Blood Sport: How City Court Races Turn Ugly
by Geoff Kelly - posted 10:20 am, September 3, 2011
There are two local websites to which politicians inexplicably prostrate themselves: One is run by Joe Illuzzi, the other by Glenn Gramigna. From time to time, Illuzzi attracts our criticism. Today it’s Gramigna’s turn.
Today, under the headline “Diane Wray: Not Recommended But Running for City Court Anyway,” Gramigna writes this:
There is no law against running for Buffalo City Court despite not having the requisite qualifications. Our sources are telling us that this is the issue facing local attorney Diane Wray, a current candidate for the Democratic nomination for City Court.
“Wray is a nice woman and a competent enough, well motivated lawyer,” says our source. “But, she has been rated “Not Recommended” to be a city court judge by both the Bar Association as well as a highly regarded independent rating judicial rating group. On the other hand, the only other woman in the race, Judge Susan Eagan has received the highest ratings from both for, not only her time as a city court judge, during which she has done an excellent job, but also for her previous legal career.”
“The problem is that anyone can put up signs whether they are qualified or not,” he continues. “It is very unfortunate.”
Eagan, like the other three incumbent city court judges, has an advertisement on Gramigna’s site. Wray, like her fellow challengers, does not. (As of mid-August, Eagan’s campaign had spent $750 with Gramigna and $1,000 with Illuzzi.) That may explain why Gramigna quotes an anonymous supporter of Eagan, who was appointed to the bench last year by Mayor Byron Brown, but not someone who will present Wray’s case.
For what it’s worth, Eagan did not receive “hte highest ratings” from the bar association. She was rated as “well qualified”; only one city judge candidate, Robert Russell, received the bar’s highest rating, “outstanding.”
With the exception of a handful of independent-thinking Democratic Party operatives, the local party machines seem determined to re-elect the four incumbents on city court: Russell, Eagan, Joseph Fiorella, and David Manz. Russell needs no help—he’s well regarded and well known. He’ll likely be the top vote-getter in the primary and the general. The other three? They are lesser known and so vulnerable to strong challengers, and this year there are two: Wray, who is well liked in Democratic circles (she was a zone chair up in North Buffalo) and respected in her field, notwithstanding the bar association’s rating; and Gillian Brown, an attorney with Collucci & Gallaher and former counsel to and interim executive director of BMHA, who is also well known and well regarded.
In our, and perhaps all, local politics, the goal is not the overcome obstacles in your path but rather to blow them up. Brown drew the second spot on the ballot in the Democratic primary, which made him a special threat to the incumbents. So his nominating petition was scrutinized by Manz and objected to by a surrogate for Manz who works in Democratic Party headquarters. The objections were upheld by the Erie County Board of Elections and Brown was tossed from the ballot. He sought an appeal of his ousting, but an allegation—apparently well founded—that one of his petition carriers, attorney Russ Sciandra of BMHA, had turned in forged signatures virtually ensured that the judge, a friend of Sciandra, would deny Brown’s appeal for a hearing in order to keep those allegations from being examined. Sciandra turned in 50 signatures, and the BOE tossed four of those. We’ve corresponded with a handful of the people on the two pages Sciandra witnessed, and they’ve all told us they never signed the petition. When asked if he’d like to respond to the allegation, Sciandra replied, “No, I don’t want to comment on that. All the commenting on that has been done in court.”
That’s not actually so. Brown did not seek to have any of the signatures alleged to be forged reinstated — did not, in fact, even make reference to the allegation in his appeal for a hearing. Only the attorney for Manz’s surrogate objector raised the matter in court.
Brown has the endorsement of the Working Families Party, so he will be on the primary ballot for that party’s line in the general election. But Democrats can’t vote for him in the primary.
Meantime, Wray’s candidacy is being bled with little cuts, like the bar association rating her “not recommended.” (I know, the bar is beyond reproach and apolitical in its ratings of judges. Sure. If you think a group of Erie County lawyers interviewing judicial candidates in a closed room are not prone to politics, I’ve got a Peace Bridge to sell you.) Wray’s lawn signs are constantly being yanked from yards; there’s a story circulating that workers on a city garbage truck recently were seen pulling them up on the West Side.
There is a third challenger, as well, Anthony Pendergrass, who is being left to run more or less unhindered. The protectors of the incumbents must not regard him as a serious threat. But Wray and Brown apparently triggered flashing red danger signs. And so the apparatchiks have worked overtime to undermine Wray’s campaign and deny Democrats the chance to choose Brown as one of their candidates.
Would it be so dreadful to simply allow candidates, incumbents and challengers alike, to run on their merits, and may the best judge win? You can’t expect much from Gramigna, whose income depends on repeating what his paymasters ask him to repeat. Shouldn’t judicial candidates be shamed by the shenanigans that are pulled on their behalf?