For decades, political bosses in New York have clung to power by using the state’s complicated election laws to keep primary challengers off the ballot — laws written just for that purpose.
The laws are enforced, in turn, by judges appointed by and intertwined with the very machine they are ostensibly keeping in check.
A textbook case is unfolding this week in White Plains, Westchester County, where New York’s Democratic machine is trying to force a progressive Common Council candidate off the ballot. Kat Brezler is a public school teacher, but the role that has her in the machine’s sights goes back to the 2018 midterms. She was a lead organizer for the primary campaign of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and if she can get a foothold in the council, she’s a potential threat to run for Congress herself.
To get on the ballot on the Democratic Party line, Brezler had to turn in a minimum of 696 signatures. She submitted 1,175 signatures, 780 of which the Board of Elections found to be valid. Her opponent objected to the signatures, and Westchester County Supreme Court Judge Sam Walker threw out dozens of them after comparing the signatures collected from people on the street to the ones on their voter registrations cards, some of which are up to 40 years old. Walker also refused the campaign a handwriting expert.
Brezler is campaigning primarily on affordable and low-income housing, and has been endorsed by the Working Families Party, New York labor unions, and other progressive groups.
There was one instance, for example, in which the judge asked if the person who signed had a stroke. Brezler’s campaign manager pointed out that the person signed their registration in 1979. The judge disqualified the signature anyway.
“Let me tell you, as a public school teacher, I know a lot about letter formation,” Brezler said. “It’s literally my job; I am steeped in how to teach people how to form their letters. I’m not a handwriting expert, but I can tell you there are heaps of people that got knocked off that it is abundantly obvious it is the same signature.”
They disqualified 123 signatures, just enough to push her underneath the minimum requirement. Now instead of campaigning, Brezler said she plans to appeal the judge’s decision and is spending thousands of dollars to fight the challenge.
She initially had until Monday to find at least 39 of the 123 people who had their signatures invalidated, and then drag them all into court to testify to the judge. “But it gets even better,” she said on Sunday. “Nobody provides you a list of who these names are; they all go back and forth really quickly at a table, and in order to figure out the actual list of names of those 123 people, I have to pay for a court transcript that costs $1,350.”
After going through the transcript, Brezler continued, “I’m on a scavenger hunt through my city to try to find these people while they’re home, explain to them that they’re being disenfranchised, that their only opportunity to clear their name, in this case, in this situation, is to arrive at court at 10 a.m. on Monday morning.”
She was out all weekend scrambling to find witnesses willing to go to court and sign affidavits. “I’ve knocked on some people’s doors three times in the last 30 days; I’m just trying to find them when they’re home,” she added. “I’ve called people and left messages.” She now has until Tuesday morning to produce more witnesses and affidavits. “It is very disheartening to think that the court finds it appropriate that disabled people and working-class people should have to drop everything to go to court, and the burden of proof is on me and on them and not on the accusing party,” Brezler said.
Three candidates endorsed by the White Plains Democratic City Committee are running in the June 25 primary against Brezler, including incumbent Council Member Nadine Hunt-Robinson, and Victoria Presser and Jennifer Puja.
As a first grade teacher living on a fixed income, Brezler said she decided to run for office because she’s concerned about the developers coming into the city and what it means for “the future of our schools and frankly, the future of my ability to afford where I live.”
Brezler is also a co-founder of People for Bernie, a Bernie Sanders delegate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and ironically, she has led trainings on how to petition and taught people across the county how to get on the ballot for years.
“We’re working-class people. We’re trying to make democracy work. None of this should be this difficult,” she said.
“Me being targeted had nothing to do with signatures, and everything to do with who I am and what we intend to do,” she said. “I want to make developers pay their fair share — and $20,000 to knock me off the ballot is a cheap price to pay for the millions I’m going to make sure they pay on the other end of it.”