Mayoral challenger Minnie Gonzalez and a six-member city council "challenge slate" will not face Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez and his party's endorsed council candidates on the September primary ballot because they did not gather enough legitimate petition signatures, the city's Democratic registrar of voters said Monday.
Thanks to a 30-year-old state law that invalidates primary petitions circulated by the same person for more than one mayoral candidate, hundreds of signatures were thrown out by Democratic Registrar Shirley Surgeon, who said the law is clear.
"Everyone in the city of Hartford who has ever challenged the endorsed party - the same instruction has been given," Surgeon said Monday.
Former Deputy Mayor I. Charles Mathews also had petitions thrown out, but he - along with state Rep. Art Feltman and former state Sen. Frank D. Barrows - gathered enough signatures to appear on the primary ballot.
Gonzalez, a state representative with no love for Perez, did not.
"I'm coming back in November," said Gonzalez who, along with members of the council challenge slate, has filed papers to run as an independent candidate in the November general election. "And I'm coming back stronger. And I'm going to be campaigning day and night. And the slate is coming back."
"This is not over yet," she said. "We're going to go to court."
In order to be placed on the ballot for the Sept. 11 primary, all non-endorsed challenge candidates needed to gather 1,392 signatures of registered Democratic voters in Hartford, or 5 percent of those registered with the party.
Perez, as the endorsed mayoral candidate, automatically appears on the ballot.
Both Gonzalez and Mathews learned last week that some of their petition signatures would probably be tossed out because of a state law that says people who circulate petitions may do so for only one mayoral candidate.
Because people who circulated petitions for Gonzalez and Mathews also circulated petitions for the council challenge slate - which included a "place-holder" candidate for mayor - both mayoral candidates were concerned they wouldn't have enough signatures to be on the primary ballot.
That place-holder- Jonathan P. Clark - had no intention of running for mayor.
But the law still applied, and Surgeon eliminated hundreds of signatures as a result.
On Monday, her position was backed up by the secretary of the state's office, which issued a ruling supporting her legal interpretation. The ruling also said that its opinion would not change if Clark were to withdraw from the race, as he has offered to do.
Responses to Monday's announcement were mixed.
Perez campaign manager Kenny Curran said the mayor was still pleased to be the endorsed candidate, and said he didn't know whether Gonzalez's exit from the primary fight would benefit Perez.
But he did take issue with those who take issue with Surgeon. "I don't understand what the confusion is," Curran said. "It seems like a matter of election law more than anything else."
Gonzalez and challenge candidate Andrea Comer said that Surgeon's timing was suspect.
"If you're going to have an epiphany with regard to the law, the 11th hour is not the time to have it," Comer said.
Gonzalez said that Surgeon gave her mixed signals, telling her a week before the deadline for signatures that she had cleared the hurdle.
"She said you already qualified," Gonzalez said of a conversation she had with Surgeon in late July. "If she said that I qualified... how come she would hold that information for the whole week?"
Simple, Surgeon said. The problem didn't arise until the challenge slate started submitting its petitions close to the deadline. Those petitions included ones circulated by people who also circulated petitions for Mathews and Gonzalez, Surgeon said.
"I told her she had made it unofficially," Surgeon said. "I said, `Unofficially, you have the number of signatures to qualify.' "
Challenge slate member Eric Crawford said it was "a tragedy for us not to make it on a technicality."
But Crawford said that the number of signatures collected by those seeking to oust Perez and his team was impressive.
"It tells me people want change," Crawford said. "The unfortunate thing is we won't be on the [primary] ballot. But the fortunate thing is we'll be there in November."
And while Barrows and Feltman celebrated their achievements, Mathews said he was happy to be on the ballot but upset Gonzalez wouldn't be. He suggested she fight the battle in court, saying the law violates constitutional protections of free speech by restricting the circulation of petitions.
He also praised Gonzalez for gathering roughly 2,000 signatures.
"I know how hard that was," Mathews said, adding that he thinks more people on the ballot is a good thing. "I would have loved the opportunity to whip her."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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