It was Sandy Nurse’s second time petitioning amid an ongoing pandemic and her third time total in her efforts to get on the ballot to represent the city’s 37th district, which swaddles parts of Bushwick, Cypress Hills and East New York. Nurse first petitioned to get on the ballot in last year’s special election, had made the ballot and then, following an unsuccessful petition challenge from a Democratic Party leader named Darma Diaz, the election was canceled by the governor last April. The next election was the primary last June, for which petitioning efforts were shut down in the middle of March due to the pandemic’s spread and the lack of information about its transmission. Nurse recalls with surprise petitioning maskless as the city was thrown into confusion and beginning to close its doors. Another candidate on the ballot, an East New York businessman named Misba Abdin, had stopped his petitioning efforts after catching the virus himself. 

“She’s going to try to kick everyone off the ballot again, that’s what they do,” Nurse told Bushwick Daily. 

The signatures Nurse and her fellow candidates had gathered last March weren’t enough to withstand the scrutiny of the Board of Elections. At Diaz’s behest, the BOE threw everyone off the ballot except for Diaz herself, enabling her to win the primary uncontested, a process that its detractors label a transparently undemocratic function of Democratic Party politics in New York. “She’s been a party to kicking people off ballots 14 times in a row,” Nurse added while leading her own petition-gathering effort this year.

Petitioning to run for elected office in the state of New York is a process that dates back to 1888, following a bitter political fight over the establishment of a secret ballot. Previously, any candidate could decide to run for office at any point before election day, provided they print and distribute their own ballots. The struggle of establishing a new balloting system defined the career of David B. Hill, the state’s 29th governor, otherwise known for being a major political rival of nonconsecutive two-term President Grover Cleveland, an earlier New York governor. Among the concerns Hill leveled was that the requirement that candidates collect petitions in order to appear on the new secret ballots would limit the number of candidates who would appear there, forcing voters to make decisions based on those that a far smaller group of voters had made months earlier. 

About a century and a half later, petitioning still persists in the state, though with reservations. Back in 1992, the Times called the system “cumbersome” and “a nightmare for candidates and political operatives.” More recently, the system survived an unsuccessful lawsuit leveled by public advocate Jumaane D. Williams and some thirty candidates, including some of the mayoral race’s front runners. “All government health directives, state and federal, advise individuals to stay ‘six feet apart’ from non-household members when in public. Yet the legislature, and the governor, in their wisdom want thousands of candidates across the state to stand with clipboards, or have surrogates stand with clipboards, approaching people, or going door to door in apartment buildings, seeking signatures,” the candidates said. In fact, they had counted it up: petitioning would involve asking 260,000 New Yorkers for signatures for candidates in mayoral and city council races and, including further races, petitioning would involve “more than a million New Yorkers, at distances less than six feet.”

Sandy Nurse, right, sets up a petitioning stand near Wyckoff Avenue (Andrew Karpan)

As a compromise, the state trimmed the signature threshold by 30%, requiring 2,250 for mayoral candidates, 1,200 for borough president candidates and down to 270 for city council candidates. But for some the threshold has already proven to be too high. Earlier this month, Loree Sutton, a retired general who built out the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services and ran on a centrist platform, announced her departure from the race, telling the Times that “I just would not go out and do in-person petition-gathering under these circumstances.”

At a small gathering on Wyckoff Avenue, Nurse had assembled some fifteen volunteers on a chilly March weekend. Before handing out clipboards, her campaign manager repeatedly insisted that participants under the voting age not solicit signatures on their own: among the many requirements is that all signatures not only contain registered Democratic voters but they need to be collected by registered Democratic voters too, otherwise all the signatures they collect could be thrown out if challenged.  Online, this is a real job that goes for a respectable salary: advertisements on Craigslist show that “New York City candidates” and “borough-wide campaigns” offer anywhere from $18 to $30 an hour to collect signatures.

But smaller campaigns rely almost entirely on volunteers to do the collecting, which are largely gathered by nonprofit groups. Earlier this year, Nurse secured the endorsement of a local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, whose angular logo could now be seen prominently displayed on the outfits of the volunteers that had been sent her way.  

Many say it’s their first time petitioning for a candidate and, to ensure as many “good” signatures as possible, each downloaded an app where they can check the signatures of prospective voters against the list of registered Democrats in the district. The organizational diligence reflects something of Nurse’s own background as a professional activist, a former Occupy protester who moved to Bushwick to co-found an “organizing center” called the May Day space. After giving up a run to challenge Erik Dillian’s seat in the New York Assembly, she set her sights on a city council seat that had been abandoned early last year by Rafael Espinal.

At the soul of her campaign is demographic battle for a city council district that, under Espinal, remained in the hands of the Democratic political machine: Espinal had been the protégé of the late, disgraced Vito Lopez, who had wielded political control from a nonprofit called the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council. Voters in the district have historically skewed older, comfortable with familiar faces.

But the Sunrise volunteers want things from their elected officials that go beyond what could be requested from a nonprofit provider of social services and were suspicious, in a general sense, of the narrow ambition of citywide legislation. One volunteer, Nikki Paz, who had situated themself outside a bodega, told Bushwick Daily that they were dissatisfied with Espinal’s decision to leave the district to work in the private sector.

“When he left, it was upsetting. He kinda abandoned the district,” Paz said.

Paz said they used to do work with immigration groups and described Espinal as “hard to get a hold of” on the issue. The issue is, notably, one that Nurse’s May Day space has been less reticent on in that it provided refuge against ICE raids during the late Trump era. 

In nearby Ridgewood, Brooklyn councilman Brad Lander collects signatures in a contentious comptroller race. (Andrew Karpan)

In a different district that weekend, a slightly older crowd was gathering outside Porcelain, a coffee shop in Ridgewood that ran along the line between the city’s 30th and 34th districts. In order to drive up petition counts, events like these make alliances of neighboring candidates: Juan Ardila, who is challenging incumbent councilman Bob Holden for his seat the city’s 30th district, splits volunteers with Jen Gutierrez, a chief of staff to councilman Antonio Reynoso who is running to take his seat as he turns his sights to Brooklyn borough president. Compared to Nurse’s crowd of youthful volunteers and activists, support for Ardila and Gutierrez bubbles among the the small businesses that dot the neighborhood —  Porcelain was among the first businesses in the neighborhood to sprout the signage for the candidate. His familiarity with Democratic Party officials has secured him the support of local party leaders like Brad Lander, a Brooklyn councilman who is now in a tough comptroller race with Corey Johnson and at least eight other candidates. 

Lander also showed up with Ardila and Gutierrez to collect signatures for his race, the second of three petition gathering events around the city that he’s to attend that day. Voters signing to nominate either Ardila and Gutierrez will also be co-signing Lander’s campaign, if they use the forms that Lander’s brought to the event.

“It’s very unsafe,” Ardila said about the decision to continue petition gathering amid the pandemic. He brought up another city council candidate, Lincoln Restler, who is running in the city’s 33rd district. “He got about 2,000 signatures in Brooklyn but he got COVID.”

In the absence of larger, in-person gatherings during the pandemic, petitioning events have become the closest thing to campaign rallies. Lander, a reedy-voiced city councilman from southern Brooklyn, headlines this with careful aplomb. “This is an immigrant city. This is a tenant city. This is a city of working people and we need policies that show up for them,” he tells petition-gatherers with prepared charge and they clap before going from house to house, clipboards in hand. The appeal, for many, is a sense of connection to their prospective elected officials.  

“I really wanted to get involved with local organizing,” one volunteer, Sammie Saches, told Bushwick Daily. She’s a more seasoned canvasser and when she lived elsewhere in Queens she collected signatures for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional campaign. She says that she hopes Ardila will be an “ally of movements for diminishing the power of the police.”

Juan Ardila said he’s convinced that he’ll face a petition challenge from the race’s incumbent, Robert Holden (Andrew Karpsn)

Different issues resonated at an impromptu “press conference” helmed later that week by Rick Echevarria, a city council candidate whose search for allies amid the month-long petitioning effort led him toward outsider candidates like Paperboy Love Prince. (Toward the end of the event, a council candidate named Daniel Christmann unexpectedly made a quick appearance as well. A former plumber, he challenged Julia Salazar last year on behalf of his own “New Moderate Party.”) Over the past month, Prince’s colorful emissaries have been moving through the neighborhood, but carrying the same green forms as their less colorfully dressed compatriots. Though the youngest candidate on the mayoral ballot, it’s already Prince’s second time collecting signatures to appear on the Democratic Party ballot: last year, their campaign withstood a petition challenge by successfully arguing that the challenge, itself, contained faulty paperwork.

A quirk in petitioning paperwork had similarly doomed Echevarria’s campaign last year: next to Diaz, he presented the second-highest stack of signed voters, but the Board of Elections rejected them over a snafu involving the cover sheet (one of the spaces had not been filled out, leading the Board to declare the petitions invalid).

“We don’t have any institutional backing, we’re running the only grassroots effort,” Echevarria says, enunciating for added effect: “I’m not going to back the machine.” 

Echevarria is a former city official who was fired by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development for allegedly whistleblowing on a scheme involving the city’s habit of awarding city-subsidized apartments to well-connected applicants. (Matthew Reiss, a former reporter for the Village Voice, appeared at Echevarria’s makeshift podium wearing a fedora and compared the racketeering operations surrounding city housing developments to the work of mafia crime families.)

Focusing on a particular issue draws a particular crowd: the event’s first speaker was Lyric Thompson, a former radio DJ who turned to activism in the sphere surrounding the city’s 421a tax exemption, which she claims landlords are using without passing on those savings to tenants, the subject of an extensive story in ProPublica in 2016 that she says continues to occur.  

Wearing his own pink hat, one of Echevarria’s petitioners, a local resident named Sammie Sachs earnestly lays out the case for his candidate’s interest in reforming public housing in personal terms: “I’ve got a grandmother who used to live in housing before she passed away, my grandfather still lives there; I lived in housing at some point, my dad lived in housing,” Sachs says. 

Pointing to Echevarria, he says:  “This guy totally gets it.”


Top photo credit: Andrew Karpan

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