By Gothamist |

First Time Candidates For Public Advocate Face Ballot Access Minefield, Other Challenges: Gothamist

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020519publicadvocaterace.jpg

There are currently 17 candidates on the official ballot for NYC Public Advocate, but only ten will take the stage on Wednesday night for the first of two televised debates. That's because not all of the candidates on the ballot met the criteria to debate. It’s just one of the many hurdles they face—hurdles made all the more daunting when a candidate is running for the first time.

The obstacles start with the Board of Elections, which adheres strictly to state election law and the deadlines it sets for certain documents. Candidates live or die by paperwork.

Ifeoma Ike (known as Ify Ike) of the Shirley Chisholm-inspired “Bring a Chair” party, marched before the Board of Elections last week hoping to resuscitate her campaign from a fatal paperwork defect.

The problem was Ike’s campaign neglected to file a certificate of acceptance by the deadline. It’s a one-page document affirming she actually wanted to accept her party’s nomination. It was due two days after her petitions, which included the thousands of signatures she and her volunteers collected from voters.

Ike is a lawyer. She’s worked in Congress, City Hall and nonprofits. Her grassroots campaign focused in particular on lifting up the voices of the working poor. She hired a lawyer to guide her through the ballot access minefield and she still found herself before the Board’s commissioners pleading to preserve her candidacy.

“With all due respect,” Ike told the Board, “the procedures by both the BOE and CFB have not been clear,” she argued. The Board still kicked her off the ballot.

“I felt like this huge boulder that our team had been pushing up literally just gave way and crushed on everybody,” Ike told WNYC.

There are lots of hurdles facing first-time candidates. Some, like Ike, get tripped up early. Others encounter them down the road.

First-time candidate Ben Yee made the ballot but he stumbled on financing issues.

The city’s Campaign Finance Board sponsors two televised debates. To qualify, candidates must raise and spend enough money to prove they are viable. The threshold for the first debate is $56,938. Yee was about $20,000 shy of that so he (and six others) who made the ballot won’t be on the debate stage. He said he’s disappointed, but he’s reaching out to voters in another way.

“There's a forum almost every night now and we're meeting the people who care enough to come out and see candidates speak in person,” said Yee.

Jared Rich, another first time candidate who made the ballot but not the debate, was more blunt. “If I only needed to raise the money that would be one thing,” said Rich, “but I wouldn’t even know where to start to spending it in three weeks.” Rich said he is running as a one-man army so there’s little money for consultants, mailers or other get-out-the-vote strategies.

There is only one first-time candidate who managed to make it on the ballot and to the first debate. That’s attorney Dawn Smalls, who’s plugged in to a national political network.

“I've worked in two Democratic presidential administrations. I have worked on political campaigns in various roles,” Smalls told us. She worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations and served as regional political director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Smalls is currently a partner at the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner, the same law firm where Kirsten Gillibrand worked before she ran for Congress.

“So while I am a first-time candidate I'm not new to this process,” Smalls added.

Her problem is the second debate, what the CFB calls the leading contenders debate. To qualify, candidates not only need to raise money, but they also must secure an endorsement from an elected official or an organization.

“All the elected officials that are running...they all have friends and a cadre of people that they can rely on,” Smalls said. “But it is an extra hurdle for a first-time candidate.”

There’s a silver lining for all the candidates unthwarted by the obstacle course known as running for office. They can try again. This year. There’s a primary for public advocate in June and candidates may begin collecting signatures on February 26th, the same day as the special election.

For more, listen to reporter Brigid Bergin's segment on WNYC:


Brigid Bergin is the City Hall and politics reporter for WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @brigidbergin.