21 August 2013

Battle for the ballot: why do independents handicap themselves?

Albany NY has had three mayors in the last seventy years, not counting an acting mayor while Erastus Corning II served in the military early in his 42-year run. The most recent mayor, Jerry Jennings, retires at the end of the year after 20 years in charge. Albany is a classic Democratic machine town -- arguably archetypal thanks to the writings of William Kennedy -- but Jennings's departure inspires hopes in other parties as a number of Democrats battle for the mayoral nomination. For the first time ever, Albany will see a Libertarian mayoral candidate. Actually, make that "may see."

The Capital District Libertarian Party has endorsed 23 year old cafe owner Alex Portelli. The candidate himself has submitted more than 1,500 signatures, which should be enough, if they go unchallenged, to earn him a spot on the city ballot. Portelli looks like a typical young libertarian; he wants drug laws liberalized, supports Bradley Manning, etc. etc. On the urban front he wants to "eliminate hindrances to independent business growth," like permits, zoning rules, etc. He wants to make life better for shoppers and businesses alike by eliminating Albany's parking meters (which he claims on his Facebook page to  have turned much of the city into a ghost town) and making more free parking facilities available. In broadest terms, his homemade campaign posters argue that spending more money hasn't made things better, so maybe more "freedom" will.

Portelli's candidacy is problematic. He may seem young for a mayor, but his age doesn't disqualify him. His current status as a parolee might, in the opinion of a Republican election-board commissioner. Portelli served eighteen months in prison for "felony criminal possession of a controlled substance" before his release last November, and will remain on parole until September 2014. In New York State, that means he can't vote until next year. For that reason, the Republican argues, Portelli is not a "qualified elector" and thus is ineligible for elected office under the Albany City Charter. In addition, as a parolee he is ineligible to serve as a witness to the signatures meant to earn his spot on the ballot. On the question of his eligibility to run for mayor, there may be a conflict between city and state law, and some observers believe that state law, which would allow Portelli to run, should have precedence. Whether the courts will clarify the matter probably depends on whether either of the major parties considers Portelli a threat in a close race. But the mere potential for a problem raises questions about how seriously the Libertarians take this campaign. Like them or not, there are hurdles any independent candidate has to jump, and any party that wants to be taken seriously should make sure that any candidate they nominate can jump them while standing the scrutiny certain to come from a skeptical media and a hostile establishment. It may be that there wouldn't be a Libertarian candidate, or even a local Libertarian organization, without Alex Portelli, but if that's the case it begs questions about the party's viability. Ideally we should all vote for individuals, not parties, but at the same time we should be wary of vanity candidates in party disguises. In short, if the Capital District Libertarians can't do better than Portelli -- and this is no knock on his ideas, such as they are -- then they're probably not ready for prime time. Any party that wants to be taken seriously, not to mention get elected, should have a larger talent pool so it can throw a Portelli back in when they see the potential flaws in his candidacy. Demanding this isn't the same as the demand for "experience" that only benefits the major parties. Instead, it's a simple appeal to common sense.

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