‘I Tried to Think Like a Corrupt Party Hack’

‘I Tried to Think Like a Corrupt Party Hack’

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Reporters get a lot of crazy tips. Some are so nuts that your first inclination is to dismiss them out of hand.

Like the one that led to Friday’s story about Democratic Party bosses in Queens running many candidates for office without bothering to tell them.

Last month, a friend emailed me.

Her sister-in-law was running for an entry-level Democratic Party post in Queens called County Committee member, as an anti-establishment “reformer.” She noticed that one of the party machine’s candidates was a woman she knew who was not involved in politics. The sister-in-law called the woman to ask her about this. The woman had no idea what she was talking about.

The party bosses, the sister-in-law also noticed, were running a lot more candidates this year to fill county committee seats, of which there are more than 2,700.

“I have no doubt that if one name was used without permission there are others who don’t know they are on the ballot as well,” the sister-in-law told her.

To me this sounded like a leap, a lefty conspiracy theory. But I owed my friend a polite response.

“Jillian, this is very interesting though I don’t quite get it,” I wrote. If party leaders are putting people on the ballot without their knowledge, “What do they expect these people to do when they find out?”

What they would do, it turns out, was yell at the reporter who told them.

But that came later. First I did a little research and found out that this kind of thing had happened before in New York City, where dirty tricks and politics go back a very long way. It wasn’t so far-fetched.

I needed to call candidates. But the party machine had nominated more than 1,300 of them, most presumably legitimate. Where to begin? I tried to think like a corrupt party hack. Scammers prey on the elderly. Call older candidates first.

I started with Helen Gambichler, 72 — I liked the sound of her name. She knew she was running, but only because she’d gotten a “Dear Candidate” letter showing how her name would appear in Korean on the ballot. She was livid.

“Who could have done that?” she asked. “Who could have put my name on the ballot?”

Then I called Arlene Dudkin-Sachs, because she was 76 and her current address was in Florida. She assured me I was mistaken.

“I’m not running,” she said from her home near Palm Beach. “You might have picked up the name Dudkin because my uncle was a prosecutor in Newark — Harry Dudkin.”

Two for two. I tried a third.

“Hi, Anna Ardolino? I’m a reporter from The New York Times my name is Andy Newman I’m writing about the race for Queens Democratic County Committee and I’m looking to talk to some of the candidates,” I said, trying to get it all out in one breath.

Long, suspicious pause.

“Who are you asking about?”

I explained to Ms. Ardolino that she was running for office.

“I don’t know how they got my name to be a runner,” she said. “I’m not a candidate. I’m an 82-year-old woman.”

A few names down the list, Kathleen Dunphy, 81, picked up the phone. “I’m not running for anything,” she said. “I’m running for my life.”

I enlisted my colleague Tyler Pager to make calls. He spent the day confusing senior citizens.

“There’s no such thing,” said Harold Haber, 94.

“I’m disabled, I don’t run for office,” said Mary Covello, 64, who demanded to know how she could get off the ballot.

That turns out to be difficult. Helen Prager, a retired educator, told Tyler she had been trying for weeks to no avail.

(Meanwhile, reformer candidates were being disqualified for tiny technicalities by the city Board of Elections, whose commissioners are appointed by political bosses. One was bounced because his first name was listed as Timothy on one form and Tim on another, another because her name appeared as “Karen Vicente” on one form and “Karen A. Vicente” on another.)

Tyler called the home of Gerard Knapp, 82. He was not available, said his wife, Bridget Knapp, 74.

Tyler asked Mrs. Knapp about her husband’s political aspirations. He had none, she said impatiently. She had never heard of this county committee.

Tyler looked more closely at the list — male candidates are listed in one section, females in another — and noticed that Mrs. Knapp was running, too. He broke the news to her.

“This is stupid. Goodbye,” Mrs. Knapp said, and hung up the phone.

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