Caucus chaos in Guilderland cries out for primary

We’re not endorsing a particular candidate for Guilderland judge in this editorial. Rather, we’re looking at the current Democratic Party process with an eye to improve it.

After Guilderland’s town judge Richard Sherwood was charged with multiple felonies in February, he resigned and later pleaded guilty. This left the town board free to find a replacement. Guilderland’s court is a busy one, and the remaining two justices agreed to carry the extra load for a brief while.

Fourteen lawyers applied to fill the slot. The town board, made up of four Democrats and a Republican in a town dominated by Democrats, unanimously chose Christine Napierski. In May, the town’s Democratic committee chose Bryan Clenahan, one of the 14 candidates the board had earlier passed over, to be the party’s candidate.

But Napierski wanted to keep her job. She said she likes being a judge and she thinks she’s good at it.

Ultimately, she and her father and law partner, Eugene Napierski, sued in federal court to stop last Thursday’s Democratic caucus. The judge ruled that the caucus, scheduled for Tawasentha Park, could go on with stipulations to make it accessible to people with disabilities, including Napierski’s father. Clenahan won in the caucus vote, 153 to 132.

The questions raised in the Napierskis’ suit, though, go beyond accessibility at Tawasentha Park. The suit alleged that Democrats told Christine Napierski that she would never be elected to public office in Guilderland in the future if she did not withdraw her candidacy. The local Democratic Party is, by law, allowed to choose its candidates by caucus. But holding a primary election, as the other parties in town do, is a much fairer and more inclusive method.

A primary would offer equal access to all of Guilderland’s 9,000 enrolled Democrats. As revealed in last week’s court hearing, the Democratic committee had booked a park pavilion for the caucus, expecting under 100 voters — probably the committee members and their families.

Because of press coverage over Napierski’s challenge, over 300 turned out. Quite a few left without voting in the midst of the mayhem.

At least one attendee told our reporter Elizabeth Floyd Mair that other Democrats stayed away, believing a voice vote or show of hands would make their allegiances public, and they feared retribution.

As it turned out, paper ballots were used but a caucus doesn’t allow for absentee votes, or for votes from those overseas in the military. Nor does it provide the convenience of voting quickly at a time of the voter’s choosing, near home.

A primary election is overseen by the county’s board of elections, assuring accuracy and also providing a systematic means for resolving disputes and checking results.

As it is with the caucus vote, we’ve already received a letter from a Napierski supporter, “Chaos made caucus results suspect,” describing the way the caucus voting could have been cheated on.

In the county’s 2015 Democratic primary, for another local race, when Daniel Egan challenged Albany County Executive Daniel Mccoy, about 1,700 Guilderland Democrats voted. That’s more than five times the number that showed for Thursday’s caucus.

A primary typically draws more voters than a caucus. It’s more inclusive, better run, and therefore more representative of the people voting.

We urge the Guilderland Democrats to use a primary rather than a caucus in future elections. They’d stand a better chance of fielding a winning candidate if aspersions weren’t cast on their selection process.

If the purpose of a caucus or primary is to rubber stamp a committee’s choice, a caucus is the more expedient method.

But if the purpose of a caucus or a primary is to let all the members of a political party have a say in choosing the candidate they want to see on the November ballot for election, a primary is the best way.

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