the pavement: candidate Jestin Williams... Photo by:
infighting in Albany County’s 3rd District takes to the streets
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 Thursdays election.
Photo by: John Whipple
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are purging outdated voter information from the board of elections’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
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
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
ever talked to me about problems the Common Council was having,”
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.
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.
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.
is something to be said for the quality of meetings attended—not
just their quantity,” said Conti.
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.
[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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
removal] had absolutely nothing to do with race,” countered
McLaughlin, who is African-American.
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.
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.”
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.
want to silence me and take my issues off the agenda,” said
Brown. “But I still have a voice. I’m not going anywhere.”