BY Celeste Katz
Exploiting a rarely used provision of state law, a handful of city councilmen have installed two loyalists as the Republican commissioners for Brooklyn and Queens at the beleaguered city Board of Elections — potentially changing the dynamic of hiring and firing at an agency stacked with hundreds of patronage jobs.
The Council quartet pulled off the astonishing power play after realizing that Queens Republican party leaders missed a deadline for filling the election board slots on their own — and that the law gave the council’s small GOP caucus a real chance to do something about it.
“This here was genius,” one insider told the Daily News.
Ulrich and the three other Republicans on the City Council — Minority Leader James Oddo and Vincent Ignizio, both of Staten Island, and Dan Halloran of Queens — had conferences that resulted in new Queens and Brooklyn commissioners, and they’re now looking at what they may be able to do with the other three.
Oddo framed the manuever as an opportunity to improve what’s been widely panned as a problem-plagued agency — and said he’d like to see everyone from Mayor Bloomberg on down step in to address not only the Board’s failings, but make a plan to identify and hire someone qualfied to fill the long-empty executive director’s seat.
“The end game is … for us to have a conversation to figure out how do we make a better board from a public policy perspective,” and in a political sense, “How do we protect the Republican perspective?” Oddo (at right) said.
“I think the Board of Elections, as constituted, is a terrible system,” he added. “It’s dysfunctional.”
Whatever the motivations behind the coup, there’s little question the councilmen may now have a path to influence — through their freshly appointed commissioners — not only the board’s business, but who gets hired, fired and promoted at the board, long a notorious outpost of patronage.
The Board of Elections currently has 333 permanent employees and 358 temporary workers spread across its Manhattan executive headquarters and satellite offices in each borough. (That doesn’t include the 36,000 pollworkers the Board plans on recruiting to staff voting stations on Primary and Election Day, but I’ll come back to that.)
Here’s how the jobs are allocated, per BOE stats:
Brooklyn: 72 permanent jobs, 83 temp jobs
Manhattan: 49 permanent jobs, 68 temp jobs
Queens: 55 permanent jobs, 66 temp jobs
Bronx: 43 permanent jobs, 58 temp jobs
Staten Island: 21 permanent jobs, 21 temp jobs
Central headquarters: 93 permanent jobs, 30 temp jobs
Totals: 333 permanent jobs, 358 temp jobs
All this hiring is overseen by a bipartisan board of 10 election commissioners, with each borough having one Democratic and one Republican representative nominated by their respective county parties. The commissioners approve applicants to fill Board job vacancies.
There are written and unwritten rules about who’s alloted which slots, and though there’s some bartering, the jobs are mainly split 50/50 between the parties.
Since everyone wants to protect their own perks in that sphere, when, say, a Bronx Republican or Manhattan Democratic-affiliated worker leaves or retires, odds are that the commissioner for that party and borough can count on a rubber stamp from his colleagues.
And the applicants for those jobs — surprise! — usually come from or through the borough party. It’s one of the county organizations’ main sources of clout.
In an overwhelmingly Democratic city with relatively few Republican elected officials — in fact, none in the Bronx or Manhattan — “Why does the party organization exist, if not to get people elected to office?” one insider asked the News.
“Because they’ve got these cushy jobs they’ve got to hang on to. They appoint the commissioner, and the commissioner (gets) them (these) jobs.”
Some of the jobs at the Board — which doesn’t really have the same civil service structure as other large city agencies — come with fairly low wages.
But it’s not all about the paycheck.
Some of the higher-paid, higher-profile employees serve entirely at the discretion of the commissioners. But meaningfully, even lower-paying clerical jobs have their own appeal: Some workers are eligible for union protections, benefits, and retirement plans. Those are clearly prized assets a worker can value, even if they’re not exactly raking it in salary-wise.
Backstory before we get back to the focus on jobs: Ulrich, who ran for state Senate last year, saw his own county party, headed by Chairman Phil Ragusa, put lawyer Juan Reyes up against him in a rare primary.
Ulrich won, but after Hurricane Sandy mangled Election Day planning, Oddo said, “the Board of Elections made a ruling about combining polling sites” to the detriment of Ulrich, who ultimately lost the contest.
“Eric didn’t have a fair shake in that election,” said Oddo, who said he considers Ulrich both a friend and an accomplished elected official.
“[Queens] County — despite having many people who think they’re the reincaration of Lee Atwater — failed to put in the [nomination] document” to maintain or replace GOP Commissioner Judith Stupp. “[That] gave our delegation a chance to make a change.”
Armed with Section 3-204, which decrees that if the county parties don’t follow the calendar for filling the expiring terms of commissioners by a certain date, the option to do so falls to that party’s members of the local legislative body, the councilmen went to work.
Oddo, Ulrich (at far right), and Ignizio voted to replace Stupp with Michael Michel, head of Christ the King High School, whom Mr. Bragg has described as “a former aide to ex-Council Minority Leader Tom Ognibene, who is part of a dissident faction of the Queens Republican Party led by Mr. Ulrich.”
The Times-Ledger last year noted Ulrich employed both Michel and Ognibene’s wife on his state Senate campaign.
Installing a new commissioner “was an important first step towards changing the leadership at the Board of Elections and bringing it into the 21st Century,” Ulrich told our Lisa L. Colangelo.
“The Board of Elections has gained a reputation for being highly ineffective and inefficient and I could not agree with that assertion more,” Ulrich continued. “I am confident Michael Michel will bring about long-overdue changes [that] will help restore the people’s confidence in that agency.”
Halloran voted against subbing Michel for Stupp, but made his irritation with the party’s controllers bluntly clear a week ago, walking out of a meeting with a parting shot after they refused to discuss other candidates before endorsing billionaire John Catsimatidis, Ragusa’s pick for the competitive GOP mayoral nomination.
The insurgent Queens faction “couldn’t get the chairmanship, so they stole the commissioner,” a Republican griped. “It’s a practical way of controlling the party.”
Or as another insider told the News in discussing the GOP councilmen’s action, “Nothing says political payback [like] what happened to Ragusa and Co.”
Reached by the News, Ragusa said he didn’t immediately have time to discuss the machinations.
The councilmen didn’t stop with Queens: They unanimously agreed to dump Brooklyn GOP Commissioner Nancy Schacter-Mottola and replace her with Simon Shamoun, a lawyer and party activist who’s also listed as a state committeeman for the 46th AD on the party’s website.
Shamoun, who opened a new law practice with a partner not long ago, I’m told “grew up in politics around” Republican state Sen. Martin Golden, who remains a fan.
The GOP council quartet is now looking at the cases of Manhattan GOP Commissioner Fredric Umane and his Bronx counterpart, J.C. Polanco. Both have submitted letters of resignation — though in slightly different forms — and are hoping the four lawmakers will see fit to reappoint them.
Oddo says while it’s not a done deal, they may get their wish.
As the ever-colorful lawmaker put it, some obververs have seen all this as if it “were the baptismal scene in ‘The Godfather’ — and it wasn’t…
“Fred Umane’s reputation precedes him; I think he is seen as one of the good things about the entire agency,” Oddo said. “J.C. has lots of folks who believe he’s been an agent for change.”
The situation may be slightly different in Staten Island, where Oddo, as it happens, is now hoping to succeed Borough President James Molinaro.
The current Republican elections commissioner from Richmond County, J.P. Sipp, has said he’s not interested in a new four-year term, and is staying on until he can be replaced. GOP Chairman Robert Scamardella tells the News that several days ago, his organization recommended Sipp be succeded by Deborah Alvarez, “a retired police detective who has been involved in the party for a number of years.”
Scamardella — who supports Oddo’s borough president bid — said he’s unaware of any City Council issue with his group’s nomination of Alvarez.
The Richmond County boss is the lone chairman who hasn’t formally come forward with a pick in the city party’s torturous wrangling over a single candidate in the packed field of hopefuls to advance in this year’s mayoral election, although he’s previously expressed admiration for former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota — the man Oddo says will get his vote in the looming Republican primary.
As for politically controlled jobs at the Board, Scamardella said, ability and integrity should still be the watchwords, although, “Obviously, it’s beneficial if the commissioner and the chairman and the Council folks who are Republican are all on the same page.”
The scope of this entire highly unusual situation — which could also affect the Democratic side of the equation — is so broad that its ripple effect could extend even further into the complex world of politics and elections.
Getting back to those pollworkers, for example: The Board plans to hire thousands of per-diem staffers for both the primary and general elections. Many of these workers, who operate in bipartisan teams at the voter check-in tables set up for each election district, come from lists assembled by party chiefs and district leaders in each borough, but they all end up having to go through the Board’s commissioners.
These workers only make a few hundred dollars a day for a very brief period. Many are older people who lived on fixed incomes; others may be currently out of work or just looking for a little extra cash. It’s not unusual for the county parties to find themselves unable to fill all the slots for all the workers needed for their boroughs, in which case the Board helps find people to fill in the gaps.
Traditionally, some counties and their district leaders have used these legions of workers as a two-fer: They hand out the applications for pollworkers/inspectors along with the petition forms the party uses to gather voter signatures for candidates they want to see qualify for the ballot. The troops are then encouraged to return both the applications and the completed petitions together.
According to attorney Martin Connor, an election law expert and Brooklyn Democrat who formerly served as state Senate Democratic conference leader, the county parties get to pull together the list of pollworkers for those days. The names are then sent to their respective elections commissioners, who give them the final okay.
The workers do have to meet baseline qualifications to get the jobs, and “the law, which has been on the books for a long time, always presumed that the party organization and the party’s commissioner would be in sync, would be allies,” Connor said.
What if that’s not the case?
The law is “kind of silent about commissioner veto. It doesn’t really address it,” Connor said. “It just assumes the commissioner is going to do what his party organization recommends. I don’t know what a court would say. I can’t recall a situation where it really comes up. If anything, we’re stepping into a little unknown area here.”
Some speculation-comfy talking heads extrapolate out even further, noting that many full-time Board of Elections workers and temps are party activists who got where they are, in part, because of a boost from the borough organization.
No one may be talking about “running away” with an election, but take a hypothetical example one source posed in a talk with the News:
Suppose a board worker who got his or her job through political connections also serves as one of the party’s many county committee members and now knows his or her livelihood depends (in part) on a system where commissioners exert great control over staffing, promotions and the doling out of merit bonuses, the source said.
If the person sitting on the BOE panel and the borough boss are at odds, when acting on party matters, “Do you vote the way your chairman wants, or the way your commissioner wants?”
Regarding the parcelling out of jobs and influence inside the Board of Elections, Oddo says between trying to complete his council term, dealing with Sandy’s destructive aftermath in his area and the like, “I don’t have an interest in it. I don’t want to know about it.”
And as for the board as a whole, he told the News, “We don’t want control of it.
“We want two new energetic commisioners; we want to have a conversation with two rather talented commissioners [who want to retain their posts]; and we want to be part of (breaking) the gridlock to clean up the remaining dysfunction.”
Even as they shake their heads at the power play, some insiders simply can’t help being impressed with the councilmen’s resourcefulness at realizing those oft-ignored blown deadlines spelled their big chance to assert control of the commissioner appointments.
“It’s almost like enforcing the adultery statute in New York — it’s never done,” one Republican said.
Much, much more to come on this topic, so… Stay Tuned!