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Gov. Cuomo on Saturday postponed April 28 primary elections for president and Congress until June 23 to limit the spread of coronavirus — leaving City Hall, local elections officials and the governor with freighted decisions to make about filling two empty local seats.
Cuomo’s executive order bumps until that June date a nonpartisan special election to fill the Brooklyn City Council seat vacated suddenly earlier this year by Rafael Espinal.
Still yet to be made is a call about when to schedule a vote to determine the next Queens Borough President, a position that opened with the inauguration of Melinda Katz as district attorney in January. Mayor Bill de Blasio canceled a March 24 special election as part of a larger shutdown of many city services.
A spokerson for Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday that the mayor has recommended that the governor schedule both special elections for June 23, and for the winners to serve for the remainder of the term until the end of 2021.
“This would mean the primaries scheduled for that day would not be necessary,” said DemocracyNYC spokesperson Luis Feliz Leon on Sunday, “and will hopefully minimize voter confusion.” DemocracyNYC is de Blasio’s voter engagement initiative.
The mayor’s recommendation hews to advice from the city Campaign Finance Board, which in a March 23 open letter implored state and local lawmakers to hold a special election for the Brooklyn Council and Queens borough president seats on June 23, eliminating the primaries.
“Holding a single election to fill both of these vacancies is the most straightforward response — for voters and for candidates -— in these extraordinary circumstances,” wrote Campaign Finance Board Executive Director Amy Loprest.
‘About Ballot Access’
The shift adds to the uncertainty and complications candidates for both seats already faced as they’ve tried to campaign and raise funds in the midst of a crisis demanding social distancing.
The move also raises unexpected questions — including what becomes of public matching funds already doled out in the Brooklyn special election by the city Campaign Finance Board.
Leon, the mayor’s spokesperson, says that’s a matter for the Campaign Finance board. Yet a board spokesperson said that the ball’s in the mayor’s court.
The matching funds program provides $8 for every dollar raised up to $175 for donations from city residents for candidates who receive at least 75 contributions from within the district and pull in $5,000 or more.
Darma Díaz, a Democratic district leader for Bushwick and Cypress Hills and one of six candidates who’ve filed to run for the 37th District Council seat, says her campaign is still waiting for the Mayor’s Office to communicate an official gameplan.
“It still doesn’t give us a layout of what this’ll look like,” said Díaz, the candidate christened by the Brooklyn Democratic Party to replace Espinal, said of Saturday’s executive order.
Díaz is the sole candidate to have qualified for matching funds so far. She has received $93,062 from the board, according to campaign filings submitted on Friday — more than the $84,000 raised in private funds from all the candidates combined.
For Rick Echevarría, eliminating the primary could doom his campaign. After initially putting his hat in for April 28, the community organizer decided to exit the special election race and focus his resources on the June primary. In the meantime, he’s been investigating price gouging on health and safety supplies in the district.
Echevarría sees political motives behind de Blasio’s recommendation. “The reason that is happening is because the mayor is supporting a candidate in this race,” he told THE CITY Sunday. “That’s the only intent and purpose of that suggestion. To keep me out of the race…. This is about ballot access.”
Mayoral spokesperson Leon said that candidate eligibility “is a question for the Board of Elections.”
A spokesperson for Sandy Nurse, a community organizer who dropped out of a bid for the 54th Assembly District to join the special election, did not respond to inquiries on Sunday. The campaign had previously indicated it was awaiting the text of the governor’s order rescheduling the special election.
Nurse has raised $34,000 through March 23 and has a little more than $11,000 remaining.
A third candidate for the special election, Misba Abdin, could not be reached for comment. He has brought in about $25,000 and has less than $3,000 remaining.
City Hall “will coordinate with the governor and announce a decision soon for the municipal elections to fill the vacancies for Queens Borough President and City Council District 37,” Jose Bayona, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, told THE CITY on Saturday.
A spokesperson for the city Board of Elections declined to comment pending further information.
Waiting on Cuomo
The picture remains even fuzzier in Queens.
The governor’s executive order does not address the special election for Queens borough president. But if the mayor’s recommendation is implemented, voters will be asked on June 23 to choose the candidate who would fulfill the rest of Katz’ four-year term through 2021.
Queens candidates said that they were awaiting an announcement from de Blasio.
Former Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, one of six in the running, said she agreed with the Campaign Finance Board recommendation to hold one election.
James Quinn, one of the candidates and previously a longtime prosecutor in the Queens District Attorney’s Office, emphasized that Cuomo’s executive order would need to be boosted by a mayoral decision.
The governor’s office did not respond to THE CITY’s inquiries about the special election for Queens Borough President.
Election attorney Sarah Steiner questioned whether the omission of the Queens borough president’s contest from Cuomo’s executive order was an “oversight.” She added that a mayoral order is not necessary.
“The governor’s emergency powers give him the right to override any law in New York State, including New York City,” Steiner said.
Hot Meals and Wellness Checks
Despite the turmoil, the Governor’s executive order to delay the election was well-received by Brooklyn special election candidates, all of whom had been struggling to connect with potential voters amid the public health crisis.
Díaz’s campaign has been delivering hot meals and doing wellness calls on district residents. “It’s been an opportunity to offer the community my expertise and to send the message that we’re in this together,” she said.
Nurse, who had advocated for postponing the election, took to social media to share her campaign’s struggles to carry on business as usual.
We are suspending petitioning and moving into digital/phone organizing. It’s a great way for us to check up on people in the neighborhood, see what they need, and figure out a safe way to get folks things. Make sure you wash them hands y’all! https://t.co/YhoRmI34Tg pic.twitter.com/82Gz4NCeHh— Sandy Nurse (@NurseForNYC) March 13, 2020
On Friday, she told THE CITY that her campaign strategy had pivoted primarily to phonebanking and providing community resources, such as connecting constituents with local organizations and hosting public safety town halls on social media.
“The bottom line,” she said, “is our community isn’t thinking about an election right now.”
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