Early trip to court in Congressional race, Dieterich challenges Tonko’s third-party petition signatures

By John Purcell – May 17, 2012

SCHENECTADY COUNTY — Bob Dieterich is hoping to strike Paul Tonko’s name from the Independence Party ballot line, but Tonko is confident his name will remain.

Dieterich filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court in Schenectady County last week challenging incumbent Rep. Tonko’s Independence Party petition. Dieterich’s campaign is seeking to invalidate 52 out of 167 pages of Independence designating petitions, which it claims would result in Tonko falling below the minimum required amount of signatures. If Dieterich’s lawsuit were successful, the Independence ballot line would be empty.

After appearing before a judge, the campaigns are now waiting on a ruling.

“Upon close scrutiny, we found that hundreds of Rep. Tonko’s signatures were invalid and, as a result, he will not have the necessary signatures to secure the line in this year’s election,” James Walsh, attorney for Dieterich, said in a statement.

Clinton Britt, spokesman for Tonko, isn’t worried about the legal action.

“[Tonko] is confident he will maintain the Independence Party line,” Britt said. “He was both endorsed by the party and then received the requisite number of signatures, a couple hundred above and beyond what was required.”

Dieterich remained “confident” the court would side in his favor.

“We are not trying to make it into a fight,” Dieterich said. “We feel that he should have followed the laws and the rules.”

Dieterich made a bid for the Independence Party line but failed to secure the party’s nomination and also didn’t gather enough signatures to force a primary.

The lawsuit includes seven points contesting how signatures were collected.

Two claims are the cities of Schenectady and Troy don’t have the authority to issue commissioners of deeds because their respective counties fall below the population requirement of more than 180,000. Schenectady County’s population is more than 25,000 below the required amount and Rensselaer County’s is more than 20,000 under the requirement, according to the lawsuit.

Britt contested the claim and said he was “confident” the appointed commissioners of deeds, who collect signatures for petitions, would be upheld.

Tonko’s campaign collected 1,176 signatures, above the required 871, and the state Board of Elections tossed out 48.

When Judge Barry Kramer heard arguments on Wednesday, May 9, he validated six signatures that had previously been struck by the Board of Elections, Britt said.

The lawsuit also seeks to disqualify signatures collected outside of the cities of Schenectady, Troy and Albany from respective commissioners. Also, it claims some of the voters were not properly sworn in.

“Paul Tonko has spent the majority of his adult life making laws for others to follow,” Dieterich said in a statement. “All we are asking is that a sitting Congressman follow those same laws when seeking elected office.”

Britt said it is normal for some signatures to be invalidated, which is why campaigns typically gather more than required, and he said Tonko’s campaign didn’t deliberately break the law.

“There undoubtedly were one or two minor errors in collecting the signatures and those were not intentional or on purpose,” Britt said.

He said the message appears “resoundingly clear” that Independence Party voters support and endorse Tonko.

“[Tonko] doesn’t ask if an idea is a Republican or Democratic idea, he asks if this is a good idea and will it help the people I represent,” he said. “That’s the sort of approach to governing that I think Independence parties are looking for — someone that will actually solve problems instead of perpetuating them.”

Dieterich said he received “a lot of support” from the Independence Party voters.

The newly redrawn 20th Congressional District includes Albany and Schenectady counties and portions of Montgomery, Saratoga and Rensselaer counties.

In Schenectady and Albany County there were more than 15,500 enrolled Independence Party voters as of April 1, according to data from the state Board of Elections. Out of that total, there were 13,511 active voters, or around 87 percent. There are 293,198 registered voters within those two counties, where enrolled Independence Party voters account for 5.29 percent of the voter pool.