous Manhattan Democratic Party Chairman recused himself in similar meetings when he had endorsed one of the candidates, you have disappointingly chosen to break from this tradition. Particularly given that there is no government oversight, 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.

While some of the abuses that have occurred this week cannot be undone, we call on you to immediately address the problems that can still be fixed, and to bring in an independent third party to conduct Saturday’s vote.

These tactics amount to voter suppression, and the integrity of the democratic process is too important to jeopardize. We urge you to reverse course before this process is tainted any further.

Sincerely,

Honorable Joyce Johnson, 30th Senatorial District candidate

District Leader John Ruiz, 30th Senatorial District candidate

District Leader Minister Al Taylor, 30th Senatorial District candidate

Updated to include further comment from Wright.

Harlem Candidates Accuse Democratic Machine of Rigging Contest for State Senate Seat