Saturday, November 13, 2004

Running for Congress

I had a first hand experience running for office. I am going to share the highlights of those experiences.

My campaign team was a wonderful group of people that had incredible synergy when we all got together. Many time that was around a kitchen table other times on the streets of Harlem. The year was 1994 and the office we ran for was Congress. We were running against Charles Rangel.

Getting on the Ballot
The way to get elected to office is to be one the ballot and then have the most votes. I like to think of the ballot at the shelf in your local grocery market. The candidates are like the products you buy. In my view of a healthy election system it would operate as a market. The best person, presumably the one that convinces voters that he or she will do the best job gets the most votes. It turns out there was a very high threshhold for appearing on the ballot. We need 1200 signatures from registered democratic voters.

It wasn't just that we needed 1200 signatures, we needed 1200 signatures that passed the muster of the lawyers that would be assigned to challenge those signatures. We were adviced (quite well it turned out that to get 1200 approved signatures we needed 2.5 times that amount. I set a goal of 3000. About five minutes before the midnight deadline we arrived at the board of elections with our stacks of green, petition signatures, properly bound and precisely counted, per the election rules.

Petition Signature Rules
It turned out that there were rules upon rules upon rules regarding the petition signatures.

For example, at the bottom of each petition sheet there is a space to count the number of signatures on the page, if the number representing the total of signatures on the page, the entire page of signatures can be declared invalid.

Another example or just how arcane these rules are was the need for the correct election district of the person who acquired the signature to appear on the petition. Most people probably don't know their election district. If the election district is incorrect, all the signatures of the person who collected those signatures can be declared invalid.

Change in a person handwriting over time. In one incident the signature of a women did not match closely enough to the signature card onfile with the board of elections. When we took a closer look at the signature card, it had been signed 35 years ago! To think that a persons handwriting might not change significantly over time underscored the uphill and time consuming battle that my loyal campaign staff were facing at the NYC Board of Elections during the summer of 1994.

The challengers.
We questioned who the people were that were challenging our signatures, one by one, in the board of elections. The court appointed judge, who was with us day in day out in the board of elections said they didn't have to tell us who they were. It turns out they were a melange of local political wannabee from the New York State Democratic party under the leadership of someone whose name was never revealed to us, but who always wore a suit and tie and had a large bankroll of cash with which he paid the workers to try and get my name from appearing on the ballot.

Other candidates didn't fare as well
At the start of this signature vetting process, we had the company of many other insurgnet candidates. Sadly, one by one, these people who really trying to made a difference, as were we, got "knocked off the ballot", by having the number of approved signatures fall below the necessary number. One in particular stood out in my mind, Mary Stanley, she was running against Denny Farrell for State Assembly. Mary's people were extremely upset because one day they were served with some legal papers while waiting for the subway train. A legal part of serving papers in NYC is that you have to touch the person with the papers. So you can imagine what felt like a shove on a crowded NYC subway platform, being served papers from a process server, because you wanted to run for office, was very upsetting. About eight months after that I was at a function and found myself standing next to Denny Farrel, who is one of the most arrogant people I have every encountered. I asked him how it felt to have been re-elected and he responded, "Oh, there was an election, I didn't even know."

The Testimony and the Lawyers
Thank goodness for Dominic Fusco. Dom was the only election lawyer in NYC at that time that was willing to take on the political establishment and we found him. Each person who gathered signatures, had to testify under oath, regarding the circumstances of how the signatures were obtained. It was somewhere around this time that I realized that if the Democratic spent half the effort that were putting forth in keeping me off the ballot in address issues like education or the local economy, people like myself would not even feel driven to run for office. This was taking on a life all its own, dragging on for weeks, lawyers, court reporters, witness, process servers, all bent on keeping little ole me off the ballot!

Moral Suasion
Maybe it was a sign of desparation but one day I used by 11 year old daughter lay a guilt trip on the opposing lawyer. She got that they were trying to keep daddy off the ballot. I asked her in front of the lawyer if thats what she was being taught in shcool about democracy. She shook her head side to side, bless her. Our campaign also took to group hugs and singing a modified version of Go Down Moses, to When Harlem was in Rangel's hand, let my people go, oppressed so hard they could not stand, let my people go, Go Down, Davis, way down to Harlem land, tell old Rangel, Let my People go.

Board of Elections Staff
It turned out to my complete surprise the the New York City Board of Election staff is comprised almost entirely of political appointees. I was amazed. I thought this was turning reality on its head. If anywhere you would want impartiality it would be in the board of elections. But no, our opponents, the democratic party, had its people working as employees in the board of elections, as well as on a legal team working to knock us off the ballot.

Getting on the Ballot with No Time left for campaigning
Amazing at it may seem, we were able to successfully run the ballot gauntlet, mostly because of the cleverness of Dominic Fusco, in his argument before a five judge appeals court. Our court appointed surrogate judge, who had been with us day in and day out at the board of elections, who one morning told me, "Mr. Davis, the system is designed to protect the incumbent." ruled that we were on the ballot. His boss typically rubber stamps his findings, however in our case didn't he ruled against us. $300 bucks later and some more papers to be filed is how we wound up in the ornated ceilinged appeals court in front of five judges. Dominic did the equivalent of a legal headfake and caught opposing counsel off guard. 75 signatures that had been collected by someone who marked the wrong election district, were accepted, because Dominic persuaded enough of the judges that the voters would have been disenfranchised if the signatures were not allowed. In obtaining this ruling Dominic changed the election law in New York a bit because the ruling become precedent for future cases. After we had our moment of glee, we looked at the calendar and realized that we had spent most of July and August in the process and the actually primary was a week a way. We realized that the process, even if it you succeed in breaking through, which only a few candidates managed to do, robs your campaign of money and time. Instead of bringing a message to the people, we were tied up in the board of elections.

The Televised Debate
"I'm a nice guy, but I'm not that nice." Those are the words Charles Rangel spoke to me in the conference room of New York 1 cable television station. He was preparing to debate the other candidate, who also barely made it on the ballot, son of Adam Clayton Powell, Adam Powell IV. Since I had made it onto the ballot I was also at the station, even though the station manager said I couldn't be part of the debate. Prior to the debate, we were told that I could not participate because I was not on the ballot. Now that I was on the ballot I was still being told that I could not participate. I appealled to my congressman, who certainly would have the power to tell the station manager, that I had right to participate in the debate. Another win for politics wins over principal. Internally I considered getting arrested right there in the Television station. Maybe the station manager considered that was an option that I had also, he offered me a half hour all to my self in a program coming up in a few days. I took it. The ensuing debate between Rangel and Powell did not touch on any issues relevant to the community. I found out later, that I would share the interview with two other insurgent candidates and be introduced by Andrew Kurtzman this way. "They have no money, they have to chance of winnning, they are the gadflies of local politics and we are going to talk with them tonight."

The Van
Our most effective get out the vote tool was a blue van with a platform built on top and signs all around. We would go out crusing the distric, blaring a loud speaker and waving to people.

The Message
Our campaign was focussed on the tragedy of the Rockefeller era drug laws with their mandatory sentencing that was repsonible for large number of Harlemites being sent to prison for long periods of time. My observations is that lack of legitimate employment opportunities leaves many with no alternative but to get into "the business". JOBS NOT JAILS was our simple message. We did not even make it up. It was not original with us. But it does capture what we believed in. It seems so tragic to see the wasted lives, that could be productive lives. Its also very costly or profitable depending on the side of the equation one sits on.

The Signs
We made signs out of canvas with the help of Ehrling Rohde, lifetime Harlem Activists. One sign was actually a giant letter to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority(MTA) which hung from the side of Rohde's dilapidated building, exhorting the chairman to live up to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission clauses included in the $300 million dollar renovation of a commuter rail bridge, to hire and train Harlem residents to work on the project. The rest of the signs were written on canvas which we hung from firescapes of abandoned buildings as high up as we could place them. Jeremiah Drake, a homeless veteran who joined the campaign, was able to climb to amazing places. Yes, we had a clear message, organize the young men of Harlem into a work force to fix the abandoned buidlings, instead of shipping them off to prison.

The Results
Voting: Rangel 55%, Powell 34%, Davis 10%
Spending: Rangel $100,000, Powell $35,000, Davis $5,000

What it All Means
Choices of candidates in the election marketplace are limited by a system designed to protect the incumbent. Competition of candidates and ideas has been wrung out of the system.


At 11:40 AM, Blogger Nayer said...

Hey Al:

You won. Not the office of congress, but the test of truth. As you use to say on the campaign trail, 'the system is corrupt and we have to fix it.'

In light of the current high rate of election fraud, your words and wisdom is right on time.

At 12:02 PM, Blogger Nayer said...

Hey Al:

You won. Not the office of congress, but the test of truth. As you use to say on the campaign trail, 'the system is corrupt and we have to fix it.'

In light of the current high rate of election fraud, your words and wisdom is right on time.


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