By Rebecca Martin
In early March of 2020, we sought out Ashley Dittus, Democratic Commissioner at Ulster County Board of Elections and Roger Rascoe, Chair of the Ulster County Republican Committee, to ask a series of questions regarding the process of running for chair of the Ulster County Democratic and Republican parties.
This was of particular interest after learning back then that Ashley planned to run for the Democratic county chair seat while holding the position of Commissioner for the Board of Elections. It struck me as being potentially riddled with conflicts.
Now in September and with the upcoming county party leadership organizational meetings, a conflict emerged between the old and the new. Larissa Shaughnessy, chair of the Ulster County Young Democrats, put out a public statement, “…a spreadsheet document owned by Ashley (Dittus) was shared with our sitting Congressmember’s campaign staff and labels several Young Democrat members whom she suspects of not supporting her candidacy for Chair with the comments “kill” and “maim”.
Following the discovery, Ashley was asked by many influential party members to step down from her bid to lead the Ulster County Democratic party and instead, to continue to focus her efforts as Commissioner for the Board of Elections.
In a letter written by Pat Courtney Strong, a member of the County Democratic Committee who has run for both State Senate (2018) and Ulster County Executive (2019), she outlined many shared concerns.
“When I ran for the State Senate in 2018, I had the opportunity to meet many terrific, hard-working Democrats from the five-county area that comprises the 46th Senate District…In one of the counties, the Democratic Elections Commissioner was also the Democratic Party chairperson….it was not a good situation—both in “optics” and reality. It makes the party leadership appear to be a small, insular group that doesn’t welcome new voices. And it was plain to see that there is an inherent conflict in one person holding the two positions. It means that this individual has the responsibility of recruiting candidates—encouraging people she/he believes can win—as well as disseminating information to all candidates in a fair manner. It means that, as a county employee, the commissioner presents a budget to the county legislature—and then holds influence over those same people as party chair when they are candidates. These are just two of many conflicts that can arise…”
On Thursday of last week, Ashley withdrew from the race.
Even if the state and current local committee bylaws allow it, a commissioner running for a county party chair seat is a bad idea. It provides a single person the authority to hold two of the most influential decision-making positions for a county party, and that’s too much power. I think it’s fair game that when they are reforming their bylaws, the Democratic and Republican committees ought to highlight this gap and rework its rules to assure that proper checks and balances are in place.
Here are our questions from March.
1. What is the process for appointing a chairperson for both the Democratic and Republican parties of Ulster County?
Ashley Dittus: The process is written into the election law, section 2-112 Committees; organization which states “every county committee shall within twenty days after its election organize a chairman, a secretary, a treasurer and such other offices as they may by their rules provide.” However the time frame was amended in 2019 by bill passage and Governor approval that requires the re-organization to happen later stating “every county committee shall meet no earlier than September Seventeen and no later than October Sixth following the June Primary.” (see: https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2019/s6421/amendment/b)
Roger Rascoe: The Republican Committee By-Laws provide for an election of its chairman every two years on even numbered years at an organizational meeting called by the incumbent chairman. The election is by committeemen that filed petitions and is by weighted vote. The weighted vote is determined by the number of Republican votes cast for Governor in each election district. Each election district has two committeemen and the total weighted vote in each district is divided equally to each Committeeman in that district.
2. What can the average person do to support (or not) a committee chair candidate?
AD: The only duly qualified electors are committee people who have qualified via the petitioning and primary process (petitioning now and installed or elected on June 23rd of this year). The average person can petition to be a committee person if they are a registered voter of the political party and reside within the same Assembly district for the district they are running to represent. Outside of running themselves a person can publicly support and lobby those electors. I can only speak for the Democratic party but we retain contact information for all of our committee people so that they can serve their constituents and be available to speak to.
3. Who can run for committee chair?
AD: The Election Law does not govern who can run, that is governed by the rules of the party, their bylaws. You can view the existing UC Dems Party bylaws HERE, however note that we have an active Bylaws committee that is re-writing our bylaws and they may be revised before the re-organizational meeting commences.
RR: The By-Laws of the Republican Committee states that any enrolled Republican in the County can serve as County Chairman, Secretary or Treasurer and does not have to be a County Committeeman.
4. Can an employee of the Board of Elections run for Committee chair?
AD: There exists no provision in the NYS Election Law nor a local law which prohibits a Board of Elections employee from running for Committee Chair or any other party office. Staff from both political sides of the BOE aisle currently hold officer positions within their party (myself, as the Democratic Party Secretary, a position held since 2010 and Jennifer Matera, Republican Party Secretary a position held since 2018 when she assumed the role from Patricia Jacobson who during her tenure as Secretary was the Deputy Republican Commissioner). The Republican Party of UC I believe also allows their Commissioner of Elections standing as an officer, if that is the case, which I believe it is, Thomas Turco has standing in that bylaws structure as an officer. The UC Dems do not currently have a position like that.
RR: There is no rule in the Republican Committee by-laws prohibiting an Elections Commissioner or an employee of the Board of Elections from being the County Party Chairman.
5. When is the vote?
AD: The Democratic Party has not yet notified their electors of when the meeting will take place, that will not be scheduled until sometime in the summer but as referenced above it must take place between Sept. 17 and Oct 1 of 2020.
RR: The dates for the Organizational Meeting is determined by NYS Election Law. The most recent update is as follows: Post Primary Reorganization Under prior law, the powers of a newly elected party committee transitioned on primary day and the old committee had no authority to perform functions “in substantial matters” absent necessity pending the reorganization of the new committee (Matter of Broacto v Tinari, 157 AD3d 782 [2d Dept 2018]). Amendments to Election Law § 2-112 now provide that state committees shall organize between September 17 and October 1, and county committees will meet to organize between September 17 and October 6. Between the primary and the reorganization, “the existing…committee shall exercise all legal authority. Upon conclusion of the organization meeting, the new … committee shall assume all legal authority vested in the previously organized committee.” Accordingly, the County Republican Committee will be holding its Organizational Meeting on September 21st.