A bad week for female candidates in Buffalo

Judge rules three Council candidates off ballot for petition flaws while challenger for comptroller withdraws from race
News and analysis by Geoff Kelly, Investigative Post's political reporter

State Supreme Court Judge Tracey Bannister on Monday expressed “some regret” in upholding the disqualification of three candidates for Buffalo Common Council, based on what she called a “material” and “substantive” defect in the form of their nominating petitions.  

Indeed, there is much to regret in this imbroglio, from its beginning to its conclusion. The case now moves to the 4th Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court.

“I’ve done what you’ve done and I know it’s hard,” Bannister told the three women — Melanie McMahan, Bernice Radle and Antoinette Craig — who were knocked from the June 25 Democratic primary ballot last week by the Erie County Board of Elections. The three were part of a slate of candidates who sought to challenge the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidates, all men, in five councilmanic districts.

It clearly pained the judge to curtail an effort to insert some gender equity onto the all-male Common Council. But state election law, Bannister found, is clear: The witness statement at the bottom of each page of a nominating petition must indicate that the witness is a registered member of the political party in which the candidate seeks to run. That language was missing in petitions submitted by McMahan, Radle and Craig.

In explaining her ruling, Bannister maintained that the absence of that language is not an inconsequential error. The language is there to ensure that primaries are intra-party affairs, free of meddling by rival political parties. Without it, Republicans might run candidates in Democratic primaries, and vice versa, to sow confusion and tie up opposition resources. No one argued that was happening here, but a judge must consider precedent: If you make an exception for innocent mistakes, you risk opening the door to cynical manipulations.

Further, Bannister said, the correct form and content of the witness statement is not a “hidden hoop” to jump through.

“This rule is not hidden in the case law. It’s there to be seen,” she said, noting that the required language is provided in the section of the election law that describes the form a nominating petition must take.

So how did the candidates and their campaign volunteers wind up passing these deficient forms? One of the three candidates, Radle, suggested that they’d chosen not to request the standard forms from the Board of Elections for fear of alerting Democratic Party headquarters of their intention to run. The board’s Democratic commissioner, Jeremy Zellner, is also chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee, an unsavory arrangement that creates an appearance of conflict, whether or not it manifests in Zellner’s actions as a commissioner.

In hindsight, the attempt at stealth was an unnecessary precaution: Their candidacies were a secret to no one. (Indeed, the campaign for Radle’s opponent, incumbent Niagara District Councilman David Rivera, knew that she was running and that she was circulating a flawed petition before Radle had officially announced.)

That stealth strategy and the flawed petition form — apparently a modified version of a nonpartisan nominating petition used in Buffalo school board elections — were provided by consultants who should have known better, and who should have vetted the petitions and sought to correct shortcomings before they were submitted to the Board of Elections.

“This court battle isn’t about petition form technicalities,” Radle said in a statement released after Bannister’s ruling. “This is about preservation of power. The rules are made by the party machine to protect the party machine, and they’re using these rules to crush insurgent candidates.”

That’s one way to look at it.

Another is that bad advice and bad materials from those consultants frustrated the hard work of three first-time candidates and their supporters. The consultants’ failures compelled a judge to hand down a ruling she expressed displeasure in making. (Bannister indicated her expectation, even her hope, that the three women would appeal her decision.) The whole affair provides grist to those who are convinced, and to some who benefit from convincing others, that politics and government are closed to them.

That’s regrettable, start to finish.

Even more regrettable: Vanessa Glushefski, who until two weeks ago was acting Buffalo comptroller, has decided to drop her bid to be elected to the job. Her nominating petition, too, was challenged; in a hearing last Wednesday, the election commissioners disallowed more than 800 of her signatures, leaving her about 250 shy of the 1,500 needed to make the ballot.

The commissioners offered Glushefski time to amend her petition — to correct addresses, gather supporting affidavits from voters whose signatures were tossed, etc. Over the weekend, however, she issued a statement ending her campaign, saying “the path to victory was too narrow and costly.”

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Glushefski was hired late last year as deputy comptroller, then made acting comptroller when the man who hired her, Mark Schroeder, departed for greener pastures as commissioner of the state Department of Transportation.

The county Democratic Party, however, chose to endorse Erie County Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams for the job.

The endorsement was a triumph of political horse-trading: Miller-Williams is a long-time friend to Mayor Byron Brown, who yearns for a comptroller who will not hound him the way Schroeder did. Democratic Party headquarters was happy to shed Miller-Williams from the county Legislature and replace her with a more reliable ally, Howard Johnson Jr., who is politically active in Unity Coalition, an East Side political group at odds with the mayor’s Grassroots political club.

Glushefski has a stronger resume for the job than Miller-Williams: She is an attorney and a CPA with administrative experience. Miller-Williams is a retired Buffalo police officer who served on the Common Council before moving to the county Legislature. But Glushefski has few political allies among party leadership, while Miller-Williams is wired.

Two weeks ago, the Common Council doubled down on the deal by naming Miller-Williams interim comptroller.

At the April 16 Common Council meeting, the North District’s Joe Golombek nominated Glushefski for the interim job. University District Councilman Rasheed Wyatt nominated Miller-Williams. When the roll was called, Golombek alone voted for Glushefski. (When his name was called, Fillmore District’s Dave Franczyk, with a look of disgust, replied, “Nemo. That means ‘no one’ in Latin.”) The other seven councilmen sealed the deal for Miller-Williams.

And now she will run unopposed in the June 25 Democratic primary.

UPDATE: Click here to read an affidavit from Diana Cihak of Women Elect, which provided support and advice to candidates Radle, McMahan and Craig. The affidavit was submitted to Judge Bannister’s court; in it, Cihak acknowledges the error in the petition forms and describes how the error was made.