By Tom Precious
ALBANY -– Democrats have turned to a lawyer who helped craft some of the state’s complex election laws to try to keep a challenger to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo from getting onto the September Democratic gubernatorial primary ballot.
Martin Connor, a former State Senate minority leader from Brooklyn and one of the state’s most respected election lawyers, is in charge of the legal team seeking to challenge the designating petition submitted last week by Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor who is seeking to run against Cuomo in a primary.
As is typical in ballot signature challenges, which will have its first stop before the state Board of Elections and eventually the courts, two unknown Democrats were tapped as the official objectors: Harris Weiss from New City in Rockland County and Austin Sternlicht from Rye in Westchester County.
Teachout submitted 45,000 signatures to try to get a place on the September primary ballot against Cuomo, who she has accused of abandoning a number of the Democratic Party’s core, liberal positions.
New York election laws can be difficult for challengers to incumbents to overcome and making a single mistake on a page of signatures can lead to that entire page being bounced in the counting process.
Teachout relied, in part, on gathering names at rallies and other public events, including street fairs, by volunteers not heavily experienced in the state’s election law. Such signature gathering is not nearly as safe as having party insiders going door to door seeking signatures from known Democratic voters based on enrollment sheets obtained from election board offices.
The law requires a minimum of 15,000 valid signatures from enrolled Democrats in order for Teachout to force a primary.
Connor was Senate minority leader until he was defeated in that post by then-Sen. David A. Paterson in 2002; Paterson, who would go on to become governor, is the Democratic Party’s current chairman. In May, Connor questioned whether Teachout was eligible to run because of his claim that she had not resided in the state for a minimum of five years. Teachout, originally from Vermont, has said she moved to the state just over five years ago.
Connor did not return calls for comment.
Teachout has been insisting for the past week that she gathered plenty of additional signatures to withstand an expected challenge by Cuomo or his surrogates.
Who precisely will be paying Connor’s legal tab is uncertain. A spokesman for the state Democratic Party, which is run by Cuomo, did not immediately return an email seeking comment.
The "general" challenges received Monday by the state elections board serve as an initial legal notice against Teachout’s signatures. The next step in the process is for Connor to submit the specific challenges to individual signatures or signature pages.