For those of you not familiar with the Board of Elections, it serves a vital function in the city when it comes to running elections, such as registering candidates and setting up polling stations. Or so we're told.
It's also a notorious throwback to old-school New York City backroom politics, where loyalists are granted patronage posts to do the dirty work of the party leaders. You see, in addition to running elections, the ten commissioners – five Republicans and five Democrats, all appointees – also vote on who gets to stay on the ballot when questions arise about the legitimacy of a campaign, such as if enough valid signatures were collected to initially get on the ballot.
As you can imagine, this system is ripe for abuse, especially when rogue candidates challenge the party favorite – whether they be Democrat or Republican. Party officials immediately challenge petition signatures, and it's pretty obvious how the commissioners – who are appointed by the party – are going to cast their vote if there is even the slightest whiff of impropriety.
In Queens, two factions of the Republican Party, one led by current party chairman Phil Ragusa, the other led by – or at least he has become the face and voice for the rival faction – Councilman Eric Ulrich.
Ulrich became aware of an oft-overlooked provision in state election law that requires the party leaders in all five boroughs send a letter to the City Council at least thirty days before January 1 re-nominating its commissioner, which in this case was Ragusa's hand-picked appointee Judith Stupp.
So at Ulrich's urging, Stupp was replaced by Michael Michel, a former aide to ex-Councilman Thomas Ognibene. Ulrich and Staten Island Republicans - councilmen Jimmy Oddo and Vincent Ignazio - voted to in favor of Michel, while Queens Councilman Dan Halloran was the only one to vote against him.
Halloran, a northeastern Queens Republican, has shown a lukewarm loyalty to the current party chairman, if only because he might realize he represents a district with a number of Democratic candidates looking to take his seat this year, and can't afford to make too many political enemies.
Even though he voted against Michel, he was quoted in Crain's as saying that replacing Stupp might not be a bad thing in the long run.
The move to replace Stupp will undoubtedly face a legal challenge, but it's quite the shot across the bow when it comes to the ongoing war within the Queens GOP.
Funny thing, though, as it turns out none of the Republican Party chairs in any borough filed a re-nominating letter, opening the door to replace all of the GOP commissioners at the Board of Elections.
And once Brooklyn State Senator Marty Golden got wind of what went down in Queens, he immediately pushed to have the commissioner from Brooklyn, Nancy Mottola-Schacher, replaced by Simon Shamoun, the vice chairman of the Brooklyn Republican Party.
Oddo said there are no plans to replace the Staten Island commissioner, but the City Council's Republican delegation will meet soon to discuss whether or not to replace the commissioners from the Bronx and Manhattan.
While the replacement of the Queens commissioner initially may have been about a small power grab, the move to oust the other commissioners has a more altruistic motive. According to published reports that quote Oddo, who is the City Council's Minority Leader, the push to replace commissioners is less about showing who is boss, and more about putting forward-thinking and vocal commissioners with a lot of energy at the head of the Board of Elections.
The board has gotten a bad rap over the years, and deservedly so, for being a place where do-nothing party hacks go to pick up an easy paycheck and do their master's bidding.
One example of this dysfunction is that the Board of Elections has been without an executive director since George Gonzalez resigned in a cloud of controversy in 2010. A new executive director requires 6 votes of the 10-member board, which means one commissioner would have to cross party lines for a new executive director to be approved.
That isn't happening with this group of commissioners.
So it looks like Ulrich's discovery of this little technicality that he presumably used to needle the current leadership of the Queens GOP could actually lead to a more transparent and functioning Board of Elections.
Hey, maybe something good will come out of all of this infighting after all!