When potential candidates for State Supreme Court began lining up political support for the 2014 election, they naturally stopped first at Erie County Democratic and Republican headquarters.
Judicial hopefuls needed their own party lines first and foremost to compete for the five openings on the bench.
But before nominations were settled, Erie County’s Democratic and Republican chairmen first asked most of last year’s Supreme Court aspirants to pony up $4,000 each for campaign literature aimed at the minor Independence Party primary.
Because in New York’s Byzantine system, Democratic and Republican leaders seek to control not only their own parties, but minor parties like Independence as well.
And especially in the Democratic Party last year, judicial hopefuls without a prayer of snaring the all-important nod of the chairman were asked for the money to be “part of the team.” Even some Democrats aware they had no chance at nomination felt obliged to pay for Independence mailings to demonstrate Democratic Party loyalty for future consideration.
Now some of those candidates question their obligation to fund a Republican and Democratic campaign to control the judicial nominating conventions of a minor party listed fifth on the state ballot. And the effort raises questions about the “independence” of the Independence Party, which was ultimately and overwhelmingly controlled by judicial nominating convention delegates friendly to the GOP.
One Democratic aspirant said he was “very disappointed” in the process he encountered.
“I was led to believe that, if we didn’t contribute the $4,000, our candidacy would not be viable any more,” he said. “It was frustrating. We were told it was expected we would contribute this money from our campaign funds.”
The candidate said he does not know how the money was spent.
The Buffalo News spoke with several judicial candidates who encountered requests for $4,000 during last year’s campaign, none of whom wanted their names publicized because they still harbor judicial ambitions and must navigate party channels again in the future.
Local and state party leaders acknowledge the payments were requested, with the most active – Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner – defending his efforts as an objectionable but necessary aspect of judicial elections.
State Independence Chairman Frank MacKay, meanwhile, seemed to shrug his shoulders over the specter of Democrats and Republicans waging war in last September’s primary election for control of his party’s judicial nominating convention.
“It’s been like that from Day One in Erie County; it’s always been,” said MacKay, a Long Island resident. “Have you ever heard of the Lindbergh baby?”
Campaign finance reports filed with the state Board of Elections indicate at least five judicial hopefuls contributed $4,000 for Zellner’s efforts to influence the Independence Party, well before he settled on a cross-endorsement for eventual nominees Dennis E. Ward and E. Jeannette Ogden.
Each was asked to send the money to the Balduzzi Group of suburban Rochester, a printing contractor for Erie County Democrats.
Democrats who contributed the $4,000 to Balduzzi were Ogden, Daniel J. Furlong, Debra L. Givens, Jonathan P. Gorman and Susan Eagan. John J. DelMonte, who received a Democratic nomination but not a cross-endorsement, separately spent $120,000 with Balduzzi in an unsuccessful effort for television advertising that the firm also produces.
Ward, who eventually won bipartisan nomination, contributed nothing for the Independence primary because as Erie County’s Democratic elections commissioner at the time, he was technically not a candidate.
On the Republican side, Frederick J. Marshall, Paul B. Wojtaszek and Kevin M. Carter spent $4,000 each for services provided by Marketing Technologies of Buffalo. Wojtaszek received a cross-endorsement while Marshall was nominated with no cross-endorsement. Carter was passed over.
According to Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, the money he requested also fueled a mailing campaign aimed at Independence members throughout the eight-county Eighth Judicial District.
While past Democratic and Republican chairmen have endured criticism for charging Supreme Court candidates as much as $7,500 for “convention expenses” after their nomination, few Democrats recall similar charges for judicial hopefuls the party leader knew would fail to gain his nod.
One candidate said he sought legal advice before contributing to make sure spending such funds in another party’s primary was legal. It is.
Though the candidate doubted any Democrat would prevail in an Independence primary, he was told his party “just could not concede” the effort to the GOP. He said he was assured the printing work was completed, though he has no direct knowledge if the fliers were mailed.
He also said that even though he knew he would not be cross-endorsed, the message from Democratic Headquarters was clear.
“The communication was ‘Are you with us or against us? Are you going to be the one who chooses not to, or will you be part of the team?’ ” he recalled. “It was a pressure tactic, because you had nine or 10 people who put a lot of time, energy and investment into gaining the favor of the party. Do you throw it all away or go along?
“Did I like it? No,” the candidate continued. “Was it well conceived? No. Was it contrived for other purposes? I wouldn’t be shocked.”
The same candidate said he viewed the effort as ridiculous, correctly predicting the Republicans would overwhelmingly win the contest.
“To me, it looked like amateur hour because the Independence Party is under the thumb of the Republican Party,” he said. “I just felt the whole thing was a waste of time and money.”
Part of the process
Others participating who made the donations felt differently, viewing the suggested contributions from funds they had raised as part of the process.
”It was explained to me as a request for contributions for the printings for Independence Party voters to vote for Democratic delegates,” the candidate said. “I had no problem with it. I was looking at 26,000 (Erie County) Independence votes.
“I wasn’t pressured, and no one put it that I wouldn’t be a candidate any more. Not to me,” he said, adding he had no reason to believe the literature was not mailed as promised.
Still another candidate contributed because it was “something we were presented with.”
“It was something that could have assisted our candidacies if we were fortunate enough to be on the ticket,” said the candidate, who did not receive a nomination. “We knew it was a gamble.”
The candidate said nobody was pressured.
“But you get caught up. Everybody got excited in a way they wouldn’t otherwise,” the candidate said. “But the results were that we didn’t get much for our money.”
A big following
Democratic Chairman Zellner defended his practice of seeking contributions for the Independence Party primary from potential candidates, adding the amounts proved nowhere near those charged by some predecessors for convention “expenses.”
“The Independence line has a big following,” Zellner said, “and it’s important for our candidates to make inroads there.”
The move aimed for “leverage” over Republican opponents, he added, by targeting Independence members voting for candidates to their party’s judicial nominating convention.
“We never went after the line with such force before,” the chairman said. “There were two or three mailings, and we make a lot of effort.”
In the end, Zellner acknowledged his effort was “absolutely crushed” by Republicans, when Independence voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots for delegates friendly to the GOP.
Only one Republican candidate – Family Court Judge Carter – gave $4,000 for the Independence mailings and did not receive the nomination. Langworthy, the GOP chairman, also defended the effort as necessary in a system where minor parties often provide the margin of victory.
Zellner, meanwhile, said he felt compelled to jump into the Independence effort even though he also has no use for New York’s “fusion” system in which major party candidates run on minor party lines. He also said he believes most Independence Party members actually believe they are “independents” and are often surprised to be solicited for votes in an organized party.
“Fusion is one of the most corrupt things we have,” the chairman said. “I absolutely despise it. And the same with whole judicial convention philosophy.”
‘Part of the team’
Democratic HQ requested payments from judicial hopefuls for Independence Party primary:
• Daniel J. Furlong: $4,000
• Debra L. Givens: $4,000
• E. Jeannette Ogden: $4,000
• Jonathan G. Gorman: $4,000
• Susan Eagan: $4,000
Republican HQ requested payments from judicial hopefuls for Independence Party primary:
• Kevin M. Carter: $4,000
• Frederick J. Marshall: $4,000
• Paul B. Wojtaszek: $4,000