Obscure Election Law Invoked Hours Before Filing Deadline
August 9, 2007
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer
Two of the strongest challengers to Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez are in jeopardy of not making the city's Democratic primary ballot because of an obscure election law involving petition signatures.
State Rep. Minnie Gonzalez and former Deputy Mayor I. Charles Mathews could have hundreds of signatures disqualified under a 30-year-old state law that invalidates primary petitions circulated by the same person for more than one mayoral candidate.
The law was invoked hours before Wednesday's 4 p.m. filing deadline and left Gonzalez and Mathews with few options other than scrambling to gather more signatures.
Perez and other candidates endorsed by the Democratic town committee are automatically on the primary ballot.
In order to be placed on the ballot for the Sept. 11 primary, a challenge candidate must gather the signatures of 1,392 registered Democratic voters, or 5 percent of those registered with the party.
The problems for Mathews and Gonzalez involve petitions circulated on behalf of a challenge slate of city council candidates who want to be on the primary ballot.
So as not to favor one mayoral candidate over another, members of the council challenge slate said they put a "placeholder" mayoral candidate on their ticket, a real person named Jonathan P. Clark with no real intention of running for office.
Many people supporting and gathering signatures for the challenge slate also gathered signatures for Mathews or Gonzalez. Though not the slate's intention, the dual-circulation of signatures could destroy both challengers' chances of appearing on the primary ballot. It could also affect the challenge slate's own chances of appearing on the ballot.
It was unclear Wednesday whether Clark's withdrawal from the slate would eliminate the problem, though several candidates say they have asked the secretary of the state's office to review that question.
Representatives of the affected candidates said they have also asked the state to review whether signatures gathered before July 24 - the date the slate was formed - would qualify, because at the time Clark was not yet a candidate.
Had the slate not placed its straw candidate on its petition, Gonzalez's, Mathews' and the slate's petitions would not be in question, said Shirley A. Surgeon, the city's Democratic registrar of voters.
Mathews and Gonzalez said they would consult with lawyers if eliminated from the primary ballot.
The mayor had six Democratic challengers: Gonzalez, Mathews, state Rep. Art Feltman, former state Sen. Frank D. Barrows, political newcomer Raul De Jesus and the Rev. Patrice Smith, a youth advocate.
De Jesus and Smith did not submit any signatures to be on the primary ballot. Feltman and Barrows, who said they turned in about 2,400 and 1,500 signatures respectively, said they would not be affected by the state law threatening signatures for Mathews and Gonzalez.
Mathews said Wednesday he turned in more than 1,900 signatures and was hopeful it would be enough. He intended to fight any decision that nullified the work of his supporters, he said.
"We worked really hard to get 1,900 signatures, and 1,900 citizens indicated they wanted a choice in this election," Mathews said. "Hopefully, we have enough names to survive."
Gonzalez said Wednesday that she had submitted nearly 1,600 signatures and had been told a week ago by Surgeon that she had qualified for the primary ballot. Surgeon was only waiting to officially certify them, Gonzalez said she was told.
"For some reason, she was holding on to them," Gonzalez said. "And then at the last minute, when she knows I am not going to have enough people to put on the street, she calls and says they will be disqualified."
Surgeon said Wednesday that her staff had only recently noticed that many of the petitions being submitted by Mathews and Gonzalez were circulated by people who also gathered signatures for the challenge slate. Because the challenge slate contained a mayoral candidate - albeit a straw candidate - the signatures in question would be rejected, she said.
She confirmed her interpretation of the law Wednesday afternoon with lawyers from the secretary of the state's office, who gave her an advisory opinion on the matter. She also said the law is explained in clear language on the instructions given to candidates who take petitions from her office.
"If the challenge slate had not had a mayoral candidate on it, this would not have been a problem at all," Surgeon said. She now will review petitions to certify signatures, a process she hopes to complete by Monday.
In a heavily Democratic city, Democratic primary winners often have been virtually assured election in November. But this year, Gonzalez and Mathews, in addition to Perez, Feltman, Barrows and De Jesus, have petitioned separately with the state to appear on the November ballot as independents if they don't win the Democratic primary.
If Gonzalez is eliminated from the primary, only Perez would truly benefit, political insiders said. Gonzalez presents a particular concern to Perez because she can erode his base by drawing votes from the city's Puerto Rican community in her district. Gonzalez has represented Hartford's 3rd House District since 1996.
"Minnie Gonzalez's elimination from the primary race would greatly benefit Eddie Perez's candidacy, specifically meaning between 600 to 800 votes," said John B. Kennelly, former city councilman and member of the city's Democratic town committee. "Rep. Gonzalez has a very strong organization in her House district, but absent her on the ballot, I believe that district will favor the mayor due to ethnic affiliation."
According to the secretary of the state's office, the 1978 law was intended to stop candidates from putting multiple challengers on a ballot in order to split up blocks of supporters, whether ethnic or ideological.
For example, a white candidate for mayor facing a black challenger is barred from gathering signatures for himself and a second black candidate, if the intention is to undercut his black challenger.
The secretary of the state has been asked for an opinion on the law only twice before - once in 1986, another time in 1993.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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