Guilderland Dems to consider primary system rather than caucus

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
At the Guilderland Democratic Committee’s organizational meeting at the end of September, Jean Cataldo, left, was elected second vice chair; Jacob Crawford, center, was elected chairman; and Dennis Feeney, right, was elected first vice chair. 

GUILDERLAND — Following the Nov. 6 election, the Guilderland Democratic Committee plans to form a committee to look into broad issues surrounding the difference between using caucuses, as it traditionally has, or using primaries to choose candidates.

The issue came to a head when town Judge Christine Napierski, who lost in Tuesday’s election, was not backed by the Democratic committee and then challenged the caucus system in a federal suit.

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” said Napierski when told by The Enterprise about the Democratic committee’s plan, which was discussed at its Sept. 27 organizational meeting for the 2018-2020 term. “I’m so happy to hear that. I think that’s a great development.”

The Enterprise had editorialized in August, urging the Democrats to move to a primary system to select candidates.

A two-thirds vote of the 60 members of the Guilderland Democratic Committee would be needed to make a change from a caucus to a primary system.

According to New York State Election Law, cities must hold primaries. Towns in counties with populations of less than 750,000 can choose which system to use. Albany County has a population of  304,204, according to the most recent, 2010, federal census.

Napierski had been chosen unanimously by the Guilderland Town Board in April over 13 other lawyers, and then a different candidate, Bryan Clenahan, was endorsed by the Democratic committee in June; it was too late at that point to force a primary, a process requiring at least four months.

The position became open when Richard Sherwood resigned after being charged in February for stealing millions of dollars from family trusts he oversaw in his work as a private attorney; he later pleaded guilty to felony grand larceny, money laundering, and tax fraud.

Clenahan and Republican candidate Stephen Chesley were both among the candidates who had been considered and interviewed by the town board before Napierski was announced as the town’s board’s selection in April. Napierski ran in the general election on the conservative party line.

On July 26, a caucus was held in Tawasentha Park where 285 Democrats — about 3 percent of the town’s enrolled Democrats — wrote in names on small paper ballots; Clenahan won by 21 votes. Many more people attended the caucus, but not all stayed long enough in the heat and humidity to cast votes.

Napierski had brought a federal lawsuit a week prior to the caucus in an effort to stop the proceedings, alleging that the caucus was designed to favor the committee’s candidate and stating that she had been told by a number of prominent Democrats to step aside in favor of Clenahan if she ever wanted to hold office in Guilderland in the future.

Town officials and Democrats have been largely mum on specific reasons they may have had for preferring Clenahan, other than the fact that Clenahan was a committee member and Napierski was not. But town Supervisor Peter Barber, a Democrat, told The Enterprise in June, about the earlier appointment process, “We knew there was a pressing need to get a third judge appointed. We needed to make sure we not only got a qualified person, but somebody who was available .... It’s a very demanding job, in terms of time.”

Accusations about Napierski and Clenahan swirled when Napierski refused to step down: Napierski had an untended speeding ticket that had led to her driver’s license being suspended; Clenahan had three years’ worth of tax warrants the state had issued, in 2001, 2003, and 2013.

Napierski told The Enterprise recently that she would reach out to Guilderland’s committee, to tell its members what she had learned, from knocking on doors and talking with town residents, about the difficulty of getting people out to vote in a caucus.

Caucuses are held at one location at one set time and require voters to be present longer than do primaries, to wait to vote, which can be by voice vote, a show of hands, or by writing names on paper ballots. Caucuses are overseen by the local party committee.

Primaries are held throughout the day at all neighborhood polling places and involve casting a ballot using a ballot box; they also allow for absentee ballots. They are overseen by the county board of elections.

Democratic committee members, who had supported her opponent, were the ones running the Guilderland caucus, Napierski pointed out. “They made a lot of last-minute efforts to improve things, but still it would have been better to have a primary,” she added.

Clyne favors caucuses

Matthew Clyne, the Democratic commissioner of the Albany County Board of Elections, said that caucuses are designed to “enable people who are working for the party routinely to have more of a say in who the nominee is.” He said that that was “a legitimate factor,” and said that, if you were someone who works year in and year out to ensure that Democratic candidates are elected to put office, “you would certainly want to have more of an input in who the nominee is. Because you’re shouldering the log.”

Committee members are in a good position to choose candidates, Clyne said, “because they are involved with political operations on more than a passing basis.” He went on,  “They’re involved year after year, perennially; they probably have a better idea about the quality of the candidates, or their suitability, to represent the Democratic Party for public office. I think that they would have more of an insight into the merits of a particular candidacy than the public at large would.”

The committee’s interview process serves to screen candidates, Clyne said, about electability, political views, and ability to work with other members of the local government, and that screening process is beneficial.

Clyne also said primaries should be avoided if possible, because they can split the party and cause hard feelings and discourage residents from voting close to the time of the general election. Primaries are held in September, whereas caucuses are held in July or August.

Primaries are expensive in terms of labor, according to Clyne. “You’re tying people up for key times during the political cycle from the beginning of June to the second week in September and that reduces the ability, I think, to get the vote out in November in a general election.”

Primaries also split the vote in many cases, said Cline, with the result that there may be resentment after the primary that may further reduce the party’s ability to get out the vote.

Because of those hard feelings, Clyne said, “I do not believe that primaries are healthy at all.” He added, “I don’t think anybody that does this would actually believe that.”

There’s “no question” that primaries undermine the strength of the committee and “its ability to deliver a vote in the fall,” Clyne said.

Another factor that goes into the calculus of caucus-versus-primary, Clyne said, is the question of who has third-party lines. “Who’s got the Conservative line? Who’s got the Independence line? … There’s a lot of pros and cons to either system.”

The primary system benefits people “who are not necessarily involved in the party at any level,” Clyne said. These people can come, he explained, and file designating petitions, and hold a primary, “even though they have little or no support, and little or no history in supporting the party.”

By contrast, the caucus system, Clyne said, is designed to “enable people who are working for the party routinely, to have more of a say in who the nominee is.”

Dems in Bethlehem, Colonie use primaries

In Albany County, Democratic committees in Bethlehem and Colonie — the only towns in the county that are about as big, or bigger, than Guilderland — use a primary system. Guilderland has a population of 35,303; Bethlehem has 33,656. And Colonie has 81,591 — all according to the 2010 census.

The other towns in Albany county, which are smaller than Guilderland — New Scotland, Ravena, Coeymans, Berne, Knox, Rensselaerville, and Westerlo — use a caucuses.

Jeffrey Kuhn, who was chairman of the Bethlehem Democratic Committee for six years until its recent organizational meeting, when he did not run again, said that Bethlehem has used a primary system for the whole decade that he has been on the committee.

He has never heard any discussion of the merits of a primary system versus a caucus, but said, “I don’t think there would be a lot of support in Bethlehem for instituting a caucus system. I think, rightly or wrongly, primaries are viewed as more democratic, and that you get a larger percentage of enrolled Democrats taking part when you use a primary system.”

Kuhn, who spoke to The Enterprise before the Nov. 6 election, said none of his comments should be taken as “in any way a criticism of what Guilderland’s doing,” or of town-justice candidate Bryan Clenahan, who Kuhn said “would probably do a fantastic job.”

Clyne, of the county board of elections, remembers when Bethlehem changed to a primary system, which was in the early 1990s, he said, “because the caucus system wasn’t generating enough PR,” he said, referring to public relations. He added, “But we were fighting Republicans. We weren’t fighting Democrats … It depends what the context is, what the political backdrop is for your operations.”

Bethlehem’s Kuhn believes that, with a caucus system, a smaller number of people would decide who was going to be the candidate. “It’s my general view,” he said, “that I tend to look unfavorably on any procedures or processes that invariably result in fewer people taking part in the democratic process.”

Kuhn disagreed with Clyne’s idea that committee members should have greater input into the selection of candidates because they “are shouldering the log” every year, working for the party.

“That’s an argument,” Kuhn said. “Not one I agree with. We have a strong tradition in this country of one-person, one-vote. We don’t have the view that people who are more active in local politics have a greater say in who will be our elected officials.”

Kuhn said that there are many municipalities where one party dominates and, if a caucus system were in place, “You would essentially have the caucus deciding, in a practical sense, who is ultimately going to be elected to public office.”  

Joanne Cunningham was elected at the end of September as Bethlehem’s new Democratic Party chairwoman. She believes that primaries empower the people who can participate — “In New York State, that’s the members of the party.” Bethlehem has “pretty high turnout” in its primaries and the primary “has been a very effective tool for voter expression,” she said.

She said she’d like to know more about the historical basis for Guilderland’s choosing to have a caucus.

At a primary, “people show up, they cast their ballots, and it’s a more concrete way of assessing what a community’s electoral preferences are.” It’s more data-driven, she said.

On the other hand, Cunningham said, “You look at the presidential caucuses, and I think they have it fine-tuned down to a science.” She would not automatically assume that the caucus system is a bad system, “not at all,” she said.

Ellen Rosano was the chairwoman of the Democratic Committee in Colonie for the past two years, until the organizational meeting this fall; before that, she spent two or four years — she couldn’t remember — as the first vice chairwoman. Current Chairman George Penn could not be reached.

There are 20,000 Democrats in Colonie, Rosano said, and, if the town were to hold a caucus, it would need a place to accommodate many people. “Even if 1,000 showed up, it would still be a nightmare. Where would you hold it?” she asked.

“With a caucus, there are no absentee ballots,” she observed. “This is a difficult situation, when you can’t make your voice heard. ““When you have a primary,” she said, “you’re in your regular polling place.”

Across the state

Crawford told the Democratic committee that, across the state, it’s “all across the board” as to whether municipalities’ Democratic committees hold caucuses or primaries. He said there is no clear pattern among small towns or large towns in terms of which system is preferred. “There are towns twice our size that have caucuses, and small towns that hold primaries,” he said.

He later told The Enterprise that most towns in Onondaga County hold caucuses rather than primaries. A total of 16 other towns in Onondaga County hold caucuses, including several with large populations, such as Cicero, with 32,000; DeWitt, with 26,000; and Camillus, with 24,000.

Three towns in Onondaga County, only one of which has a large population, hold primaries: Salina, 34,000; Marcellus, 6,000; and Spafford, with 2,000.

The Enterprise called Mike La Point, the chairman of the Democratic Committee from Clay, the largest town in Onondaga County; it has a population of 58,000. La Point said that Clay does hold a caucus, but that, after this election, it will be considering changing to a primary system.

Clay’s government is primarily Republican-held; last year, the Democrats finally succeeded in getting a Democrat onto the town board after two decades, said La Point. Many voters recently registered with a party, he said, and he believes there are now more registered Democratic voters in the town than Republican, adding that there are more unaffiliated voters than registered Democrats and Republicans combined.

The reason the Town of Clay Democratic Committee might want to consider changing, La Point said, would be to prevent the committee from being “raided” by people from the opposition.

It would be a lot of work to hold a primary, La Point said. The minimum number of signatures needed in a district would be about 700, and it would be crucial to get many more than that in each district, as a cushion, he said, since many signatures are knocked out through challenges.

Caucus committee to form

Jacob Crawford, who was elected chairman of the Guilderland Democratic Committee on Sept. 27, broached the topic of considering primaries. He asked for interested people to volunteer and suggested that the committee members could be voted on that night.

Crawford told The Enterprise after the meeting, “It’s a discussion I thought the committee should have, and hear back about how we should proceed.”

Sharon Cupoli, who serves on Guilderland’s zoning board, said she thought that it was a good idea to look into the issue further, “in light of the complaints we’ve had.”

Member Michael Cleary, who serves on Guilderland’s planning board, suggested that forming the committee should wait until after the November election, so that committee members could devote their full attention to getting Democrats elected.

New member Eli Newell asked how it would impact the November election if the caucus committee were formed right away. Cleary and other members said it wouldn’t, but that members are busy helping Democrats win.

Crawford told the committee that, even if the caucus committee were not formed until after the election, and then came back with a suggestion that the system should be changed from a caucus to a primary, there would be enough time to make the change before the 2019 elections.

He said he would ask the committee to report back to him by March 1.

Any changeover from a caucus system to a primary system would need to be finished at least four months before the date of the primary; since the primary is in September, a two-thirds vote would be needed by May to be effective for that year’s primary, Clyne explained later.

Thomas Remmert — chairman of the town’s zoning board of appeals, on which Crawford also serves — said at the organizational meeting that, rather than having the full committee vote on members for the caucus committee, Crawford could appoint people.

Crawford told the full committee that anyone interested in joining the caucus committee should let him know, and that he would make the appointments.

Several members asked questions, including about the relative costs of running a caucus or a primary. Crawford said that there are a lot of costs and a lot of preparation work associated with either system.

This week, Crawford said that seven people had asked to serve on the caucus committee. “All seven have been appointed to it,” he said.

Crawford declined to name the subcommittee members since he hasn’t yet informed them all, he said. “I will do that after we get through the elections,” he added.

Running for the Dem committee

Guilderland’s Democratic Committee has 30 election districts, with two representatives from each, for a total of 60 members.

Terms are for two years. Candidates must carry petitions in the election district they want to represent and must receive signatures of at least 5 percent of the enrolled Democrats in that district. These petitions are carried in June.

Crawford said that he tries to ask people to get 15 percent of the registered voters, so that everyone will get at least 10 percent. More than 5 percent are needed, he said, in case there should be a primary and challenges to signatures, and because some signatures may turn out to have issues involving, for instance, a voter’s change of address.

Guilderland’s districts vary in density, Crawford said, but can range from having about 225 voters to about 500; the districts in McKownville and Westmere are denser than those in the Fort Hunter area, he said.

People usually run in the district where they live, but this isn’t required. They can run for any seat in their assembly district.

Two election districts in Guilderland have no year-round residents; one is on the University at Albany campus and the other in the industrial area of Railroad Avenue. Candidates for those districts are not required to carry petitions but are selected by the committee and approved by Jack Flynn, the chairman of the county’s Democratic Committee. The committee members currently representing those districts in Guilderland are Laura Barry, Deb Riitano, Sal Tarzia, and Tracey Slupski, Crawford said.

No petitions were received in Election District 13, which is near the New Scotland town line; one person, Tom Cottrofeld, has been appointed and the other appointment is in the works, Crawford said.

A primary for a committee seat can be forced if three or more people successfully collect signatures within the same election district. Flynn said that this has never, to his knowledge, happened in Guilderland. Crawford said it had not happened since he became involved with the Guilderland Democratic Committee, in 2011.

It did happen this year in the town of New Scotland when a group of challengers forced the first-ever primary for seats on that town’s Democratic Committee. The challengers were recruited by Vicky Plotsky, who represents the 38th District in the Albany County Legislature. There were challengers in seven of the town’s eight election districts, and three of the seven were successful in unseating incumbents.

At Guilderland’s organizational meeting in September, the names of the candidates running in the various districts were read out loud, and then members voted on all of the candidates at once.

The work of the committee members includes not only carrying their own petitions, every other year, but also carrying petitions for whatever Democrats are running for any office in any given year — for instance, for Patricia Fahy when she runs for re-election to the State Assembly, or for Paul Tonko, for re-election to the United States House of Representatives, Crawford said.

View from one committee member

“A committee is a group of like-minded people who have similar ideas about how the government should be run,” said Thomas Robert, who is a member of Guilderland’s planning board, speaking with The Enterprise after the September organizational meeting.

Committee members go house-to-house with candidate petitions, and they also put up and take down candidates’ signs on roadways around town, Robert said.

Going house-to-house with petitions was harder when he first started on the committee 13 or 14 years ago, Robert said, but now he finds that he goes to many of the same houses each time.

“The Democratic Party’s about people, not just corporations,” Robert said. “This country needs to be about people who are in difficult times. Our Democratic Committee helps get people elected who believe in those ideals.”

Local committees are the building-blocks that, together, create the strength of the Democratic Party across the country, he said.

Committee’s role

The Guilderland Democratic Committee is a subsidiary of the Albany County Democratic Committee, Crawford explained.

Members of Guilderland’s committee are also automatically members of the county’s committee and are able to vote on matters related to the county. Matters affecting specific areas of the county are voted on only by members of that area’s committee. For instance, for matters related only to Guilderland, only Guilderland’s committee votes, Crawford said.

For countywide matters, the entire county committee votes, Crawford said, giving as an example the recent endorsement of Daniel McCoy for county executive. “Every county committee person had the opportunity to vote for Dan McCoy to be endorsed by the Albany County committee,” Crawford said.

Many members have served on the Guilderland committee for years, Crawford said. The late David Bosworth was the chair for almost three decades, Crawford said, adding, “So that shows you the length of time that folks have committed to the party.”

Following Bosworth’s death in April 2017 after a long illness, Crawford, who had been the first vice chair, rose to the position of acting chairman of Guilderland’s committee.

The vote on Sept. 27 was the first to make Crawford full chairman.

Crawford said that the committee members work tirelessly year-round “to make the Guilderland Democratic Party work.”

These are the people, he said, “that work extremely hard for Democratic candidates year in and year out, to make sure that their lawn signs get out, their literature gets distributed, and if anyone needs rides to the polls, and things like that.”

Guilderland Democratic Committee members are also expected to attend Albany County Democratic Committee meetings; there are at least two of those per year, said Flynn.

Crawford told The Enterprise that he was also elected this fall, for the first time, to the State Democratic Committee, in the 109th Assembly District.



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