Photo by Thom Williams
Damonni Farley, the upstart challenger candidate for the Schenectady City Council race, is facing some unusual hurdles to appearing on the ballot in the November general election. Farley’s attempts to primary the Democratic incumbents—Marion Porterfield, John Mootooveren, and Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas—failed after members of the party successfully challenged the signatures on the qualifying petitions that Farley’s team had collected.
Farley is a community organizer, a community engagement specialist at Schenectady City District schools, and someone who takes a “systematic” look at the city’s problems, according to the Daily Gazette — seeing echoes of national crises in its poverty rates, lack of racial integration, and the achievement gap between the races in its public schools. He is running as a progressive alternative to the Democratic majority — Farley and his supporters were disappointed in the Council’s decision to not pass a “Sanctuary City” resolution, which would have ensured that the Schenectady Police Department did not perform enforcement work for federal immigration authorities.
Farley gathered over 1,000 signatures, well in excess of the 752 signatures required to earn a spot in the Democratic primary. However, the Schenectady Board of Elections commissioners determined that 480 of these signatures were invalid, causing Farley to fall short and lose his chance to primary the incumbents. A subsequent lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court by Farley was dismissed on procedural grounds, so the court never had the opportunity to hear the substantive issues Farley raised—namely, whether the commissioners improperly dismissed valid signatures. Farley was therefore denied the chance to contest the Democratic primary.
Six of the seven seats on the Council are currently held by Democrats. In addition to Porterfield, Mootooveren, and Zalewski-Wildzunas, there are Ed Kosiur, John Polimeni, and Leesa Perazzo, the City Council President. These are at-large seats — not pegged to any district or ward of the City. Councilman Vince Riggi is not registered with a party.
Farley intends to remain in the race and appear on the ballot line in November, as he is an endorsed candidate of the Working Families Party (WFP), a progressive liberal political party in New York and other Northeast states, which often endorses liberal Democrats and Independents. It rarely endorses Republican or Conservative party members. The WFP is, according to their website, “focused on tackling the political, economic, and educational inequality that deprives working and middle class families of opportunity. Our vision is to build a New York that is fair for all of us, not just the wealthy and well-connected.”
The WFP has endorsed Farley, Mooteveren, and Porterfield. According to Anita Thayer, secretary of the Capital District Chapter of the WFP and a state committee member, Farley was a strong contender as he “brought a lot of new ideas and energy to the ticket.” Porterfield the WFP had worked with before, and Mootooveren was a strong candidate because “he was an important person in the community.”
However, if certain Schenectady Republicans get their way, all three candidates endorsed by the WFP for the three vacant council seats might not appear on the ballot. On Sept. 12th, there will be a primary in the WFP — an opportunity for voters to vote for the three endorsed candidates, or alternatively write-in any names they wish. If enough WFP members coordinate to write in the same name, it is possible to push off an endorsed candidate from the ballot line in November, as there is only space for three endorsed candidates on the WFP line.
In theory, a much more conservative candidate could obtain a write-in victory at the WFP primary, and go on to appear on the ballot in November on the WFP line. By virtue of their association with the progressive party, they could induce less informed liberal voters, accustomed to voting down the WFP line, to vote for them, when they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Farley is widely perceived to be the most vulnerable to this particular challenge, as he is the only endorsed candidate who is not an incumbent and lacks relative name recognition in Schenectady.
Rima Cerrone, a candidate for City Council endorsed by the Republican Party, is responsible for petitioning the Board of Elections in order to open the WFP primary up to write-in candidates. Cerrone filed a petition known as an Opportunity to Ballot (OTB) petition, which required the signatures of 5% of WFP members. Because the number of WFP registrants in Schenectady is so small (314, to be exact), and the turnout for a WFP primary is expected to be much smaller, a relatively few number of registrants who write-in the same candidate could potentially take over the ballot line in the November general election.
Cerrone is hoping for this potentiality. “We did an Opportunity to Ballot because the WFP only endorsed Democrats,” Cerrone told The Alt on Friday. “The Democrats that are currently in the position haven’t done enough about jobs, about unemployment. Sure, they’ve opened up the casino, but what do those jobs pay? It’s not enough to raise a family on. I’m not sure what the play is [on the Democrats’ part] to provide more jobs.”
Not everyone is convinced that Cerrone would make a natural fit for the WFP line.
“I’m concerned that a Republican is fighting for the WFP line when there’s not any crossover when it comes to the ideology of these two parties,” says Jamaica Miles, organizer with Citizen Action and WFP member, who sat on the panel that interviewed the candidates for WFP endorsement. After all, space on the ballot in November alongside a party is, as Thayer put it, “valuable real estate.”
When asked whether Cerrone applied for WFP endorsement in the traditional way, Cerrone responded that she “didn’t have that opportunity — I was working hard on other things, like collecting signatures.” She also said that Michael Cuevas, chair of the Schenectady County Republican Party, helped her with filing the Opportunity to Ballot petition.
Cuevas agrees with Cerrone that she should have a chance at the WFP line. “All politics are local,” he told The Alt on Friday afternoon. “There are people outside Schenectady who make the determination about who gets the Working Families Party endorsement,” he said, referring to the traditional method of WFP endorsement, in which a panel of WFP members from all over the Capital District evaluate candidates. (For example, Anita Thayer, who sits on the panel, is from Albany.) When looked at from that perspective, it’s understandable why a candidate might feel empowered to bypass the traditional WFP endorsement method and skip right to surveying the WFP public.
But that still leaves the question: What does a registered Republican want with the progressive, very liberal Working Families Party? Cerrone, for her part, sees no contradictions between her Republican Party registration — an affiliation that usually signals more conservative political inclinations — and her bid to to take the WFP line on Sept. 12th. In fact, Cerrone believes she is a natural fit for the WFP endorsement, and when asked whether she cares about economic inequality — a central tenet of the WFP platform — she responded with a heartfelt “absolutely.”
Cuevas echoes Cerrone. “The issue is who can best deliver the services on a local level. It’s not about the ideologies on the national or even a state level. If you take someone like Rima Cerrone herself being a single parent that works to support herself, who has raised her children, and who struggles day-to-day to meet the expenses of maintaining a home — that’s something she has in common with working families across the city of Schenectady.”
The OTB petition filed by the Republicans to open up the WFP primary to a write-in candidate requires the names of at least one or more WFP registrants to form a “committee to receive notice” — an election law requirement. The first name on the committee was Mohamad Hizam Saleem, a friend of Mohamad Hafaz, another Republican-endorsed candidate for Schenectady City Council. The Alt was not able to speak to Saleem for this article. However, the next person on the petition, Rosanilena Lopez, when contacted, had no idea her name had been added to the petition. It appears that whoever prepared the form picked Lopez’s name at random from a list of registered WFP voters. A third WFP registrant on the committee, Etwarn Savitree, did not return messages left on her answering machine.
When asked about Lopez’s inclusion on the committee, Cuevas said that “he would have to look into it.”
When The Alt spoke to Cerrone about Lopez’s appearance on the form, Cerrone seemed completely shocked. “I’m not really a politician,” she said. “I just sort of went with the flow, Mike [Cuevas] was the one who really pushed the [petition].” However, despite Cerrone’s lack of knowledge about what really was on the form, Cerrone appears to have signed the form regardless, in her capacity as a Commissioner of Deeds.
When Thayer (of the WFP) was informed of the situation, she said that it pointed to the “total sloppiness” of the OTB effort on the part of the Republicans.
Cerrone is not the only non-endorsed candidate running for office in November who is trying to obtain space on the ballot. Zalewski-Wildzunas, who is endorsed by the Democratic Party, is not endorsed by the WFP. She, unlike Cerrone, sat for an interview with the WFP panel, and was denied an endorsement. Thayer said that Zalewski-Wildzunas didn’t get the endorsement partly because the WFP can only endorse three candidates, and Farley was a stronger contender this year.
“We might have endorsed Zalewski-Wildzunas four years ago, but we don’t always endorse the way the Democratic Party endorses,” said Thayer. While Zalewski-Wildzunas’ experience with economic development was substantive, Thayer said that it was important to bring to the line individuals who are interested in the distribution of the gains of economic development — implying that Zalewski-Wildzunas did not quite meet that standard.
Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped someone from sending mailers to registered WFP members implying that Zalewski-Wildzunas has been endorsed by the WFP, along with Mootooveren and Porterfield. The mailer reads “A Message From your Working Families Team!” and equally bills Zalewski-Wildzunas, Mootooveren, and Porterfield. It reads: “As incumbent City Council Members, we are all registered Democrats and we have been very proud to carry the Working Families Party banner — in previous elections and this year as well — and to work with all voters and groups in an effort to improving [sic] the lives of the people of Schenectady.” It concludes with a plea for voters to “please vote for our team!”
Zalewski-Wildzunas did not return phone calls asking for comment. The Alt was unable to determine who was responsible for sending out the mailers.
The WFP, in turn, sent out a rebuttal letter to WFP registrants, informing them that the third-party mailer that they received contained inaccurate information. The letter reads: “SOME OF YOU MAY HAVE RECEIVED CARDS WHICH FALSELY STATE the names of our endorsed candidates. These are false. This letter today is the only letter or card that you will receive that is actually from the official Working Families Party. Other mailers and cards you may receive are a deliberate effort to confuse voters and misrepresent the Working Families party.”
The letter goes on to ask WFP voters to reaffirm the party’s commitment to the three endorsed candidates: Farley, Porterfield, and Mootooveren.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Councilman Vince Riggi as a Republican. He isn’t registered with any major political party.