Dieterich, Tonko campaigns fight in court over Independence ballot line

By David Lombardo – May 10, 2012

20TH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT — Almost 10,000 votes could be up for grabs in the 20th Congressional District because of legal challenges being brought by Republican challenger Bob Dieterich against U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam.

The Independence Party ballot line is being fought over by the two campaigns, with the Dieterich campaign unable to secure the nomination but still trying to prevent Tonko from appearing on the line by challenging his petitions.

The two sides met Wednesday in state Supreme Court in Schenectady County and are set to meet again Monday.

The main argument that will be made next week by James Walsh, the Dieterich campaign attorney, who also represented Roger Hull’s Schenectady mayoral campaign last fall, is that the Tonko campaign improperly collected its Independence Party petition signatures.

He will first argue that Tonko’s campaign improperly had volunteers certified to collect signatures in Schenectady and Rensselaer counties, then he will allege that these volunteers collected signatures outside their legal areas and failed to actually administer an oath to signers.

The claim about the oaths was based on information the campaign gathered through a private investigator.

“I don’t think Mr. Tonko is going to qualify for the Independence line,” Walsh said Wednesday outside the courthouse.

Tonko attorney Kathleen O’Keefe had a different view of things, saying her interpretation of existing statutes and relevant cases in the state indicated their campaign hadn’t done anything improper.
“It’s a complicated issue,” she acknowledged.

On Wednesday, Judge Barry Kramer validated six Independence Party signatures collected by the Tonko campaign that previously had been invalidated by the state Board of Elections after a challenge from the Dieterich campaign.

Tonko’s campaign now has 1,134 valid Independence Party signatures, about 260 above the threshold to qualify for the line.

Monday’s appearance in court could signal an end to the issue if Kramer sides with Walsh’s first argument, as it would likely invalidate enough of Tonko’s collected signatures to fall below the 871 required to appear on the line. If Kramer rejects Walsh’s argument, Walsh still has his fall-back positions to push for invalidating signatures.

Dieterich spokesman Michael Kennealy noted that the Independence Party line can net about 10,000 votes in a congressional race.

He feels his candidate will resonate with Independence and independent voters no matter who was on the Independence Party line. He added that the question of valid signatures highlighted concerns about Tonko’s ability to follow the law.

Tonko spokesman Clinton Britt maintained the campaign’s signatures were collected in complete compliance with the law and said Dieterich’s campaign was getting hung up “on inside baseball politics.”

There are about 23,000 enrolled Independence Party voters in the newly redrawn 20th Congressional District, which includes all or parts of Montgomery, Schenectady, Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties.