You’ve gotta fight for your right to run for your party

By Olga Mantilla

Six of the 11 candidates in the race for Manhattan’s Second City Council District gathered on the steps of City Hall last Thursday to decry what they called the “antidemocratic” turn the race took last Mon. July 18 when members of the political organization Coalition for a District Alternative filed challenges against five of them in their bids to represent the sprawling district that includes the Lower East Side, the East Village, Alphabet City, Gramercy Park and Murray Hill.

Five of the six candidates against whom Michael Farrin, CoDA co-president, and Roanna Judelson, a CoDA member, filed challenges were present at the protest, including Reverend Joan Brightharp, Michael Lopez, Christopher Papajohn, Claudia Flanagan and Mildred Martinez. Former Democratic District Leader Roberto Caballero, Brightharp’s campaign manager and a founder of the Committee to Defeat Margarita Lopez — whose petition signatures to get on the ballot for district leader were also challenged by CoDA — stood in solidarity with the candidates.

Manuel Cavaco, another council candidate for District 2 whose petitions CoDA challenged, was not present.

The group of disgruntled candidates, brought together by Gur Tsabar, another 2nd Council District whose petitions are not being challenged, rallied to ask CoDA to withdraw its challenges.

“We’re all legitimate candidates,” said Tsabar. “We’ve all exceeded petitioning requirements. This club [CoDA] wants to decide for the people. I call for them to simply drop their challenges.

“Everyone they have challenged is of color. They’re limiting diversity from the ballot. It is shameful and absolutely wrong,” he said.

To qualify to run for election, each council candidate needs to obtain valid signatures of at least 900 registered Democrats residing in the district. If a challenge is lodged against a candidate’s petitions, the New York City Board of Elections reviews the petitions for illegible names and addresses, dead persons and any other illegalities that may be alleged. The board’s verdict as to whether a candidate has enough valid signatures determines whether he or she can be on the ballot.

CoDA, which is supporting Mendez’s candidacy, is the home political organization of both Mendez and the district’s current councilmember, Margarita Lopez, who must leave office at the end of this year because of term limits.

“We represent the wishes of over 15,000 voters by way of their petition signatures,” said Michael Lopez, who works for Verizon and is disabled. “Rosie and Margarita Lopez want the wishes of over 15,000 voters to be put in the garbage.

“This is not Florida. This is New York. The election should be decided in the voting booth, not in the court,” he said. Ballot petition challenges are often ultimately decided in court.

CoDA, a progressive grassroots political organization, was founded in 1992 to contest the policies of former District 2 Councilmember Antonio Pagan, among other issues. Farrin, a CoDA founder, charges that Tsabar has disparaged the organization as a “political machine” in leaflets distributed at Tsabar’s rallies.

“CoDA tries to balance both community and electoral sides of politics,” Farrin said. “We organized community support for workers in the green groceries — the food and vegetable stands — and worked with the unions and the workers to make sure they received the protection of the state labor laws,” Farrin said. The group has recently protested against the Con Edison expansion at the E. 14th St. plant and has helped organize antiwar protests in the community, he added.

But the City Council candidates at the City Hall rally were not there to laud the accomplishments of CoDA, but rather to accuse the group of suppressing diversity and competition on the ballot.

“CoDA’s agenda is to remove any Latino candidates from opposing Rosie Mendez,” said Caballero. “That is what CoDA is, that’s what they represent and that’s what had to be brought forth.”

“They count on people not having enough money,” Flanagan said of CoDA. “I don’t have a political machine behind me. I did my own petitioning.”

Some candidates also took the opportunity to condemn their rival Mendez.

“Mendez does not have 10,000 signatures. She is lying on her Web site,” Reverend Brightharp said. Brightharp alleges that Mendez only has 7,000, citing her campaign coordinator John Moody, as her source of information. “I’m challenging her,”

Brightharp has filed a formal challenge to Mendez’s signatures.

“Every citizen in New York should be allowed to run for office,” said Brightharp. “We’re coming at them. And we will do it in the courtroom. We’ll come like Muhamamd Ali.”

Several of the candidates made it clear that they believed that Mendez was directly responsible for the challenges, acting in conjunction with CoDA and the many elected officials who officially endorsed her at a City Hall rally last week. They bristled at the declaration, made by the district’s former councilmember, Miriam Friedlander, and reported in last week’s Villager, that it was “time to pass the torch” of progressive leadership on to Mendez.

“No one has given them the privilege of passing the torch to anybody,” Brightharp said in a huff. “May the best man win.”

Not all the challenged candidates jumped at the opportunity to take shots at Mendez and the political honchos backing her election.

“The challenges are undemocratic, that’s why we’re here. But I will not be challenging [Mendez’s petitions],” Papajohn said.

“One of the greatest parts of living in a democracy is being able to run for office. We’re here saying that the voters should make this decision.”

On Tuesday, CoDA dropped its challenge of Papajohn’s petitions, but is continuing with its challenge of the other candidates — meaning all the other women and minorities besides Mendez face being knocked off the ballot.

Farrin told The Villager they probably would have continued to challenge Papajohn’s signatures, having already significantly whittled down the number of his valid signatures in one of his two volumes of petitions to a few hundred, but that the Board of Elections somehow “lost” Papajohn’s other volume in its compressed computerized system.

In addition, Caballero subsequently told The Villager he thinks that challenging petitions is the right thing to do, if justified. CoDA has also dropped its challenge of his district leader petitions, so he’ll be on the ballot in September.

“If a candidate does not have the required amount of signatures they should be removed from the ballot — and that includes Brightharp,” Caballero said of the candidate whose campaign he’s managing. “If I was in their position, I would have done the exact same thing as CoDA is doing.”