A philosophical battle for the soul of the local Democratic Party has been taking place over the last several years. On one side are the progressive good government reform advocates – people like Bethlehem Supervisor John Clarkson and Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan. On the other side are entrenched remnants of the Albany political machine, now led by Matt Clyne in his dual role as both chairman of the Albany County Democratic Committee and commissioner of elections, who view the party primarily as a patronage vehicle to support their own power.
Grassroots Democrats in Bethlehem have been at the vanguard of efforts to reform the party, and in 2012 Mr. Clyne was removed as chairman of the Bethlehem Democratic Committee and I succeeded him. The current contest to elect delegates to the judicial convention to select the Democratic nominee for Supreme Court – and Mr. Clyne’s illegal and undemocratic efforts to quash the candidacy of Judge Margaret Walsh – is but the latest chapter in this story.
In contrast to basically every other elected position in New York State, there is no direct primary for Supreme Court justices. Instead, delegates to a judicial convention select party nominees. This odd arrangement has allowed party bosses to maintain almost complete control over who is eventually elected to serve as a judge.
For far too long, the leadership of the ACDC has selected nominees on the basis of personal connections or “service to party” as opposed to merit, qualification or experience. The embarrassing reality of this broken system is that Albany County’s judicial district is now the only one in New York State where every elected Supreme Court justice is a white man – despite the fact that women and minorities comprise a large percentage of attorneys in the area.
When a vacancy on the Supreme Court opened up this year, word immediately circulated (before any interviews were conducted) that the ACDC would endorse County Legislator Justin Corcoran, a close associate of Mr. Clyne who has handled his political legal work for years. The ACDC’s predetermined endorsement of Mr. Corcoran notwithstanding, other candidates, including Family Court Judge Margaret Walsh, announced that she would interview for the ACDC’s endorsement. Although Judge Walsh is an objectively more qualified candidate for Supreme Court, to the surprise of no one, Mr. Clyne’s hand-picked law committee endorsed Mr. Corcoran.
A group of concerned citizens (myself included) who believe that diversity on the bench is important and that Democratic voters should have a say in the selection of our party’s nominee got together and circulated petitions to get on the ballot as alternative judicial convention delegates with the intent of supporting Judge Walsh. This step, although extremely rare, is a fundamental component of our Election Law; it provides for giving voters the ultimate choice. This step to empower voters infuriated Chairman Clyne because it challenged his power. Accordingly, Jack Cunningham, Mr. Clyne’s right-hand-man in Bethlehem and a supporter of Mr. Corcoran, filed a frivolous challenge to our petitions, arguing that anyone suspected of supporting Judge Walsh was ineligible to be a delegate. In a clear conflict of interest, Mr. Clyne, in his day job as election commissioner, upheld Mr. Cunningham’s flimsy challenge and removed us from the ballot. Mr. Clyne thus used his taxpayer-funded office in an illegal scheme to help Mr. Corcoran waltz into office unopposed – a gross violation of the rule of law and a direct threat to our democratic process.
In the ensuing lawsuit, five judges on two separate courts unanimously held that Mr. Clyne’s actions violated the law. In a strongly worded rebuke, the Appellate Division held that Mr. Clyne’s attempt to remove us from the ballot was “misguided” and “amounted to little more than an unreasonable and unjustified restraint upon the right of primary voters to choose among eligible and qualified candidates.”
This fiasco demonstrates that both the ACDC and the Albany County Board of Elections are desperately in need of new leadership. The Sept. 9 primary election provides Democratic voters an opportunity to help reform our political process. By voting for the candidates for the judicial convention supporting Judge Margaret Walsh (the “Conti” row), Democratic voters can ensure that our party nominates the most qualified and experienced candidate for the critical office of Supreme Court justice.
Jeffrey Kuhn is the chairman of the Bethlehem Democratic Committee.