Viola-Straight withdraws from Knox supervisor race over Hatch Act concerns

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Michelle Viola Straight speaks as the president of the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce, a position she held before joining the Veterans and Community Housing Coalition.

KNOX — Michelle Viola-Straight, who was running for Knox Town Supervisor on the Conservative line and, likely, the GOP line, has withdrawn from the race because her work as director of community relations with the Veterans and Community Housing Coalition precludes her from seeking government office in a partisan election.

In an email to The Enterprise, Viola-Straight wrote that, “due to some of our funding streams,” she is unable to “be elected into a paid position,” and that she’ll consider running for local office again when she eventually leaves her current job.

Viola-Straight had sent her request to withdraw from the race to the Albany County Board of Elections’ Republican Commissioner, Rachel Bledi, around May 21, Bledi told The Enterprise earlier this month; Viola-Straight had cited a potential Hatch Act violation, she said.

The Hatch Act is a federal law passed in 1939 that “limits certain political activities of federal employees, as well as some state, D.C., and local government employees who work in connection with federally funded programs,” according to the United States Office of Special Counsel. The purpose of the law is to minimize opportunities for corruption, coercion, and other improprieties that could affect the efficacy of federal programming.

In Berne, Supervisor Sean Lyons is unable to seek re-election this year under the same law, since he became a federal employee while he was in office. The law does not prevent a federal employee or other relevant party from holding office, only seeking office through partisan election. 

So, Lyons had not broken any law by not remaining supervisor once he took on federal employment, and both he and Viola-Straight could theoretically be appointed to the positions they desire if there were a vacancy. 

The Enterprise reported earlier this month that Viola-Straight, who is also chairwoman of the Knox GOP, was the surprise replacement candidate for the current supervisor, Vasilios  Lefkaditis, who is not seeking re-election.

Lefkaditis, although a Democrat, has run on either the Conservative or GOP lines since his first campaign in 2015, which he won against longtime Democratic Supervisor Michael Hammond. Since Lefkaditis’s victory, the town board, which for decades hada majority of Democrats, reflecting enrollment in the town, has become stacked with GOP-backed candidates. 

Lefkaditis’s victory was part of a general rise in conservative support in the Hilltowns that corresponded with the election of Republican populist Donald Trump as president. The majority of Hilltowners voted for Trump in 2016 despite favoring moderate Democrat Barack Obama in 2012.

Berne has also seen a Democrat-backed town board become almost entirely GOP-backed in the four years that Trump was in office, resulting in a series of policy and personnel upsets that have mobilized an aggressive Democratic brigade in time for this year’s election; and the Westerlo town board now has a slim 3-to-2 GOP majority, although the newcomer who gave them that majority, Matthew Kryzak, more frequently votes with the Democrats, which likely contributes to a calmer political environment than exists in Berne. 

With Trump out of office and the national conservative identity more decisively split between the far- and middle-right, it’s unclear whether Hilltown Republicans and Conervative party members will have the same fervor as in recent years, or if Democrats will successfully capitalize on the “return to normalcy” philosophy advocated by their national counterpart.

Through it all, Rensselaerville’s town board has enjoyed mostly bipartisan support, as far as party endorsements go.


State of the race

Both Lefkaditis and Viola-Straight have been ignoring Enterprise inquiries regarding the election and other matters for the past two weeks, with each offering only the most summary confirmations of important points — that is, Lefkaditis’s decision not t0 run and Viola-Straight’s withdrawal — on the record. 

Lefkaditis told The Enterprise by phone earlier this month that he would send an emailed statement about his decision not to run, but he never did, and The Enterprise has not been able to reach him since. 

When confirming her withdrawal, Viola-Straight ignored a question about who would replace her on the right-wing party lines. 

Whoever it is will be facing Russell Pokorny, who’s running for the second time on the Demcoratic line. Pokorny is a former assessor for the town and ran against Lefkaditis in 2019, losing narrowly. Along with his wife, Amy Pokorny, Russell Pokorny owns the Octagon Barn, an events venue that hosts a variety of programs.

As of May 28, of the major parties, only the Conservatives and Democrats had put up candidates. Brigitte McAuliffe, a frequent Lefkaditis critic, is running on the Accountability Party line, which she created. 

Candidates on the Conservative line are all incumbents, and include:

— Traci Schanz, for town clerk;

— Matthew Schanz, for highway superintendent;

— Karl Pritchard and Kenny Saddlemire, for town board; 

— Elizabeth Walk, for tax collector; and

— Timothy Francis, for justice.

Democrats have put up only two candidates so far: Pokorny for supervisor, and Deborah Liddle for town clerk.

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