By Mary Alice Miller
Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs has a formidable opponent after 34 years in elected office. Rodneyse Bichotte is running an aggressive, competent campaign for the seat. Bichotte was first elected to office two years ago when, in a bold move, she knocked longtime Female District Leader Mary Hobson off the ballot. That tactic in 2010 allowed Bichotte to become the first Haitian-American woman to get elected to any position in the city of NY and the first Caribbean district leader in the 42nd Assembly. Now Bichotte is seeking to become the first Caribbean-American and Black woman to represent the 42nd Assembly District.
Though Jacobs has represented the office since 1978, for the past two decades the district has been 80-85% majority minority – first African-American and now Caribbean-American. Haitians make up the largest group among the district’s Caribbean’s, “whether they are documented, not documented, citizens, non-citizens, permanent residents, voters, non-voters,” Said Bichotte. The second largest island group are Jamaicans. Almost every election saw two or more Caribbean candidates who effectively split the majority minority vote, allowing Jacobs easy elections. This year would have been no different.
Perennial candidate Zachary Lareche was running in a three-way contest with Bichotte and Jacobs… until last week when Bichotte knocked him off the ballot. Lareche’s petitions had something no election specialist had ever seen before: Voter names and addresses pre-printed on petitions. Theoretically, all Lareche’s camp had to do was knock on the voter’s door and obtain their signature. When Bichotte saw that some of her petition signers allegedly signed Lareche’s petitions, too, she challenged them. The Bichotte campaign brought in Jeffrey Luber, a board certified forensic document examiner with the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory. Luber found numerous instances where Board of Election voter cards on file did not match signatures on Lareche’s petitions. In addition, there were different signatures for one person who was the signing witness on his petitions.
With Lareche successfully knocked off the ballot, Bichotte is waging a direct one-on-one campaign against Jacobs.
First, Bichotte eliminated approximately 90% of Jacobs’ Democratic County Committee candidates during a line-by-line petition review. County Committee members are part of a group responsible for choosing a successor in the event an elected official is unable to complete their term of office. “She did sloppy work, so we knocked off 90% of her County Committee,” said Bichotte. “She should have learned because two years ago I knocked off two of her County Committee people. She should have known you would have done that and more this year.”
When asked if the Jacobs campaign challenged Bichotte for Assembly and District Leader or any of her Judicial Delegate or County Committee people, Bichotte said, “No, because she knows I come correct. My petitions were solid.”
Next, the Bichotte campaign challenged the entirety of Assemblywoman Jacobs’ slate, including Mary Hobson, who is seeking re-election to her former Female District Leader seat, as well as Jacobs’ remaining County Committee candidates and her Delegates to the Judicial Convention.
Bichotte had difficulty finding a judge who would take her case challenging Jacobs’ petitions. “When we first started the case no judge would take it; every judge was recusing. The case almost got dropped,” said Bichotte. “We had to go to the Chief Judge because no one would take it.” Honorable Michelle Weston was assigned to hear the case.
Ultimately, seven of Jacobs’ County Committee candidates were knocked off her ballot, as well as one Judicial Delegate. All had testified that though they signed some sort of form, they did not know they were signing consent to be place on Assemblywoman Jacobs’ ballot to run for County Committee or Judicial Delegate. One person though he was signing an endorsement for Jacobs. Another person said he had given consent to be on another candidate’s slate.
Judge Weston ordered that the seven candidates for Democratic County Committee are “stricken from the ballot.” One candidate for Delegate to the Judicial Convention from the 42nd AD was also stricken. The Bichotte petition to the court to invalidate the entire designating petition was denied because although the candidates in question signed consent forms, they did not know what “consent” they were signing.
The Bichotte campaign has appealed. “I think the lower court erred,” said Bichotte attorney and election specialist Aaron Maslow. “If two or more individuals did not give permission to have their name placed on the petition, precedent dictates that the entire petition is invalid.”
Maslow acknowledged that the Appellate Court “can decide not to follow precedent, if they want to.”
The Appellate Court has an impactful decision to make. If they rule that Jacobs’ petitions stand, they will deviate from their own previous appellate precedent. In addition, future candidates who lead slates will have case law to rely upon holding them harmless from fault if they are found to have down-petition invalidations of their own County Committee candidates. If the Appellate Court rules based upon precedent, Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs and her entire slate would be knocked off the ballot and there would be no primary on September 13.
It would be an abrupt end to a long career of Jacobs. But, a ruling based upon precedent would serve to warn future candidates for elected office that invalidations down-petition could prove fatal to the top of the slate.
As of press deadline, the Appellate Court has not issued their decision. If the decision is unfavorable to Jacobs, the assemblywoman can take the case to the Court of Appeals which will hear election cases next week.
Bichotte began fundraising for this legal battle when she announced in February.
“The reason I have a lot of support is because for the very first time there is finally a viable candidate who can run against Rhoda. I am a viable candidate they feel could win,” said Bichotte. “Many of Rhoda’s longtime supporters have joined my camp. Everyone is gravitating to my campaign. I do have a significant number of retirees involved in my campaign who knock on doors, phone bank, everything. I think for a very long time campaigns in the 42nd AD did not attract young people. My campaign has attracted young people. It is young people who are running the show. We have registered young people to vote. We have given young people a reason to get involved.”
By Mary Alice Miller