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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | (Updated 4:27 p.m. July 30, 2015 with more reactions) Gigi Li withdrew as a candidate for Democratic district leader in the 65th Assembly District, Part C, on Wednesday amid allegations by the opposition of fraudulent ballot petitions.
The Lo-Down first reported the news, including a resignation statement from Li, in which she acknowledged that she did not garner the required minimum amount of 500 signatures to get on the ballot.
However, her statement added, “I want to be clear that the accusations of fraud are false and played no role in my withdrawal.”
Li said while she was disappointed at not being able to run for district leader, she looks forward to continuing to serve as chairperson of Community Board 3. She was elected in June to a fourth one-year term leading the East Village/Lower East Side board.
Last week, two supporters of incumbent District Leader Jenifer Rajkumar who are both Democratic County Committee members — Georgette Fleischer and Lora Tenenbaum — filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court charging that Li’s petitions were “permeated with fraud.”
Fleischer and Tenenbaum are members of the Downtown Independent Democrats Club, Rajkumar’s home club.
They were represented in the lawsuit by election attorney Martin Connor, the former Lower Manhattan state senator who is feared for his track record of knocking candidates off the ballot.
On Tuesday, amid Connor’s challenge of Li’s petitions, the Board of Elections had determined that she only had 477 valid signatures — short of the required amount.
The Part C district is divided geographically to include Battery Park City, FiDi and parts of the Lower East Side.
One of the lawsuit’s main charges is that many of Li’s petition signatures were collected by underage individuals — in this case, students from a local prep school. It would have been O.K. if the signings were actually observed by a “subscribing witness,” who technically must be a registered Democrat, and thus 18 years or older, Sean Sweeney, a leading member of D.I.D. explained.
D.I.D. members say they observed the youths collecting the signatures at two locations — 189 Allen St., a public-housing development, and Battery Park City — without the presence of a registered Democrat.
“They questioned them,” Sweeney said, “and we have 360-degree, panoramic photographic evidence, showing there was no registered Democrat within 30 feet of them.”
A subscribing witness even can be blind, Sweeney said, “because they can hear it” — but they have to be there.
One subscribing witness for the signatures collected by the teens was Yume Kitasei, chief of staff to City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who defeated Rajkumar two years ago in a Council primary. The accusation, thus, was that Kitasei did not actually witness the signatures, yet signed them at some later point, which would constitute fraud.
Sweeney said, if need be, they were willing to subpoena the young students to make them produce their birth certificates in court.
Chin had endorsed Li, who is widely considered to be the councilmember’s protégé. Like Rajkumar, Li is thought to have her eyes on the Assembly seat of scandal-scarred former Speaker Sheldon Silver, who — according to political word on the street — is not expected to run for re-election if he is exonerated.
Other subscribing witnesses for Li included two former Chin staffers, Persephone Tan and Matt Viggiano, as well as Susan Stetzer, the district manager of C.B. 3 — but no fraud is alleged in their cases.
“A lot of people say it’s a conflict of interest,” Sweeney said of Stetzer petitioning for Li.
Li, who heads the 50-member volunteer board, is technically Stetzer’s boss, in that Stetzer is the board’s top paid staff member.
Asked his thoughts, Arthur Schwartz, the West Village’s district leader, said, “I don’t think it’s the smartest of moves. Perceptions are important.”
Schwartz said if anyone had a conflict of interest it would be Li, since she is Stetzer’s boss and thus holds power over the district manager and her job.
On Monday, two days before Li bailed out of the race, Stetzer would only say “I’m sorry. I’m very, very busy. We’re doing our district needs and we have a full-board meeting tomorrow night and I am extremely busy and I cannot speak right now.”
In addition, the suit charged, at least 50 petition signatures collected for Li were all written in what appeared to be the hand of one female subscribing witness, and so also constitute forgery, the suit charges.
Li and a Chin spokesperson both did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Chad Marlow ran against Li for C.B. 3 chairperson two years ago, losing by 31 to 15. He chose not to run again this June as Li won an uncontested re-election to a fourth term. When he ran two years ago, Marlow sharply criticized Li’s leadership of the board.
Asked earlier this week about the allegations of fraud in Li’s ballot petitions, Marlow said local politicos of course had all been buzzing about the lawsuit — but that even before the suit’s filing, he had been hearing stories of alleged petition improprieties.
“What I am hearing,” Marlow said, “is like the old Ronald Reagan line: ‘There she goes again.’”
He called Stetzer collecting signatures for Li “inappropriate.”
Without an opponent, Rajkumar declared victory Wednesday night in a statement, adding, “My focus remains fighting for my constituents everyday to keep our neighborhoods affordable, create quality education for our children, and transform local government into a platform for innovation and inspiration.”
Similarly, other D.I.D. leaders, naturally had favorable reaction to Li’s withdrawal.
“Getting 500 Democrats out of more than 13,000 in the district to sign a petition may not be a high bar — but it appears even with the help of City Council staffers, Ms. Li was not up to the task,” Jeanne Wilcke, the club’s president, said in a statement. “In addition, given the gravity of the allegations against Ms. Li brought up in the challenge to her petitions, it was prudent for Ms. Li to step aside. We look forward to two more years of Jenifer Rajkumar’s outstanding leadership.”
Sweeney added, “Of course Gigi Li will deny her election petitions were not riddled with some 800 fraudulent signatures, which was the real reason she withdrew from the race. Otherwise how could Li ever explain the multiple photos and videos we have of the underage, high school kids that she enlisted to collect signatures for her? Or care to address the 50 signatures — all in the same handwriting — fraudulently ‘witnessed’ by one of her petitioners? Ms. Li simply had no choice but to withdraw.”