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Pounding the pavement: candidate Jestin Williams... Photo by: John Whipple

Redistricted, Reprimaried, Retried
Democratic infighting in Albany County’s 3rd District takes to the streets and courts

When polls closed in Albany County’s 3rd District legislative Democratic primary do-over last Thursday (April 8), incumbent Wanda Willingham was ahead of her opponent, Jestin Williams, by a mere three votes on the machines. After the March 2 primary, the machine tally was split by four votes, but Willingham and Williams had to face off a second time because a judge threw out the results of that first primary after allegations and hearings about 100 absentee ballots that had been applied for and collected in a questionable manner [“Primary, Primary Again,” Trail Mix, March 25].

This round’s absentee ballots will not be counted until tomorrow (April 16) and will ultimately decide the race, though they too may be challenged. There are 34 absentee votes and two paper ballots to be counted as of yesterday.

In the run-up to the election, neighborhoods in the 3rd District were plastered with candidate fliers and both Williams and Willingham campaigned aggressively to get residents to vote in the special election. In such a tight race, every vote is potentially decisive, and this round each candidate got about 100 more votes than on March 2.

Regardless of the primary’s outcome, the contest is heating up on a different front. Looming in the background is a pending lawsuit filed against Williams, several of his campaign workers, his campaign manager Jamie Gilkey, Albany Housing Authority, Albany County and its board of elections. The plaintiffs are county legislative candidates Willingham, Lucille McKnight and Ward DeWitt, three voters, civil rights attorney Mark Mishler, activist Aaron Mair and his wife, the NAACP and the Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Association, among others [“Primary Day, Take Three,” FYI, April 8].

... and Wanda Willingham during last Thursday’s election. Photo by: John Whipple

“A lot of what we’re asking is what the law requires,” said the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Paul DerOhannesian. Among these requests are purging outdated voter information from the board of elections’ rolls and limiting the amount of absentee ballots single agents can handle.

The lawsuit was brought in part because some believe that campaign workers for Williams inappropriately obtained, distributed and completed absentee ballots. Some of the defendants are employed by the Albany Housing Authority and are accused of using their positions at the authority to influence the vote of the low-income, frequently elderly residents in the authority’s properties.

Williams contends, however, that he was standing up for the rights of senior citizens to vote. The defendants contend that by throwing out the first election, the voting rights of those who voted in that election, especially those who voted absentee, were violated. On the other hand, many plaintiffs believe that voters’ rights were violated by tampering with absentee ballots.

“We did nothing wrong, Mr. Gilkey did nothing wrong, we have nothing to apologize for,” Williams said. “We stood up for the rights of people who wanted to vote absentee, which happen to be senior citizens, and [Willingham] turned around and took those rights away, she and her cronies and her Republican lawyer. They did everything in their power to keep those people from having that right.”

“No, it wasn’t [the people’s] votes that didn’t count, the votes of Jestin Williams and his little troop, their votes didn’t count,” Willingham responded. Instead, she added, the new primary “gave the people a second bite at the apple, which did not happen in Florida.”

The board of elections is charged in the lawsuit with being a tacit participant in the alleged absentee ballot fraud. Republican Elections Commissioner John Graziano finds this charge dubious, and sounded more like the plaintiffs when he said absentee ballots that should have been used as “a tool of a voter who couldn’t make it because of a particular set of circumstances, became a tool of the agent to gather up a lot of these applications and sort of either control or attempt to control the vote.” New regulations now limit the number of absentee ballots that an individual can handle to eight, which Graziano strongly supports.

With the general election just down the road, DerOhannesian is requesting a temporary restraining order from a federal judge on Friday that would extend countywide the limit of five absentee ballots per individual seeking to distribute them, which was imposed for the April 8 primary. He said he hadn’t heard about the board of election’s decision to limit the number to eight. He also requested a prohibition on Albany Housing Authority employees collecting ballots from AHA buildings.

Mair, the NAACP and the AHCCNA were parties to the lawsuit that challenged the county’s redistricting in the fall and that caused the elections to be rescheduled for March and April by a court order. Mair believes this new lawsuit stems directly from the county’s redistricting problems and is a continuation of attempts to marginalize the predominantly minority vote in Albany’s lower wards by fixing the races through “ballot stuffing,” using absentee votes.

“That’s literally something out of the page of a tin-pot banana republic,” he said. “They hatched a scheme and they got caught literally red-handed by their own admission that they conspired, they had a target population, and they executed that plan with just one problem: That’s patently illegal.”

For Mair, the lawsuit is less about the candidates and more about safeguarding voters’ rights. “We now get a window into the way the machine operates,” he said, stressing that this provides an opportunity, “for the first time in the county and city’s history, to bring the civil-rights change that swept the nation in the ’50s and ’60s that should have come 40 years ago.”

—Ashley Hahn

Brown Goes Down
Coup removes contentious Ward 3 councilman from his leadership position in the Albany Common CouncilAlbany’s Common Council experienced a shift in leadership last week, as the sudden ousting of Councilman Michael L. Brown (Ward 3) from his position as president pro tempore created a dramatic finale for the midweek meeting. The president pro tempore serves as the primary liaison between the council and the mayor and oversees committee activities.

The move came as a surprise to Brown and his supporters, who were unable to muster enough votes to prevent Councilman Richard Conti (Ward 6) from becoming the new president pro tempore.

“No one ever talked to me about problems the Common Council was having,” said Brown.

According to Brown’s opponents, the abrupt nature of the election was necessary in order to limit outside influence. A similar action was attempted last year, but stalled when Brown received some last-minute support from the mayor’s office. “We didn’t want anything to get out to anybody—once we knew that we had the eight votes, that’s all we wanted,” said Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1), who cast one of the votes to depose Brown.

Brown’s close ties with Mayor Jerry Jennings concerned many council members, as the city’s legislative body has recently been struggling to assert its independence. “The mayor shouldn’t be picking and choosing who our leaders are,” said Calsolaro.

Councilman David R. Torncello III (Ward 8) initiated the call for replacement, describing Brown’s attendance at recent council meetings as “abysmal.” Although Brown’s overall attendance is actually among the council’s best—only five absences prior to 2004—he missed all of the council’s meetings this March as part of a vacation. Brown and majority leader James Sano (Ward 9) indicated that Brown gave adequate notice of the vacation, but many of the other council members questioned the timing of his absence.

“There is something to be said for the quality of meetings attended—not just their quantity,” said Conti.

The month Brown missed was an important one for the Common Council; over a series of meetings, it questioned key members of the Albany Police Department on a range of issues including the demotion and subsequent firing of Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro [Newsfront, March 18, March 25 and April 1]. The interactions set a new precedent for the council’s role in city government. Brown was a vocal opponent of the council’s involvement in the D’Alessandro controversy.

“For [Brown] to be absent when we had some of the most important deliberations we’ve ever been involved in—it was an embarrassment,” said Councilwoman Carolyn McLaughlin. “It was time for us to deal with some of our internal issues, and that’s what we did.”

Brown’s absence from these proceedings, as well as some unexplained changes he made in the council’s committee structure, only added to what numerous council members described as an ongoing “distraction” from their elected duties. When McLaughlin (Ward 2) was recently removed as chairman of the Housing and Neighborhood Development Committee, Brown provided only vague justification for the action, causing eyebrows to raise even among Brown’s most persistent supporters.

Brown disagreed with many of his fellow members’ assessments. According to Brown, his removal illustrates the council’s growing desire to remove his Arbor Hill constituents from the city’s decision- making process. His efforts to extend the scope of city funding related to Albany’s Center Square region north of Central Avenue and into the Arbor Hill side of Lark Street put him at odds with much of the council, claimed Brown.

“They don’t mind us riding on the bus, but they sure don’t want anyone from Arbor Hill getting near the steering wheel,” he said. In response to council members’ criticism of his recent attendance, Brown said, “When you get in the driver’s seat, there’s a whole different standard that’s applied.”

Brown’s replacement—and the method by which it occurred—disappointed other members of the council as well. Councilwoman Sarah Curry-Cobb (Ward 4), a longtime ally of Brown, insisted that the use of his attendance as justification for removal was part of an “exclusion mechanism” frequently used against minorities. Curry-Cobb questioned the attendance of other council members, claiming that poor attendance by members who “don’t look like Mr. Brown” rarely was reprimanded.

“[Brown’s removal] had absolutely nothing to do with race,” countered McLaughlin, who is African-American.

Councilman Glen Casey (Ward 11), who also voted against Brown’s replacement, explained that his vote was cast neither against Conti nor in support of Brown, but rather against the secretive atmosphere which preceded the election. Casey acknowledged that he had expected the move to occur at some point in the near future due to Brown’s strained relationship with the rest of the council, but said he was informed of the impending vote only 10 minutes before the meeting convened.

“If this is really based on Michael’s lack of leadership, then I don’t know how excluding fellow council members is any better sign of leadership,” said Casey. “But maybe the council will be better off under Richard’s leadership. Only time will tell.”

Although his removal from council leadership takes him out of the spotlight, Brown insists that he’ll continue to be one of the council’s most outspoken members.

“They want to silence me and take my issues off the agenda,” said Brown. “But I still have a voice. I’m not going anywhere.”

—Rick Marshall

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