Pedro Espada, Jr. outside the Bronx Board of Elections (Photo: Jeanmarie Evelly)
At a press conference outside the Bronx Board of Elections on July 12, State Senator Pedro Espada, Jr. showed reporters a backpack containing, he said, the signatures of 10,000 registered voters in his west Bronx district. His message to the State Democratic Party and others who him ousted from the Democrat Party: back off, my constituents are behind me.
So how has Espada managed to drum up this level of support? Senate candidates need just a thousand signatures to get on the ballot. Presumably, even if many of Espada's are invalid, he'd still be left with an impressive number.
Could it be that he's more popular than his critics like to admit? Perhaps. But Espada and his campaign team also have also been accused (here and here) of bumping up their count by giving out free food in return for signatures. His spokesman denied the allegations. Recently we heard about another suspect signature-gathering technique, which went as follows:
On June 8 - which just so happened to be the first day of petitioning - Espada hosted his annual "Senior Appreciation Luncheon Day" at Eastwood Manor on Eastchester Road. The press weren't informed but according to two seniors we spoke with, local seniors received invites in the mail and senior centers in the 33rd Senate district were also contacted.
Eastwood Manor is in the East Bronx and so most of the seniors took advantage of the free ride Espada was offering. His office chartered a number of school buses - about 15 by one count - and they picked people up outside senior centers and at other locations.
Approximately 800 people turned out (Eastwood Manor is huge) and a nice time was had by all, the two seniors said. There was food and dancing and Espada gave a speech and handed out dozens of certificates to seniors who have made a difference in the community.
It wasn't a campaign event, at least on the surface. But when everyone got back on the buses, Espada's people were waiting for them, with clipboards in hand, asking that they sign his petition, according to the two seniors we spoke to, both of whom live in Mount Hope. (Neither wanted their names used. We were unable to reach other seniors who attended the event, and so it's unclear if signatures were being collected on all of the buses, or just some of them.)
While there was "no strong-arming," as one senior put it, everyone on her bus was asked politely if they'd sign.
According to Jeff Merritt, the founder of Grassroots Initiative, a New York City-based non-profit election consulting firm, "politicians have been using these types of tactics for years."
And while some may find them unsavory, they're generally not illegal, he said.
In a follow-up e-mail, Merritt added: "[New York State Election] law is generally silent on the manner in which signatures are gathered and instead focuses on the form of the petition, the eligibility of signers and witnesses, timelines for gathering signatures, and the correct filing of petitions with the Board of Elections."
So Espada did nothing unlawful providing the seniors weren't coerced, and providing the witnesses were volunteers or campaign staff, and not Espada's aides being paid, at that moment in time, on the State's dime.
Still, one of the seniors we spoke to said she was left "disgusted."
"It's a sad commentary when you have a luncheon for older people and then use them as pawns," she said. "Some of them didn't even know what they were signing."
Espada's spokesman has yet to return an e-mail seeking comment.
UPDATE 7.23.10: In the COMMENTS section, Jack asked who paid for the dinner and the buses. I'd assumed that Espada's office picked up the tab (so yes, state dollars), as this is an annual luncheon they put on, and, outwardly at least, not a campaign event. I'll try and confirm this one way or the other. Jeff Merritt of Grassroots Initiative read the article after it was posted and said it should be noted that if government funds were used for campaign activities, then that would likely be in violation of the law.