Additional reporting by Ben Fractenberg
Over the past year, 92-year-old Holocaust survivor Savely Kaplinskiy has been in and out of the hospital.
The Brooklyn resident escaped Belarus’ Minsk Ghetto in his youth, suffered two strokes, underwent brain surgery and saw his limited English repertoire depleted to about 100 words, according to his son.
But while Kaplinskiy was struggling with his health, his name — without his knowledge — was listed on petitions submitted to the city Board of Elections last month to run as a candidate for a Brooklyn Democratic Party position.
And he wasn’t alone.
The executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, a 24-year-old financial tech worker and at least 17 other residents of southern Brooklyn and Staten Island were named as candidates for Brooklyn Democratic Party seats without their knowledge, those people or their relatives told THE CITY.
Their names appeared on petitions in the 46th Assembly District in southern Brooklyn to run for membership on the Democratic Party’s county committee — a body of roughly 4,000 unpaid, entry-level party officials across the borough who pick nominees for special elections and vote on party rules.
The petitions were submitted to the Board of Elections last month in booklets bearing the name of Brooklyn Democratic Party Secretary Aaron Maslow.
The phantom names alarm dissident Democrats THE CITY spoke with, who point to recent precedents to warn that placing these ostensible candidates into party positions could allow party leaders to seize the voting power of members who don’t even know they’ve been elected.
Party reformers have accused the county’s leadership of bending rules and even resorting to fraud in recent years to hold onto power in the face of growing, internal opposition.
“These people running that have no knowledge, they [party leaders] can use them to pad their proxy votes at the organizing meetings so that they can change the rules, they can appoint officers, and they can pretty much do what they want,” said Julio Peña III, a district leader in Sunset Park allied with the insurgent group New Kings Democrats.
Appointing people without their consent can also be illegal, New York courts have held, if it’s more than a stray name here or there. Last year, judges for the appellate court covering Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island upheld the rejection of a ballot petition — finding it “permeated with fraud” due to several candidates appearing on the slate without agreeing to run.
Peña added that slotting in such “ghost” candidates goes against the whole point of having county committee members, who are ostensibly elected to serve as hyper-local party representatives for their communities.
“I feel like we’re losing what this vision of an engaged Brooklyn Democratic Party is,” Peña said. “It’s used to power grab instead of actually engage in our local democracy.”
The claims of fraud come on the heels of a series last month by THE CITY identifying five Brooklyn residents whose signatures were forged on Board of Elections challenges — linked to the party establishment — which sought to kick potential county committee rivals off the ballot.
Two of those claims by registered voters resulted in a formal complaint to the city’s Board of Election and a lawsuit filed by an attorney for Rep Your Block, a group representing several of the targeted candidates.
Spokespeople for the Brooklyn Democratic Party didn’t respond to a half-dozen questions sent by email early Wednesday.
‘I Hope This Is an Error’
Murad Awawdeh and Dina Morra were once active members of the Kings County Democratic Party. In 2018, the couple ran successfully for county committee in Bay Ridge, their neighborhood at the time.
But in February 2020, Awawdeh, a prominent immigrants’ rights advocate, had to give up his post. He was in consideration for an official city position, so could no longer hold the low-level political party role. The next year, Awawdeh and Morra moved to Staten Island, making them ineligible to represent their old neighborhood.
That’s why last Friday the couple was surprised when THE CITY informed them that their names appeared on a 2022 petition form submitted to the Board of Elections using their old Brooklyn address as potential candidates for the county committee positions they had left behind.
Morra said the listing left her confused. “It’s not something I agreed to or signed up for, so it’s strange,” she said.
“I hope this is an error and not something done nefariously,” said Awawdeh.
In years past, Brooklyn’s county committee races have typically been uncontested affairs — which leaves candidate names off of ballots and obscured from the broader public.
But as the borough’s Democratic Party establishment has faced increasingly organized primary challenges across districts, the committee seats — which are up for grabs every two years — have become increasingly critical for Brooklyn party chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn as she vies to keep power.
This year, efforts to maintain control of the party have included questionable techniques that critics allege are unethical at best and potentially even fraudulent.
In the case of the five forged signatures on ballot challenges previously identified by THE CITY, a mid-level party-backed official — 55th Assembly District Leader Anthony T. Jones — took responsibility. He admitted the faulty signatures came out of his Democratic club, although he said he didn’t know which of his members was to blame.
Now, several of the unwitting candidates for county committee interviewed by THE CITY suggested similar unsavory tactics were being used to take advantage of unsuspecting residents, this time in South Brooklyn.
Igor Kaplinskiy, son of Holocaust survivor Savely, said his father’s condition has deteriorated considerably in the past year — to the point that he wouldn’t be capable of mounting a candidacy for a party position.
Kaplinskiy, 61, said the closest his dad got to engaging in party politics was during his prior work as an elections poll worker. He said his father knew nothing about his name appearing on local petitions and was confused by the whole situation.
“He’s never heard of something like that before,” said the younger Kaplinskiy. “It’s not credit card fraud, of course, but it’s still not good if your name is used to gain access to something.”
Few of the “ghost” candidates contacted by THE CITY had an inkling of how their names ended up on ballot petitions that were circulated on behalf of 46th Assembly district leaders Dionne Brown-Jordan and Michael Silverman.
Silverman was appointed to replace outgoing district leader Mark Treyger last month, while Brown-Jordan was elected to the seat in 2020.
But a common thread among a number of the unwitting candidates is that they had formerly served as poll workers — hundreds of whom are recommended each year by district leaders to the Board of Elections.
As of Wednesday, 14 of the 20 “ghost” candidates identified by THE CITY remained as candidates for county committee according to non-final election ledgers, including Morra. Six candidates, including Kaplinskiy and Awadeh, had been scratched because of conflicting records of name, address or party affiliation retained at the BOE.
Overall, 130 candidates remain on the ballot for county committee positions in the 46th district — including a small number who aren’t aligned with party leadership.
Brown-Jordan didn’t respond to a phone call and text message seeking comment, and Silverman didn’t return a message left with a staffer at his office.
One of the candidates whose name appeared on petitions without her knowledge said she knew of no connections between her and the party or its district leaders.
“I don’t like the fact that someone’s using my name for something that I haven’t agreed to,” she said, requesting that her name not be published. “Those people shouldn’t be allowed to do what they’re doing. As far as I’m concerned that’s illegal — that’s fraud.”
500 Back-Pocket Proxy Votes
The irregularities in the 46th Assembly District are just the latest chapter in an escalating battle for control of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, one of the largest and most influential party apparatuses in the state.
A steady theme is how party leaders have tried to use so-called proxy votes — which are passed from absentee county committee members to their designees — to keep power.
In September 2018, it was solely through proxy votes that party leaders were able to keep the resurgent faction from gaining enough control to reform party rules and have a say in the establishment’s preferred judicial nominations.
More recently in late 2020, as COVID-19 gripped New York City, Brooklyn Democratic Party leaders again tried to benefit from the proxy system — starting by instituting an emergency provision that automatically transferred the votes of absentee county committee members to the party’s leadership board unless consent was denied in writing.
At the start of what would turn into a two-part Zoom meeting that lasted for 26 hours, party leaders tried to appoint hundreds of people to vacancies to the county committee that would have allowed them to harvest a massive number of proxy votes.
That move was blocked by a state judge.
In an initial tally of votes at the same meeting to determine whether to adopt progressive reforms to the party’s rules that included changes to the proxy system, the leadership at the time declared that they had enough votes to prevent the amendments.
But a recount uncovered that one of the party-aligned district leaders had been given more proxy votes than merited. When those votes were deducted, the insurgents appeared to have won their bid to adopt the reforms, which were intended to decentralize power within the party.
However, at the second part of the meeting, a county-installed parliamentarian nullified the vote results as invalid. A lawsuit filed last year challenging the reversal was dismissed on procedural grounds.