By DANIEL OFFNER
Bad blood between Republican County Executive Rob Astorino and Westchester County Independence Party Chairman Dr. Giulio Cavallo escalated from a third party endorsement into a fracas at court this week, culminating with the nullification of Astorino’s efforts at a write-in primary for the Independence line.
The ongoing feud, which dates back to 2010, re-emerged this year after Cavallo announced the party’s endorsement of New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, the Democratic challenger in the race for Westchester County Executive. No Republican candidate vying for county executive has won without the added support of the county Independence Party since the party’s inception, 20 years ago, making the ability to primary for the line crucial for the Republican incumbent’s chances at being re-elected.
On Aug. 12, a state Supreme Court decision ordered the cancellation of the enrollment of six out of 57 Independence Party members of a newly-formed Committee to Clean Up Westchester’s Independence Party; and invalidated any opportunity-to-ballot petitions it had collected on behalf of the county executive. Astorino has since mentioned plans to appeal the decision.
The decision found in favor of Richard Rhoades, who carried the petition on behalf of Cavallo and the party against the county Board of Elections, and determined Cavallo’s cancellation of enrollment for registered party members Evelyn McCormack, who is the wife of Astorino’s director of communications, Elisabeth Alberty, married to a staff member working with the county executive, Christina Oros, daughter of Astorino’s chief of staff, Theordora Cerino, mother of the county executive’s confidential scheduling secretary, Margaret Sculti, the sister-in-law of an assistant to the county executive and Nicole Dehensky, a relative to an employee on the Board of Elections, to be “just.”
“It is also clear that most, if not all, of the 57 enrollees, including the respondents, had some familial, social or employment-related connection to the county executive or his staff; that most if not all of the 57 enrollees, including the respondents, enrolled in the party within a relatively short period of time between August and October of 2012,” the judge said in his decision.
The cataclysm between county Republicans and Independence Party members stems from a decision made by the county executive shortly after taking office in 2010. At the time, Astorino said Cavallo approached him to request he give jobs to those close to him in the Independence Party. Astorino said he refused, and several representatives with the county executive’s campaign have been under the impression that Cavallo’s decision to endorse Bramson was done out of vengeance.
According to Astorino’s campaign manager Bill O’Reilly, Independence Party officials threatened to withhold its line in future races if the county executive did not dole out the lucrative patronage jobs.
“The county executive told them to ‘go fish,’” O’Reilly said. “A group of reformers in the Independence Party, including many Astorino supporters, are now trying to rid the party of corruption and force a write-in primary. The bad guys are resorting to whatever tactics they can think of to keep their taxpayer-paid enterprise going. That’s what this is all about.”
Following Cavallo’s decision to endorse Bramson, the group calling themselves the Committee to Clean Up Westchester’s Independence Party gathered enough opportunity-to-ballot petitions to trigger a county executive primary for the line as well as contested county Board of Legislator races.
According to the group’s co-founder, Thomas Reddy, the Independence Party leadership is not acting in the best interest of its membership.
“We, the members of the Westchester Independence Party, are declaring independence today from the leaders of our party, Dr. Giulio Cavallo and his cohorts, who have abused the party’s ballot line over many years to leverage lucrative government jobs for themselves,” Reddy said.
Through the efforts of the committee, Astorino was able to collect a total 2,718 signatures this year, more than twice the required 1,183 signatures necessary to trigger a Sept. 10 primary.
However, the committee’s efforts quickly were quickly thwarted.
On Aug. 6, registered Independence Party members were called together to discuss removing party members found supporting the Astorino campaign—accusing them of changing party enrollment with the ultimate goal of thwarting the party’s official choice for county executive.
Sam Zherka, an Independence Party member who played an audiotape during court proceedings, said the recording featured the county executive admitting to embedding supporters within the party. He added that the membership of the party did not endorse Astorino and, because of it, the incumbent executive tried to disenfranchise their vote.
“The conflict is with those who purport to be members of the party in an effort to render control over the outcome of an election,” said Zherka, the publisher of The Westchester Guardian, comparing the GOP-aligned efforts to rigged elections in Somalia, Iran, and Afghanistan to name a few.
The court’s ruling was largely based on state election law [16-110], which states the chairman of a county party can, after a hearing, determine if party members are “not in sympathy with the principles of such party. In order for a party member’s enrollment to be nullified, it must then go to a judge to decide whether the chairman’s decision is “just.”
Having won the endorsement of the party earlier this year, Mayor Bramson has been forced to answer questions over whether he plans to grant jobs to Cavallo allies, if elected to county office.
Barry Caro, campaign spokesman for Bramson, dismissed the notion. He said Bramson has stated in the past that the only promise he’ll make to anyone is that he will pick the best person for the job.
“The court ruled that Republican Rob Astorino’s closest political associates attempted to manipulate the political process to benefit Republican candidates,” Caro said. “It’s time to focus on the choice voters will have in November, when they’ll decide between an extreme, Tea Party Republican and a mainstream Democrat.”