Petition challenges are the name of the game in hot local races. One challenged Republican, Joe Geiger, said he learned the hard way.
After fighting to keep a spot on the Republican primary ballot for the 54th state Senate seat following a petition challenge, Joe Geiger gave up.
But not because he is a quitter.
The 28-year-old Walworth resident — and Afghanistan veteran, college graduate, mining engineer, husband and soon-to-be-dad — had hoped to serve his country in a different way after finishing active duty military July 7. That is when he and his team of 45 volunteers hit the pavement gathering voter signatures to place him on the Sept. 13 primary ballot.
A few weeks later, Geiger found himself responding to a lawsuit that was first, in error, served to his father in a neighboring town. Two days later it was duct-taped to his own door in Walworth.
“Essentially, it was a lawsuit claiming my entire petitions are a fraud and should be tossed out,” said Geiger.
He wasn’t alone.
Nine candidates sought to run in the 54th District, for the seat that will be vacated at the end of the year by state Sen. Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette, who is not running for reelection. Of the nine, two of seven Republicans and both Democrats faced petition challenges. Without defending and winning their cases in Albany, their petitions under these specific challenges would be deemed invalid. The candidates would be off the ballot.
In the end, the challenges bumped Geneva City Supervisor Charles Evangelista from the Democratic ballot, and Geiger and businessman Bobby Massarini from the Republican ballot. Canandaigua Supervisor Pam Helming, Hopewell businessman Floyd Rayburn, former state Assemblyman Sean Hanna, retired police officer Joe Ritter and Lyons Town Supervisor Brian Manktelow are still on the GOP ballot.
Democrat Rose Town Supervisor Kenan Baldridge is off the Working Families line. Baldridge will run as a Democrat in November. Evangelista and Massarini didn’t appeal their cases.
Massarini said he is now running a write-in campaign.
The challenges to hundreds of signatures claimed wrong addresses, disqualifying marks and questions over handwriting, among other points. Of 1,149 signatures on Geiger’s petitions, 425 were earmarked invalid — including the signatures of his own family members.
Winning them back
Even before his hearing, the state Board of Elections gave back 221 of the challenged signatures because they were valid. At a board hearing, Geiger gained 13 more.
And he did get the signatures of his family members back.
In the end, he fell shy of the required number by just 42. Geiger hired Albany attorney James Long to represent him, at the Board of Elections hearing as well as a hearing in state Supreme Court. Geiger said that cost him $1,000. Pursuing his case further was out of financial reach for him, however. He said he would have had to pay a $10,000 retainer fee, with costs expected to run anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000.
Geiger said he believes his challengers knew he couldn’t afford to fight in court, and so he would be an easy mark to bump off the ballot.
Baldridge and the other targeted candidates see the challenges as a political ploy, to narrow the field. Their challengers and backers say it is fair and appropriate.
“I already knew politics is a blood sport,” said Baldridge.
Canandaigua Republicans Adeline Rudolph and Greg Westbrook, a Canandaigua Town Board member, challenged the Geiger and Massarini petitions. Both support the GOP's endorsed 54th candidate, Canandaigua Town Supervisor Pam Helming. Helming was endorsed in May by the six GOP committees in the 54th District.
Rudolph and Westbrook said they knew of the petition process and were using it to ensure candidate petitions were valid.
“We have one of the most organized Republican committees in upstate New York,” said Doug Finch, chairman of the Ontario County Republican Committee. “Our committee members understand the process and have been involved in a lot of different campaigns over the years.”
Paul DerOhannesian II, of Albany-based DerOhannesian & DerOhannesian, represented Rudolph and Westbrook. Responding to questions, DerOhannesian sent a statement:
“Fairness requires any candidate running for public office in New York state to meet basic qualifications. Fairness in our democratic process mandates that no person game or rig the system, or receive special treatment," the statement attributed to DerOhannesian reads. "Fairness means the rules to be a candidate are the same for everyone. The citizens of the 54th Senate district are entitled to and deserve nothing less.”
DerOhannesian's statement went on: “Once challenged Mr. Geiger aligned himself with a lawyer on the Senate Democratic payroll. Mr. Geiger chose to not oppose the Board’s decision that he did not follow the rules and meet the minimum qualifications to be on the Republican primary ballot for State Senator in the 54th District in September.
"Mr. Geiger’s service to our country is greatly appreciated. However, as much as Mr. Geiger wants what happened to be about him and as badly as he wants to portray himself as a victim, this simply is not the case. It was Mr. Geiger who failed to submit enough valid signatures to secure a spot on the ballot. It was Mr. Geiger, and Mr. Geiger alone, who did not comply with the law."
The Board of Elections’ decision preserves the integrity of the electoral process and upholds the rule of law, according to the statement.
Geiger said he hired Long, a Democrat, for several reasons: It was, after all, fellow Republicans who wanted him off the ballot. And trusted sources also recommended Long.
Long said he did work for years for Senate Democrats, though he discontinued that in March. He is now running for Albany City Court judge.
Geiger said he paid Long to represent him. Who paid DerOhannesian to represent Rudolph and Westbrook?
When asked, Paul DerOhannesian responded via email: “In response to your inquiry I do not discuss details of the attorney-client relationship.”
Long, who has been working in election law for years, said the candidate behind the challenge would not have paid the legal fees.
“They don’t want their candidate to have to spend all those resources on petition challenges, and then not have money for the general election," Long said. "But on the other side of it, candidates like Geiger have to cover their own legal fees.”
The cost would have been paid by a political action committee, also known as a PAC, or source behind this effort. Long mentioned Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan and Sen. Cathy Young, chair of the New York State Senate Republican Committee, as possibilities.
Long said the petition challenge to Geiger was not unlike others. For the most part it followed a typical scenario, he said.
But there were twists: Geiger’s father first, by mistake, received the lawsuit.
Then, Geiger was notified to be in Albany for his hearing before the state Board of Election on July 29 — at 3:30 a.m. Geiger was “on time” and made a video of himself before the locked door in the wee hours, then waited around for the hearing that began at 3:30 p.m.
Geiger said the Board of Elections' error in first serving his father the lawsuit actually gave him a little more time to prepare his defense. Still, he had roughly 36 hours to pull it all together. Geiger said he contemplated what might have happened if he hired Long to pursue an appeal.
His chances were good. He could have brought in highway superintendents to vouch for addresses, in which, for example, route number addresses mean the same addresses as a common street name. A handwriting expert could testify for other technicalities. But in addition to the cost, litigation would take several weeks.
Long said Geiger was not a “run-of-the-mill candidate.” He described him as bright, confident and determined to do what is right.
“He entered politics for all the right reasons,” Long said. “All I can say is, ‘Welcome to my world.' Election law is written to keep good people out.”
Does Geiger have plans to try for the ballot again in the future? He couldn’t say. He and his wife, Melanie, expect their first baby this fall. Geiger is now in the Army Reserve and is furthering his engineering career. He said the experience was a real eye-opener.
“I was out-gunned and out-maneuvered," Geiger said, "and it was a great learning experience.”
Court drama in
state Senate race
Steve Glickman, the 27-year-old Democrat bumped from the ballot because of a challenge to his residency, is back on the ballot in the 55th state Senate District.
But the victory may be short-lived.
Three of five New York Appellate judges ruled in Glickman's favor, agreeing with Glickman that he had maintained his residency in New York state despite leaving for college at University of Maryland. Two of the justices disagreed, saying he had established residency in Washington, D.C., when he registered to vote there.
Glickman is a Rochester resident. He will challenge incumbent state Sen. Rich Funke, R-Perinton, on the November ballot.
Jack Moffitt, who works for the Monroe County Republican Committee; Silvio Palermo, a GOP Victor Town Board member; and Zackary Laffin, a Republican registered to vote in Fairport, originally objected to Glickman's residency.
"From the beginning I knew that I would be eligible to run and it’s unfortunate that people try to get rid of competition just because they want their candidate to win," Glickman said. "The definition of democracy has to do with giving people a choice and that's what we're doing in November."
The 55th District includes parts of Ontario and Monroe counties.