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Ousted!

Tuesday’s Democratic primary was a dramatic start to changes in the Albany County Legislature

by Ali Hibbs on September 14, 2011 · 1 comment

The primary election held in Albany County on Tuesday, Sept. 13, resulted in the defeat of two incumbent county legislators: one who lost by a landslide and another who refused to go down without a fight—literally.

Wanda Willingham, incumbent candidate for the newly redrawn second legislative district, reportedly entered into shouting matches with poll watchers, pollsters and representatives from the Board of Elections on several occasions and in several polling locations yesterday, according to people who witnessed the altercations. No less than 25 phone calls were made to the Board of Elections and county sheriffs were summoned multiple times.

Theresa Grafflin, a self-described “citizen journalist” widely known as Albany Citizen One, was at the South Mall Towers polling site for the day. As a registered poll watcher, Grafflin was at the location legally, but says that Willingham tried to have her forcibly removed from the building for raising concerns about the polling practices there.

According to Grafflin, Willingham showed up at the location because she received a phone call from her sister, Albany County Legislature President Carolyn McLaughlin, informing her that her opponent, Merton Simpson, had been loitering at the venue. Willingham said that Simpson had been there for at least 2 hours and was in violation of entering the 100-food radius of a polling place, within which no campaigning is allowed by law. According to Willingham, it amounted to electioneering.

Grafflin said that she believes Simpson was there for no longer than half an hour. “[Willingham] just came in and started yelling at people. So was Carolyn.”

“Election inspectors and poll watchers were all in a frenzy at a number of locations,” said registered poll watcher and political activist Tim Carney.

Carney, who visited several of these locations, says he overheard an election inspector at the polling site on Jennings Drive talking on the phone with Willingham about what she should do. “That’s not legal,” said Carney. “The election inspectors are paid by the Board of Elections and are supposed to stay neutral. They take their direction from the board, not from the candidates.”

According to Carney, after being told to mind his own business, he called the Albany County Sheriffs Department. He claims he was berated by Willingham when she showed up. “She told the polling people not to listen to me, that I was no one, that I wasn’t from the right part of town,” said Carney. “She was screaming—at a fever pitch—for me to get out and that it was her polling place and that they had to do what she said.”

Carney alleges that Willigham called him a liar to the deputy sheriff who arrived on the scene and even became physically intimidating.

According to Carney, the BOE was called to the 255 Orange Street polling location because Willingham believed that Simpson’s wife was overstaying her welcome there—although a deputy says he was with her at another location.

Willingham has been at odds with other members of the legislature in the recent past over the new district lines, which she believes disenfranchise minority voters in Albany. The attempts  she made to ammend those lines were overturned when it was discovered that her proposed district boundaries drew Simpson out of the district. Willingham sued the legislature over the redistricting and lost the support of many of her colleagues.

Willingham chose not to comment on her behavior on Tuesday, but claims to have proof that Simpson illegally registered voters in his district. She believes Albany County Comptroller Mike Conners went to great lengths to discredit her. Willingham also accused the BOE of neglecting to remedy issues that disenfranchise voters.

BOE Commissioner Michael Clyne responded that he would like to see the evidence and that he believes it is necessary to take Willingham “with a grain of salt. She calls ten times a day. It gets really hard to keep track after a while.”

Brian Scavo, the District 6 incumbent who has been long reviled by many local politicians and political activists, also lost his primary when his opponent Noelle Kinsch defeated him with 71 percent of the vote on Tuesday. Scavo, who has a reputation for eccentric and lascivious behavior both in office and in his personal life, was unavailable for comment, but other members of the legislature spoke to the outcome in the 6th district.

“Did he bring anything to his office?” asked Dan McCoy, currently the only candidate in the County Executive race and former chairman of the legislature. “Well, he brought some pizza to caucus. That was pretty nice of him.” McCoy said he supported Kinsch because he believes that the “constituents there will finally have a representative that will work hard for them. She will definitely bring ideas that will help and we need more leaders like that.”