ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York’s governor is once again taking his time to set a special election to fill a Congressional seat left vacant by a western New York Republican who pleaded guilty to insider trading.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has now waited over two months to fill that seat. Former Republican Rep. Chris Collins announced his resignation Sept. 30.
Republicans have threatened to sue Cuomo if he holds the election on the same day as the April 28 Democratic presidential primary when Democrats are expected to flood polling places. The governor, meanwhile, has repeatedly said a separate special election could cost as much as $1 million and said Republicans could pick up the cost.
WHEN DOES THE GOVERNOR HAVE TO CALL A SPECIAL ELECTION?
The governor of New York has some discretion when setting the date of a special election. State law doesn't give him a strict deadline but says New York must hold a special election between 70 and 80 days after the governor announces a date.
Cuomo would have until mid-February to announce an April 28 special election under that time frame.
But that would leave the 700,000 Trump-leaning residents of New York’s 27th Congressional District without representation for over 200 days at a time when Congress is mulling the impeachment of RepublicanPresident Donald Trump.
“The fundamental issue is in a representative democracy, how do you get your voice heard if you don’t have a representative?” said Blare Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “And that literally should trump everything else.”
WHY HASN’T CUOMO CALLED THE ELECTION YET?
Cuomo has said having the special election on the April Democratic presidential primary day would save money. He told reporters this week he’s aware of his time restrictions and of complaints from Republicans about the delay.
“They’re in the business of complaining,” he said. “Whatever we do will not stop that.”
Republicans who have weathered heavy losses in the Empire State say that it’s clear Cuomo — whose party won control of the state Senate for the first time in a decade in 2018 — just wants to give his party a political advantage.
“The truth is, it doesn't have anything to do with saving money," Republican state Sen. Brian Ortt, who wants to fill Collins' seat, said . “He wants to put his finger on the scale, he wants to give his party candidate a built-in advantage, the only advantage they would ever have in a district like this by putting it on that day."
CAN A GOVERNOR DELAY A SPECIAL ELECTION BECAUSE OF COST OR POLITICS?
It’s not the first time a New York governor has faced scrutiny for dragging their feet on special elections. In 2000, Democrats criticized former Republican Gov. George Pataki for his delay in calling special elections for two state senate seats.
Still, it’s the second time Cuomo has waited to fill a seat for a convicted Republican congressman.
In 2015, a federal judge ordered Cuomo to stop delaying a special election to fill a seat left vacant in January of that year by former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, who pleaded guilty to hiring illegal immigrants at his Manhattan restaurant and underreporting earnings.
“The right to representation in government is the central pillar of democracy in this country,” wrote U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein.
Cuomo had argued he had discretion to delay the special election until the November general election. He also said he was concerned about the cost of a separate special election.
But the federal judge said Cuomo didn’t provide any reason for a delay besides cost.
He warned the court would set the date itself if Cuomo didn’t, and said special elections should be filled as soon as reasonably possible according to state law and the constitution. ”The spirit of the statutory scheme is clear: The announcement of the date for the election should occur almost immediately after the vacancy occurs,” the judge wrote.
Cuomo ended up calling the election for May 5, 120 days after Grimm resigned on Jan. 5. Cuomo waited about 45 days to set the special election.
The judge’s decision was a win for a group of citizens represented by lawyer and former Republican Assemblyman Ron Catorina, who said the length of the Collins' vacancy seems “more egregious” than Grimm’s.
“It’s pretty clear: the governor cannot use a delay for the purposes of politics,” Catorina said, later adding: “The cost is not something that should be considered when we're dealing with the potential disenfranchisement of voters and the quintessential right to vote."
WHO COULD RUN?
Several Republicans and Democrats want to represent a largely Republican district that voted 60% for Trump in 2016.
Who’ll wind up on the ballot will be up to county political leaders. And whoever wins will also face a November race and potential June primaries.
Seven out of eight Democratic county committees in the 27th district have lined up behind Grand Island Supervisor Nate McMurray, who lost to Collins by just 1,087 votes in 2018. Education advocate Melodie Baker has also announced a run.
McMurray said he wants to focus on healthcare and Social Security in a financially struggling district that he’s said has languished without representation amid Collins’ legal battles. McMurray, who supports impeaching Trump, said he’s optimistic despite recent polling suggesting the road will be easy for Republicans now that Collins has resigned.
“I believe the governor will choose a day that allows us to have a real opportunity to finally bring representation to western New York,” he said.
Republicans who’ve announced interest in running include military veteran and state Sen. Robert Ortt , family law attorney and former judge Beth Parlato and state Sen. Chris Jacobs. Republican county committees haven't backed a candidate yet.
It's wrong that a district that strongly backed Trump lacks a Congress member in Washington amid impeachment hearings, said Ortt. He said he's running on immigration, Second Amendment rights, agriculture and veterans mental health issues.
“I'm sure the governor is going to wait as long as he can because that keeps people guessing or adds to the uncertainty of the race,” Ortt said.
This version corrects a state senator's name to Robert Ortt, not Brian Ortt.