When a group of Democratic candidates running for District 32 came together in a solidarity pact not to challenge each other’s petition signatures to get on the ballot, they had hoped the agreement would avoid objections and reduce the risk of in-person campaigning.
Their health-first goal of stopping petition challenges was not successful. Two weeks ago, a Rockaway resident named Teresa A. O’Brien-Israel filed general objections against five of the Democratic candidates — the first step in challenging petition signatures.
She has followed up with specifications against the petitions of Community Board 9 Chairman Kenichi Wilson and community organizer Raimondo Graziano — a process that will kickstart a review by the Board of Elections, and could end up keeping them off the ballot.
Though O’Brien-Israel has not formally been linked to any campaign, the pattern of those targeted suggests that she is associated with Mike Scala, a Howard Beach attorney running for the seat. Two of the three candidates that O’Brien-Israel refrained from challenging were those that Scala ranked to qns.com as his favorites after his own bid.
Scala did not confirm or deny whether O’Brien-Israel was associated with his campaign when the Chronicle asked him directly.
“I can’t comment out of respect for the process,” he said.
O’Brien-Israel could not be reached.
Graziano, one of the two candidates whose campaign remains threatened by the petitions, said the person who lodged the challenges is probably a moderate, like himself, who is afraid of competition.
“It’s obviously an individual who shares the same kind of views as we do, but it doesn’t really like the idea of competition and believes that, ‘Hey, you got a bunch of progressives in the race. Let the progressives fight each other out — Felicia [Singh] and Shaeleigh Severino — divide the votes that way.”
Under election law, those running for Council needed to physically collect 270 signatures from registered voters in their districts. While that threshold was lower than usual this year due to the pandemic, some candidates say that the signature provision should have been completely done away with for the sake of safety.
In theory, the objections process allows candidates to challenge their competitors if they feel that they have not proven valid community support for running. In practice, the process has historically been used by the Queens Democratic Party to invalidate the bids of insurgent candidates for technical errors.
Scala said the signature requirement is important because otherwise the system is too easily manipulated.
“At the end of the day, if you have the signatures and you follow the process, you’ll get on the ballot,” Scala said.
Felicia Singh, one of the candidates who received a general objection but not any specifications, argued that the archaic rules of the objections process often have the effect of keeping women or people of color off the ballot.
“I don’t think it should exist because it inherently has problematic issues with that system unless we change it to something that’s different. But right now the way it is it’s super archaic,” she said.
In the case of Wilson and Graziano, both candidates have hundreds of signatures beyond the 270 threshold. Wilson, who said he stopped collecting signatures at around 750, is seeing over 550 challenged. Graziano, who said that he received almost 1,000 signatures, is having over 700 challenged.
One of Singh’s volunteers, Marva Kerwin, told the Chronicle that a staffer on Scala’s campaign, Andrey Bystrov, openly talked about planning to use petition objection as part of a strategy when the attorney was first considering a 2021 run. Kerwin said Bystrov talked about his intention to lodge challenges against Singh in particular.
“He said, ‘She’s not going to get on the ballot because we’re going to challenge her because a South Asian can never win this district.’ He went off saying like, ‘The district is this and there’s not enough South Asians who are going to vote for her,’” said Kerwin.
Bystrov disputed the anecdote, saying that he doesn’t believe Singh’s platform in particular can win the seat but that he does think it would be possible for a South Asian candidate to come out on top.
“The statement attributed to me would be odd given that I’ve run candidates of all ethnic backgrounds throughout the state in the fifteen years since I’ve begun organizing. This includes South Asian candidates running for Congress, state office and City Council, including in the district immediately bordering ours,” Bystrov said in an email.
Wilson and Graziano will now have to mount a legal defense of their petition signatures in order to get on the ballot.