Clenahan wins Dem caucus by 21 votes

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
The lines were long as Democrats — close to 300 — formed three queues to sign in to vote at Thursday’s Democratic caucus where the race for town judge was hotly contested. See more photos.

GUILDERLAND — Just 21 votes separated Bryan Clenahan and Christine Napierski July 26 at the Guilderland Democratic caucus, which was conducted using paper ballots rather than a voice vote or a show of hands because so many voters — 285 — turned up at Tawasentha Park.

The final tally was 153 to 132 in favor of Clenahan, who had been the Democratic committee’s choice.

He was challenged by Christine Napierski who wanted to keep her job after she was unanimously appointed by the Guilderland Town Board in April to fill the vacancy left when Richard Sherwood resigned, charged with felony fraud.

As the voting continued, Barbara Samel told The Enterprise, “I think this is one of the biggest political stories of the year — a woman taking on the Democratic machine.”

The temperature inside the pavilion at Tawasentha Park was noticeably hotter than outside, and the process was long, scheduled to start at 6 and concluding at 8:30 p.m. Tempers flared at times, even with selection of caucus officers. And the crowd showed some edginess as a long line of regional politicians gave stump speeches.

The crowd chanted “Vote! Vote!” when it was finally time for the town justice polling.

Said Laura Barry, who is a member of the town’s Conservation Advisory Council, “It’s just how democracy should be. Messy, but people are showing up.”

Napierski and her father and law partner, Eugene Napierski, had sued last week to halt the caucus, arguing among other things that the park was inaccessible to people with disabilities like her father. Federal Judge Glenn Suddaby ruled the caucus could go on with stipulations to accommodate people with handicaps.

The Democrats had paid for a park permit to allow for 100 people at the pavilion; there are more than 9,000 enrolled Democrats in Guilderland — the dominant party.

Clenahan told The Enterprise, after he was declared the winner, “I couldn’t be happier or more grateful for the support of the Democrats. I look forward to us all coming together as one party in November, to fight against the Trump wave from Washington.”

Napierski said, “They told me they would crush me, and I think they failed in that. I think I exposed a lot of unfair practices. And I’m not going away. I love being a judge, and I want to continue.”

She has the Conservative Party line and plans to run in November.

When the caucus had ended, Eugene Napierski said, “It was a great experience, for somebody who has no political background at all. The Democratic committee has a lot to think about.”

The process

The long picnic tables under the pavilion were filled on Thursday, as was a large space near the front that had been left open for people with mobility issues. People stood several deep all around the edges of the pavilion.

Matthew Clyne, who told The Enterprise he was there not in his official capacity as Democratic commissioner of the county board of elections but as a notary public, swore in the vote-counters.

Only the vote for town justice was conducted by paper ballot. Eugene Napierski and Dennis Feeney were both nominated to be caucus chairman. Napierski told Feeney he’d withdraw from the race for chairman if paper ballots were used. Feeney showed Napierski the paper ballot and then Napierski withdrew, so Feeney was named chairman. Steve Parker then won the position of caucus secretary, over Terry Hurley, whose nomination was seconded by Christine Napierski.

The crowd was asked for nominations for highway superintendent. The first nominated was Salvatore Priore, who was one of the candidates who had applied for the job several months ago after Steven Oliver retired from the post before his term was up. Priore was nominated by Napierski’s brother-in-law, Joe Siracusa.

Then Greg Wier was nominated. He is currently serving in the post, having been unanimously appointed by the town board after Oliver resigned, and was the Democratic committee’s pick to continue. Wier was soon declared the winner.

Then it was on to the race that nearly all the voters had come for. Tony Siracusa, Christine Napierski’s husband, nominated her, and Donald Reeb, former long-time president of the McKownville Improvement Association, nominated Clenahan.

The people in the front section — those with mobility issues — were asked to come up first and get their ballots. Once they showed the stamp they had gotten on their hands when they signed the voter rolls just outside the pavilion and handed over the “I VOTED” sticker they had been given at the same time, they received a piece of paper only a few inches tall printed with just the words, “Guilderland Democratic Party Caucus, July 26, 2018, Town Justice.” Below that was a blank line over the words, “Write in name of candidate.”

Voters needed to write in either Napierski’s or Clenahan’s name and put the ballots into a brown cardboard box. Supporters of both candidates were sitting or standing nearby, watching closely.

Laura Shore of Altamont expressed dismay that voters were not told that a paper ballot would be used. She said she knew several people who did not come to the caucus because they were afraid of possible retribution in the future if people could see how they voted.

Asked about this, Guilderland Democratic Chairman Jacob Crawford said, with a broad smile, “There’s never retribution for taking part in democracy.”

Dennis Feeney told The Enterprise that he made the ballots himself, in his office. Asked when the decision to use ballots was made, he said, “Tuesday.” Asked why voters hadn’t been told in advance, he said, “Maybe it was Wednesday.”

Lynn Kinlan, who was attending her first caucus, said, “I don’t like the idea that Bryan Clenahan is related to Denise Randall, seems like nepotism. And, if the candidate was good enough a few months ago, why not now?”

She was referring to Guilderland town judge, Randall, whose daughter is married to Clenahan. Guilderland has three judges. The third is John Bailey. All three are Democrats.

Salvatore Tarzia said he was there to vote for Clenahan. “I think he got the most endorsements, from the Democratic Party, and the Working Families Party, and the Independence Party,” he said. Tarzia said he was a member of the Guilderland Democratic Committee.

Voter Cliff Zucker quipped, “Good thing it’s a secret ballot. You wouldn’t want to come before a judge you had voted against, if you got a speeding ticket.”

Tyler Mowll was still undecided as he got closer and closer to the front of the line to vote. He said he would have liked to know more about the two candidates’ positions and philosophy.

“I’m in favor of leniency as a general philosophy, although it’s case-to-case specific. Long-term incarceration doesn’t do anything to reduce crime or bring out the good that’s in people,” Mowll said. “A lot of human capital is lost.”

Mowll also said he was leaning toward Clenahan, because he knew more about his views. “From her, I just get a lot of complaints, not how she’s actually going to perform as a judge,” he said.  

At one point in the voting, Napierski called Feeney’s attention to a voter who had neither a hand stamp nor a sticker. Feeney told The Enterprise that the man was a “legal voter” who had somehow failed to get a stamp or sticker.

“I don’t know what happened,” Feeney said. “He got here too early, maybe, before they were signing people up? But just to make it absolutely fair, we didn’t let him vote.”

Betty Head, a Clenahan supporter who sat right next to the cardboard box containing the votes, said, “I think the committee has held up remarkably well under the duress of a group of people who want to turn the party into their own party, the party of Christine Napierski.”

She added, “There is not supposed to be any electioneering near a polling place, and there is a car outside with a Napierski sign on it. And people are wearing T-shirts with candidates’ names on them.”

Finally, the tallying began, as the town’s personnel administrator Stacia Smith-Brigadier picked up the ballots, one by one, read the name, and then placed each into one of two other cardboard boxes. One vote-counter wrote another tick-mark on a sheet of paper each time Clenahan’s name was called, and another did the same for Napierski, as supporters of both candidates watched.

There were a small number of ballots at the end that were hard to read, which were closely examined and photographed by supporters of both candidates. The caucus chairman had the final say on how to treat them.

Three of them were deemed to be illegible. One for “Brian C.” was accepted as a vote for Clenahan, as was another written in cursive that clearly started with a “C” and could possibly have been “Christine” but looked more like “Clenahan.”

Eleventh-hour lawsuit

On July 19, a week before the caucus, the Napierskis sued in federal court to try to stop the caucus, arguing that the Democratic committee members had selected the caucus method to unfairly benefit their candidate; that Democrats had tried to coerce Napierski into accepting Clenahan; and that the caucus site, Tawasentha Park’s large pavilion, is difficult to access for those who are frail or have mobility issues.  

Eugene Napierski has a progressive neurological disorder and uses a motorized scooter.

Suddaby ruled late Tuesday afternoon that the caucus could go forward, but with many additional provisions for accessibility, including: monitors placed at the entrance to the park and at all the parking lots to ensure that the caucus does not begin before all would-be voters reach the pavilion; proxy voting for anyone who cannot walk to the pavilion; dedication of the lot immediately adjacent to the pavilion for handicapped voters and drop-offs; and improved bathroom accessibility.

Napierski was appointed in April to the post of town justice, which opened after then-justice Sherwood was arrested in February, charged with stealing millions of dollars from family trusts he oversaw in his work as a private attorney.

Sherwood was later suspended; he resigned and eventually pleaded guilty to charges in both federal and county courts. He is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on Oct. 11.

The town board interviewed 14 candidates, including Clenahan, and selected Napierski for the job. Town Supervisor Peter Barber said at the time that Napierski was selected for her depth of experience in trial law, mediation, and negotiations, as well as for her even temperament and her ability to meet the scheduling demands of the job, which requires being on-call 24 hours a day, every third week.

Napierski is a partner in the law firm Napierski, VanDenburgh, Napierski & O’Connor. The other two justices — both Democrats — are also partners in private law firms. Denise Randall and her husband, Bob Randall, operate the Randall Law Firm, while John Bailey is with Bailey, Johnson & Peck.

Two months later, the Guilderland Democratic Committee notified Napierski that it planned to back not her but Clenahan as the candidate at its caucus in July.

During the campaign, both sides raised issues questioning the other candidate’s integrity. Napierski had failed to respond to a November speeding ticket and her driver’s license was suspended in March, then reinstated in June. Her father told The Enterprise that she never drove during that period, but received rides from family members. In a letter to The Enterprise, Christine Napierski wrote that she regretted and was embarrassed by missing her court date, but that the episode showed she is “not a perfect person” and that it makes her a better judge by helping her “understand the fallibility of the people who appear before me.”

Clenahan has had tax warrants issued against him by the state of New York’s Department of Taxation and Finance in three different years, 2003, 2013, and 2015, as well as a court judgment in favor of a bank in a credit-card matter, in 2001. Clenahan told The Enterprise that the tax warrants were honest mistakes resulting from his trying to fill out his own tax forms for many years, and that he now uses a tax professional.

Ray Gray, a Democrat at the caucus, told The Enterprise, “I think it’s pretty pathetic that we’re here to replace a guy, Richard Sherwood, who thought he was above the law. And we’re having to choose between two people who, in my opinion, think they’re above the law.”

The primary process is run and overseen by the Albany County Board of Elections, and uses ballots, including absentee and military ballots. It allows for anonymous voting all day in a variety of locations.

The county board of elections has no oversight over caucuses, but only receives the results. A caucus is held in one location, at one time, and candidates may be determined by any of three methods: standing; raising of hands; or a voice vote, which is an estimation of which side is louder. 

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