HARLEM — Even the smallest political races Uptown get the bareknuckle treatment.
A group of political newcomers challenging established Harlem district leaders — some of whom have served in the unpaid position for more than a decade — say they have faced intimidation, threats and Board of Election challenges in the runup to Thursday's Democratic primary.
The Rev. Kelmy Rodriquez, a pastor and community organizer who is running for district leader in the 68th Assembly District, said he got his first threatening phone call on Aug. 6.
"You are not going to win this f***ing election you piece of s***. Don't worry, we got something for your a**," Rodriquez said an anonymous caller told him.
He's running for district leader in Part C against John Ruiz, a 12-year incumbent who is backed by the powerful female district leader, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. (Each district elects male and female co-leaders.) Ruiz has also received endorsements from former Mayor David Dinkins and former Comptroller John Liu.
“This is crazy,” Rodriquez said. “I’d expect it more if this was a congressional race. This is just a district leader race. It’s an unsalaried position.”
He said he filed a police report after receiving the phone call.
The first-time candidate, who is backed by U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel, said he has been receiving similar calls ever since announcing his candidacy in the spring. Several people told him to drop out of the race before he was even on the ballot, he said.
The two-year term seats, split between one man and one woman in each district, may seem insignificant because they are unpaid, but district leaders play an important role in the party. They are tasked with nominating civil court judges, electing the county party chair, setting the party's platform, appointing paid poll site workers, energizing the party, increasing voting turnout and act as a conduit between constituents and paid elected officials.
"Intimidation is a classic tactic of the old political machine — and it's the default mode for Uptown politicians," said Clyde Williams, former adviser to President Barack Obama who challenged Rangel for Congress in 2012. "When you're fearful of debate and anyone who challenges the status quo, the only thing to fall back on is intimidation."
By holding the position themselves or backing their staff members, incumbents are able to block newcomers from entering the scene, Williams added.
In Harlem and East Harlem, City Council members, state senators, state Assembly members and a congressman have all served as district leaders. In addition to Mark-Viverito, Rangel, Councilwoman Inez Dickens, Assemblyman Keith Wright, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat and Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez are all district leaders.
Nylissa "Ny" Whitaker, a first-time candidate for Part D of the 68th District, said she has also been threatened.
“I had someone say, ‘We are going to cut your head off in this race,’” she said.
She is running for a vacant seat against Gina Smith, who is campaigning as female co-leader to Keith Lilly, who works for state Sen. Bill Perkins.
Whitaker has worked with political groups that worked to help increase voter turnout for President Obama and motivate Hillary Clinton to enter the race for president.
Whitaker, who said her political experience makes her a strong candidate, said she has received so many threatening calls from blocked numbers that she decided to unplug her office phone.
Neither Whitaker nor Rodriquez said those calls came directly from their challengers, nor do they believe Mark-Viverito and Perkins are aware of the calls.
Perkins and Mark-Viverito did not respond to questions about the district races.
Ruiz denied having anything to do with the threat.
“Nobody in my camp would even entertain anything like that,” he said. “There is no need for it. He’s not a threat to me.”
Lilly, Smith’s running mate, does not believe the threatening phone calls were ever made.
“I don’t believe,” he said. “I think she’s lying. To hear it, I am insulted by it. It suggests dirty politics. It suggests something unlawful.”
District leader candidates are not the only ones who say they are getting phone calls. In some cases their supporters or people running for other volunteer positions on their slate have received unusual calls.
Joshua Bauchner, who is running for a judicial delegate position with district leader candidate Afua Atta-Mensah, said he got a call from state Assemblyman Keith Wright staffer Cathleen McCadden.
Judicial delegates attend a convention where they elect judges to the State Supreme Court.
“It was their opinion that the slate that Afua put together was not appropriate,” Bauchner said. “She requested on behalf of Keith Wright that I consider withdrawing my name.”
Wright's office did not respond to questions about the phone call or the race.
Atta-Mensah is running for part A of the 70th Assembly District against Yasmin Cornelius, who Wright has supported in the past, and Cordell Cleare, Perkins' chief of staff.
“People are purposefully putting up roadblocks,” she said. “It hurts the democratic process, which in turn hurts Harlem. The whole purpose should be to expand opportunity.”
Other roadblocks that new candidates have faced are challenges with the Board of Elections. To be on the ballot, each candidate must submit 500 signatures from registered party voters living in their district.
It is common for opponents to object to their challenger’s petitions with a line-by-line audit. Challenging the process can require a lawyer and hefty legal fees.
“If you don’t have to have a race why have a race,” Peggy Morales, district leader for part B of the 68th District, said of the practice. “Why have a race and do this all summer long, when I can easily just go line by line and determine to what extent, if any, the signatures are valid?”
While the practice is common, Morales has seen people go overboard during this year’s races.
For instance, newcomer 68th District candidate Pilar de Jesus was knocked off the ballot this summer after the male candidate for that district, Johnny Rivera, challenged her petitions. Rivera, who is backed by Mark-Viverito’s co-leader Ruiz, is not running against de Jesus.
“I expected this from a challenger but not from Johnny,” de Jesus said.
The reason he knocked her off was because there was a chance she would've run unopposed, which Rivera said would be "anti-democratic."
The Democratic primary is on Sept. 10.