War of Words—and Numbers—Erupts in Harlem Over Vacant State Senate Seat

"This is chaos, and there's been more democratic elections in North Korea."

State Senator Bill Perkins, center, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Bill Perkins/Facebook

The battle for an empty seat in Upper Manhattan took another strange turn today, as it appears the Democratic machine circulated inaccurate information pertaining to the arcane process of selecting a candidate.

Harlem State Senator Bill Perkins exited Albany last month after winning a City Council seat, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo to call a special election to fill the vacancy in the capital. Special elections for state posts do not involve primaries: instead, the local county committee—a panel of party insiders—votes at a nominating convention to choose who runs on their line, a forum scheduled for noon today.

In deep-blue areas like Harlem, securing the Democratic row on the ballot virtually guarantees victory in the election. This has already led to accusations from three outside candidates—local district leaders John Ruiz and Rev. Al Taylor, and community activist Joyce Johnson—that New York County Democratic Party Chairman Keith Wright has sought to give unfair advantage to his preferred candidate, Brian Benjamin.

The Manhattan Democratic Party is badly fractured, and the official organization holds little sway outside of parts of Harlem.

The ballots of county committee members are weighted according to how many people in their area pulled the lever for the Democratic candidate in the most gubernatorial election. The campaign for the nomination thus effectively consists of winning over the committee members wielding the greatest clout at the convention.

Now it appears that the Wright’s machine put out inaccurate information yesterday about which members of the committee carried what weight—which apparently amped up the influence of its own supporters on the county committee.

For instance, numbers from the state Board of Elections turnout suggest Wright’s son and wife—both members of the county committee—would share a weight of 335 votes. But a list that Wright’s organization shared with the various candidates and their campaigns accorded the two of them 601 votes.

The Observer identified nearly 50 other such discrepancies between the BOE numbers and the Democratic machine’s numbers, amounting to almost 14,000 votes, enough potentially to sway a tight convention, where many expect Taylor to scrape close to Benjamin.

Committee members who, going by the BOE’s figures, would enjoy 97 votes saw their worth swell to 438 in the machine’s calculations—or from 38 to 203, and from 73 to 461. Others had their weight tank from 157 votes to zero.

Most of the surges occurred in the boundaries of the Assembly district that Wright used to represent, and among members who sources identified as those supporting Benjamin for the State Senate seat.

“We can’t have a legitimate election if we don’t even know how many eligible votes exist,” Ruiz complained to the Observer. “And we can’t have a credible outcome if there’s no independent oversight. This is chaos, and there’s been more democratic elections in North Korea.”

A source close to Wright told the Observer that the discrepancies are the consequence of the city Board of Elections reorganizing election districts after the 2014 gubernatorial election. The county party organizations are responsible for appointing most personnel to the BOE.

Updated to include insight from the Manhattan Democratic Party, and to clarify that the Keith Wright on the county committee is the chairman’s son, not the chairman himself. War of Words—and Numbers—Erupts in Harlem Over Vacant State Senate Seat