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Video: Jerry Zremski's Week in Washington

Buffalo News Washington Bureau Chief says things are quiet in the nation's capital, but he plans work on stories about the Buffalo Bills and discussion of a new stadium and another on the wealth of area Congressional delegation.

Teachout says 25,000 signatures collected so far to challenge Cuomo

By Tom Precious

NEWS ALBANY BUREAU CHIEF

ALBANY – A Fordham law professor seeking to challenge Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a Democratic primary says she has obtained 25,100 signatures as of today in her bid to get on the Sept. 9 ballot – nearly double the minimum amount needed.

Zephyr Teachout said an army of volunteers and paid canvassers have been working the state the past month gathering signatures from Democrats at public events and going door-to-door at homes of registered Democrats.

But Teachout, a first-time candidate who says she is running because she believes Cuomo has abandoned some of the core progressive principles of the party, knows the governor or his supporters are likely to mount an effort to try to invalidate enough signatures to block her primary path. Forcing a Democratic primary against Cuomo is far from a slam dunk, her supporters caution.

“We anticipate a challenge," she said in an interview. “His campaign will do what it can to keep us off the ballot, directly or indirectly." 

State elections law requires Teachout, 42, to gather 15,000 signatures from enrolled Democrats with at least 100 apiece coming from half of the state’s congressional districts. In practice, though, candidates – notably challengers to incumbents - generally try to get at least double or triple the minimum signature level to help withstand New York’s long history of employing a cottage industry of election lawyers who gear up this time of year to help incumbents from both major parties keep challengers off ballot lines.

Teachout said her confidence level is “very high" her campaign will submit at least 45,000 signatures to the state Board of Elections by the July 10 deadline, which her campaign believes is a safe comfort level to get on the ballot. But even reaching that level still means the campaign must ensure it is getting high enough numbers from "geographically diverse'' regions of the state to help withstand the looming challenges expected first at a Board of Elections hearing and finally the courts.

Courts and changes to the law over the years have made for less-strict interpretation of the election law, though local election boards still advise office-seekers to, for instance, use staples and not paper clips when filing designating signature sheets.

An election lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity said fraud is the number one reason a signature is determined to be invalid, followed by signers putting down the wrong town they actually reside in. Incomplete witness statements, which are filled out by enrolled party members who gather the signatures from enrolled party members, are another way signatures are often ruled invalid. A mistake can also lead to an entire page of signatures being ruled invalid, even if some of the signatures are legal.

Other common ways signatures can be deemed invalid is if a volunteer dates a witness page, say, on a Tuesday but then collects one more signature dated the following day. Writing "Brooklyn" instead of "Kings'' for the county can lead to problems, as can not properly numbering individual signature pages submitted to the state.

Teachout, who was the online organizing director for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, quickly started her Democratic challenge to Cuomo after losing her bid to secure the gubernatorial nomination of the left-leaning Working Families Party at its convention in late May. That has meant trying to build an organization where there was none.

As a result, Teachout is relying, in part, on collecting signatures at various kinds of public gatherings, such as street fairs. Such a route, any election will say, is risky. The preferred route – or as one election lawyer said: “the only way to do it’’ – is obtaining voter registration data and then going door-to-door hitting up registered voters for signatures. Unlike the street rally method, the signature collector has a far better chance of scoring a “valid’’ signature from the door-to-door route.

Teachout said she understands the potential shortcomings, but said the public gathering approach has also been a way for her to spread word about her fledgling campaign. “It may be Byzantine,’’ Teachout said of the state’s election laws pertaining to collecting signatures,  "but it has had the wonderful side effect of creating opportunities for our campaign to get into communities," she said.

Teachout said her volunteer effort in Buffalo has been exceptionally strong. “In Buffalo, you see people who understand the economy is upside down," she said.

Teachout’s campaign is by any measure a long shot, but she has been reaching out to people her campaign believes Cuomo may have alienated after four years in office, from public school teachers to environmentalists who turned out just this week to protest Cuomo over not resolving the natural gas fracking issue.

One aspect of the Teachout campaign Cuomo allies are keeping an eye on is Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor who is running as her lieutenant governor candidate. If Teachout and Wu get on the primary ballot, Wu will run in a separate contest on the Democratic line against Cuomo’s running mate, Erie County’s Kathy Hochul. If Wu emerged victorious, he would become Cuomo’s running mate on the Democratic line in the November general election contest. Also, Cuomo would still be running with Hochul on the Independence and Working Families Party lines, but could not count votes he received on those lines in his overall tally if Wu is his Democratic running mate.

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Astorino says $2.2 billion windfall should go to infrastructure work

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -- Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino said today the $2.2 billion - at least - windfall New York state is receiving from Monday's settlement with France's largest bank should be dedicated for long-term infrastructure improvements.

Astorino said $500 million of the new money should go to removing the state's canal system from the financial responsibility of the state Thruway Authority, an early 1990s budget-balancing manuever long criticized as a fiscal gimmick by critics.

Here is his release:

New York--July 2 -- Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, the Republican candidate for governor of New York State, today challenged Governor Andrew Cuomo to dedicate the $2.2 billion windfall from the BNP Paribas bank settlement to long-term capital projects to shore up New York's decaying rail and highway infrastructure. The money would otherwise go into New York's general fund where it would be used for day-to-day operating expenses.

Mr. Astorino also proposed a long-term fix to the 1992 Mario Cuomo decision to divert Thruway Authority toll revenue to the Canal Corporation, thus stripping New York's roads and bridges of their historic stream of infrastructure funding. The County Executive said that $500 million in BNP Paribas settlement funds could be used to cover Canal Corporation costs over the next seven years, an entity whose costs could then be returned to the state's general fund. Thruway Authority money could then be re-dedicated to highway infrastructure, as it was originally intended to be.

"The BNP Paribas settlement presents New York with a real opportunity to shore up its aging Thruway and MTA infrastructure and to fix a bad policy decision that has robbed New York's roads of badly needed repairs," County Executive Astorino said. "Fixing bridges and roadways may not be a sexy endeavor -- it may not come with ribbon cuttings -- but it is of critical necessity to the economic future of this state and to the safety of New York motorists. This is an enormous amount of money, and we have an opportunity to spend it wisely, rather than to put it into the hands of a government that is already spending New York to death."

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Video: McCarthy on the trappings of incumbency

When Governor Cuomo visited Roswell Park Cancer Institute this week, he heaped praise on two state lawmakers who are facing tough political challenges. The News' Bob McCarthy talks with Brian Meyer about the trappings of incumbency:

A visual of how Erie County's arts and cultural grants have weathered county politics

A story in Sunday's editions by Colin Dabkowski took a look at how Erie County's arts and cultural grants have weathered the political changes in the county.

Here's a visualization that shows how the county grant money has been spread out to non-profit organizations since 1996 – including the county's "red-green" budget crisis of 2004-2005.

State's highest court upholds towns' hydrofracking bans (Updated)

By Tom Precious
NEWS ALBANY BUREAU CHIEF

ALBANY -- In a case closely watched by localities along with environmental and energy interests, the state’s highest court this morning affirmed the rights of two towns to use local zoning ordinances to ban fracking for natural gas.

The 5-2 decision could have widespread implications for the future of the controversial hydrofracking process that is, by edict of the Cuomo administration, on hold at present across New York.

The Court of Appeals said there is nothing in the state’s oil and gas statute that preempts a locality’s right, through zoning provisions, to ban certain kinds of land uses, such as the controversial fracking process.

The case had been brought by Norse Energies, which had rights to about 22,000 acres of land that it wanted to use for oil and gas exploration and drilling. It challenged the town’s ban saying it exceeded its legal authority. The company has since gone bankrupt, but the case was also merged with one brought by Cooperstown Holstein, a dairy farm in Middlefield in Otsego County that had signed a deal with a private company for gas drilling on its land.

Lower courts had already ruled in the cases that bans on certain industries done through local zoning laws are not preempted by New York’s Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Law, which the two plaintiffs argued should prevent localities from enacting a hodge-podge system of fracking bans by having a single state law set out the terms for gas drilling in New York. The law has its roots going back to 1935.

Today’s court decision by the Court of Appeals upholds those lower court rulings. Dryden in 2011 banned any activities related to natural gas exploration or drilling, and Middlefield, like dozens of other localities around New York, amended its zoning rules to ban oil and gas drilling within its town limits.

More than 100 localities across the state have enacted some sort of bans on fracking, and local officials and environmentalists will cheer the court's decision. But for the natural gas industry, and landowners who have sold or leased drilling rights, the decision represents a major financial blow and one that will send a chilling effect to the industry about its prospects for doing business in New York state.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, now nearly four years in office, has still not decided whether to life a state moratorium on new fracking operations, a move critics say is costing the state thousands of jobs. Environmentalists, meanwhile, have been protesting Cuomo over the issue at every opportunity, including a deep-pocket fundraiser he has scheduled for tonight in Manhattan. Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham law professor who is trying to challenge Cuomo in a Democratic Party primary, is among those expected at the protest outside Cuomo's fundraiser.

The court today said there is nothing even implied in the state’s oil and gas law that suggests localities can’t use zoning procedures to dictate the kinds of land uses permitted in its borders. The court said it could also find no “legislative intent’’ by the Assembly and Senate seeking to stop localities from taking the steps Dryden and Middlefield took to ban fracking.

The court said the Legislature, if it chose to, could tighten the law to ban localities from using zoning laws to halt hydrofracking, but that it has never done so.

The court also cautioned that it was taking no stand on the issue of hydrofracking; that, the court said, is a matter for the executive and legislative branches to decide.

“At the heart of these cases lies the relationship between the state and its local government subdivisions and their respective exercise of legislative power,’’ the court said.

Brad Gill, executive director of the Hamburg-based Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, said the court’s ruling will have a “chilling effect’’ on companies that have been eyeing fracking in a state that, for six years now over two gubernatorial administrations, has had a de facto ban on the drilling process.

Gill estimated that there are nearly 200 localities in the state with some sort of ban on fracking; he was not immediately sure how many of those are resolutions by local legislative bodies, which are not covered by today’s decision, versus zoning ordinance bans on fracking that the court’s ruling affects.

Gill said the ruling will hurt not only individual energy companies, but local landowners who have been hoping to sell or lease drilling rights. He noted there are still many communities that have long had conventional gas and oil drilling and have not enacted bans on fracking.

“It certainly sends a clear message to our member companies who have had holdings in New York state who several years ago decided to leave New York and invest in Pennsylvania and Ohio,’’ Gill said, adding that the ruling will create a “patch-work’’ of rules that will vary by locality if New York state ever does lift the ban on fracking.

“You’ve got to make business decisions based on certainty. We don’t have that in New York,’’ he said.

But New Yorkers Against Fracking, an environmental group, hailed the decision
for affirming the right of New Yorkers to ban fracking and its toxic effects from their communities.''

The group called on Cuomo to enact a statewide ban on fracking.

"As other states  roll over for a very deep-pocketed fracking industry, communities throughout New York – large and small – have challenged them and won,'' said Katherine Nadeau, policy director at Environmental Advocates, an umbrella organization.

"The fracking industry has spent millions to bully our state, even sending a team of lawyers to strip away the rights of communities who have chosen to ban fracking within their municipal lines. Cities, towns and villages have long retained the right to protect against industries they believe can cause harm, and this was nothing more than a brazen attempt by frackers to exploit the judicial system for their own financial gain,'' she said in a statement this afternoon.

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Video: Jerry Zremski's Week in Washington

News Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski looks to a busy week in Washington starting with today's possible Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby's challenge to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive coverage mandate.

NYPIRG releases '14 legislative session analysis

By Tom Precious

ALBANY -- As is often the case with Bill Mahoney, the expert number cruncher with the New York Public Interest Research Group, his analysis of the recently concluded 2014 legislative session is informative and witty.

The analysis, released today, shows everything from number of bills introduced, how lawmakers vote their party lines with actual counts and when the real crunch work gets done -- which, like always, was the last few weeks of session.

The analysis shows, for instance, that Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat, voted no on legislation 99 times -- more than any other Assembly Democrat. Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, voted no just 17 times, while Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver cast 1,160 votes -- all yes.

The NYPIRG report shows which lawmaker got the most laughs on the floor -- hint: Southern Tier Republicans can be funny -- and that Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, uttered 27,199 words during floor sessions this year. Sen. John Sampson, a Brooklyn Democrat, had only one word to say once all session: "Aye."

Video: Cuomo's "evolving" stand on a possible new stadium

Gov. Cuomo recently talked more about the possibility of building a new football stadium. Bob McCarthy tells Brian Meyer the governor's position on the issue has been "evolving" over the months:

Police request equipment upgrades to collect phone data

By Jill Terreri

The release of a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision dictating that police need a warrant in order to search a cell phone coincides with a request by the Buffalo Police Department to purchase equipment that would transfer all data from a cell phone so it could be examined by detectives. 

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said the department's possession of the data-transfer device does not change the fact that a warrant is necessary to search someone's phone. 

"As the Supreme Court says, you need a warrant," Derenda said. "But we've never gone through anyone's cell phone without their permission, just like permission to search, or need be, we'll get a search warrant. So really, procedures aren't going to change." 

Common Council members have been concerned about whether all officers know that citizens do not need to turn over their phone if an officer does not have a warrant, based on anecdotes from their constituents and from published reports. At least one officer, John A. Cirulli, was reported to have demanded that a bystander turn over their cell phone, in an incident in which he was caught on video hitting a suspect in handcuffs. He resigned. 

The Police Department is asking the Common Council permission to purchase "universal forensic extraction devices" from Cellebrite

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About Politics Now

Robert J. McCarthy

Robert J. McCarthy

A native of Schenectady, Robert J. McCarthy came to The Buffalo News in 1982 following a six-year stint at the Olean Times Herald. He is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, and has been covering local, state and national politics since 1992.

rmccarthy@buffnews.com


Tom Precious

Tom Precious

Tom Precious joined The Buffalo News in 1997 as bureau chief at the state Capitol, where he covers everything from statewide politics and state government fiscal affairs to health care, environmental and municipal government matters. Prior to The News, he worked for news outlets in Albany and Washington, DC.

tprecious@buffnews.com


Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri is an Amherst native and has covered politics and government in upstate New York since 2003. She joined The Buffalo News in 2012 and covers City Hall.

@jillterreri | jterreri@buffnews.com


Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski, The Buffalo News Washington bureau chief, has reported from the nation's capital since 1989 after joining The News as a business reporter in 1984. A graduate of Syracuse University, Zremski is a former Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University. In 2007, he served as president of the National Press Club.

@JerryZremski | jzremski@buffnews.com

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