The talk of New York City politics this week is disgraced former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s eleventh hour decision to enter the city comptroller race. Spitzer’s campaign announcement comes five years after he resigned as governor after being connected to a high-end prostitution ring, and just weeks after mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner -- no stranger to scandals himself -- was shown to be leading the mayor race in a Marist poll.
Spitzer’s attempt at a political comeback has naturally drawn comparisons to Weiner’s redemption-seeking, with many speculating that Weiner’s surprising success may have spurred Spitzer on. Spitzer said in a New York Times interview announcing his candidacy on Monday that he had not done any polling before throwing his hat in the ring, but decided to run based on what the Times described as a “gut reading of ordinary New Yorkers.”
But before Spitzer can officially enter the race, he must obtain 3,750 valid qualifying signatures by this Thursday from registered Democrats who are current New York City residents. While this may not appear to be a particularly tall order for someone with Spitzer’s high profile and deep pockets, it may not be as easy as it sounds. Given the likelihood that Spitzer’s opponents will not hesitate to challenge his signature petition once it is submitted to the New York City Board of Elections office, Spitzer should be aiming for at least double the required number to ensure that enough signatures are valid and to discourage his opponents from challenging the petition, according to a New York City Board of Elections employee as well as a veteran political campaign organizer.
While money can’t buy actual signatures (at least not legally), a sizable budget can certainly give Spitzer an advantage: The more canvassers Spitzer can pay, the more signatures he can presumably obtain. But considering his long political hiatus and rather hasty return to the political arena, it’s easy to imagine that Spitzer may not have a deep network of supporters at his immediate disposal, eager to do the legwork.
Indeed, as Politico reported Monday, union organizer Neal Kwatra, who was believed to be working in support of the Spitzer campaign, had only agreed to “help with the rollout” but had not made a long-term commitment, and he is reportedly no longer associated with the campaign. Politico noted that Kwatra “did not set up a paid signature-gathering operation before departing.”
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Instead, the Spitzer campaign appears to have turned to Craigslist to solicit canvassers, offering a modest $12 per hour. The ad -- which did not specifically name Spitzer -- was posted on Monday, the day after Spitzer told the New York Times he had intended to dispatch 100 signature gatherers in key areas throughout the city by then. Monday’s Politico story pointed out “the absence of petition-carriers in Union Square,” where Spitzer held court Monday afternoon.
Harold Hubschman owns and operates Spoonworks, a Boston-based political organization company specializing in signature gathering. “It’s not a daunting number if you have a month,” Hubschman said. “But Spitzer doesn’t have a team of signature collectors” and has only a few days. Hubschman estimated that Spitzer should probably be aiming for roughly 10,000 “raw” signatures in order to play it safe.
“For a lot of completely innocent reasons you get a lot of signatures that are invalid,” Hubschman said. Voter registration lapses, address changes and the signing of duplicate petitions are among the many reasons a signature can be invalidated.
“When you collect signatures for a campaign where there is controversy, you are going to need a wide margin,” he said. “If he just falls over the finish line out of breath, [his opponents] are going to have to go after him” and challenge the petition.
Valerie Vazquez, the director of communications for the New York City Board of Elections, agreed that typically, potential candidates in city elections will present twice the number of required signatures in order to make a challenge “too daunting” for their opponents. The Board of Elections office does not hand-count the signatures, Vazquez explained, instead submitting the petition itself to a “weight test.” If the petition passes the test, the signatures are taken “at face value,” but anyone can get copies of the petition and file a general objection. Potential objectors can then cross-reference the questionable signatures with voter registration forms -- a laborious effort the Board of Elections office provides the resources to do on-site.
“If [the Spitzer campaign is] relying on hiring people through Craigslist, I suspect they'll end up with under 40 percent of the signatures being valid, if they're challenged,” Hubschman said.
A request for comment sent to the email account connected to the Craigslist job posting was not immediately returned.