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Election spars officially begin with petition filings

Their hands are taped, their gloves laced and the three-knock-down rule has been waived as 98 candidates battling to win elected office in Queens enter the ring.

All the candidates vying for the right to represent the borough have filed their petitions and have come out swinging. And as of midnight Monday, when the period to file objections against a candidate’s designating petitions had ended, there were 299 challenges to the petitions of various candidates throughout the borough. In some cases three or four people filed petitions against one candidate.

The challenges against candidates frequently weed out some of the minor contenders in crowded races and set the stage for the September primary.

Queens’ 14 city council members and the borough president are forbidden from seeking re-election this year due to the term-limit law passed by a referendum in 1993 and again 1996. There are no incumbents running in the Council or Borough Hall, which has given people who might never have run before the chance to seek elected office.

In the race to replace Borough President Claire Shulman three Democrats are jockeying for the position — former Board of Ed President Carol Gresser, City Councilwoman Helen Marshall (D-East Elmhurst) and City Councilman Sheldon Leffler (D-Hollis). The three have been joined by Republican City Councilman Alfonso Stabile of Ozone Park, and Michael Niebauer running as an Independent.

There are 93 candidates vying for Queens’ 14 council seats. The race for Juanita Watkins’ (D-Laurelton) seat in the 31st District attracted the most hopefuls in the borough with 14 candidates. It was followed by Councilman John Sabini’s (D-Jackson Heights) District 25 seat and Thomas White’s (D-Jamaica) District 28 seat. Both races have 11 candidates running.

As of the June 1 filing date for campaign matching funds, 100 Queens residents registered with the New York City Campaign Finance Board to run for the City Council, but only 93 collected enough signatures to make the cut to officially enter the race.

“On a certain level we are entering into an exciting period,” said Mike Reich, the Queens Democratic Party’s executive secretary.

“The problem is that between term limits and the campaign finance program, we wound up with a lot of candidates and not a lot of substance getting out,” he said. “It is limiting the ability of people to make an intelligent choice.”

State Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale), who is head of the Queens Republican Party, said term limits have posed a problem for his party. He pointed out that even though Queens is predominately Democratic by a margin of “at least 2-to-1,” the Republican incumbents would have been able to hold on to their seats if term limits had not been enacted.

“Those seats have become personality seats,” he said, which draw voters to the elected officials who have held them and established an identity in the community.

“The incumbents have made it their own,” Maltese said. “In areas that are overwhelmingly Democratic like New York City, it is very difficult” for Republicans.

Candidates and their staff challenge the signatures on their opponents petitions in hopes it will force out their competition. The filing of objections, the first step in the challenge process, started at midnight July 12 and ended on July 16.

The person who has issued the challenge has six days from filing the objection to dispute individual signatures on the candidate’s designating petition. Candidate challenges started on July 13 and will end on July 23. Any person can file an objection as long as he or she is a registered member of the same party as the candidate and live in the district.

For an objector there are 35 different ways to dispute a candidate’s signatures — ranging from claims of forgery to illegible signature and from illegible date to not using a pen.

Reich takes a dim view of the large number of candidates competing for the council in some Queens districts.

“How can voters make a rational choice when they have to cut through all of the gobbledygook? he asked. “The candidate’s message gets lost.”

He said many of the candidates now have the money to finance an election because of the new campaign finance law — donations of up to $250 are matched by public funds at a rate of 4-to-1. A donation of $250 means a total of $1,250 for the candidate.

Reich said the intention was to open up the election to new parties, but he does not think it worked. He said the Democratic Party now has a chance for a clean sweep in the Queens election, which he said was not the goal of term limits. The limits were put into place to help new parties gain power, he said.

“Everyone has money and the winner will be the candidate who spent their money the wisest and had the most ground troops,” Reich said.

Maltese said the Republican Party has an edge because for every seat that is up for grabs there are a large number of Democrats running, who will be battling one another.

“The advantage for us is we should emerge after the challenges with one single candidate,” he said. “Many times the loser in the Democratic primary will endorse the Republican or want the Republican to win because they think they can win the seat the next time.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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