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Wills, Richards fight to stay on Dem primary ballot

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Two southeast Queens Democratic candidates are claiming that their campaigns for office have been stymied by a stubborn political machine within the borough.

Ruben Wills, state Sen. Shirley Huntley's (D-St. Albans) chief of staff, is running against U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) in the Sept. 9 primary, while Donovan Richards, a district manager for City Councilman James Sanders (D-Laurelton), hopes to get back in the race against state Assemblywoman Michelle Titus (D-Far Rockaway).

Both men are fighting to stay on the ballot after they contend their opponents unjustly challenged the voter signatures needed to stay in the contests.

"From Day One, their strategy is to knock everyone off the ballot and watch them scurry like rats. Well, we're not running," Wills said last Thursday outside Queens Civil Court, where his challenges were being reviewed by a judge as of press time.

Eric DeBerry, Titus' husband, and Meeks staffer Patsy Simmons challenged the signatures July 14 on the grounds that many of the names were not valid registered Democrats, according to Board of Elections records.

The board's rules require Assembly candidates to gather at least 500 signatures from voters registered with their party in order to be on the primary ballot, while congressional candidates must gather at least 1,250.

Richards said he had his signatures invalidated following Titus' challenge and he has sued the board to get back on the ballot. He said a Queens Civil Court judge threw out his case last week without reason and he was going to appeal the ruling in Brooklyn Appellate Court Tuesday.

Richards said he believes the Queens Democrats are being influenced by the incumbents and want to turn down any attempt at change.

"It's not the board that I'm having a problem with: It's the system," he said. "The environment in Queens is corrupt."

Titus did not return calls for comment.

Queens Democratic Party Executive Secretary Michael Reich, who is overseeing the court case against Wills, defended the signature challenges, saying Wills and Richards improperly gathered the signatures. He noted that less than half of Wills' signatures were properly validated and five of the signatures were forged.

"It was probably the worst petition drive I've ever seen," he said. "I think it shows his lack of experience as a candidate."

Mike McKay, Meeks' political director, said his office found that Wills, a Community Board 12 member, submitted thousands of invalid signatures from voters who did not live in the district or were not registered Democrats.

"If he wants to run for Congress, he needs to learn about the democratic process. It's before a court and a court will decide," McKay said.

Wills' attorney, Daniel P. Bright, refuted that claim, saying the congressman was deliberately discouraging a fair election just to stay in office.

"Even if they have the fraud that they claim, it would not be enough to devalidate the signatures," he said.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 6:39 pm, October 10, 2011
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