Last week in Buffalo, a near-unknown, first time candidate shocked the political establishment by defeating a four-term incumbent in the Democratic mayoral primary. India Walton, a registered nurse and avowed democratic socialist, is now overwhelmingly likely to be the first female mayor of New York’s second largest city—and the first socialist mayor of a major American city in over 60 years.
Walton’s wasn’t the only upset in the Buffalo area. In a three-way contest for the Democratic nomination for Erie County Sheriff, law enforcement professional Kim Beaty soundly defeated her two opponents. Beaty is running on a reformist platform that includes removing police from mental health crisis response and introducing medical treatment for opioid addiction in the Erie County jail.
Both candidates were running against the endorsed picks of the local Democratic Party. And in the run-up to their victories, Walton and Beaty, who are both Black women, said that one obstacle in particular made their races even more uphill: obstruction from Erie County Democratic party chair and Erie County Board of Elections co-chair Jeremy Zellner.
“He really doesn’t want a fair, democratic, election in Buffalo,” Walton told New York Focus.
Zellner has held the roles of the country’s chief election administrator and party chair—both ordinarily full time jobs—since 2017.
Walton, Beaty, and other Democratic candidates for office said that Zellner has used his dual role to create obstacles to ballot access for progressive candidates running against the county party’s favored picks.
“Jeremy wearing those two hats has been an issue long before I was around,” Walton told New York Focus. “It’s an inherent conflict, and any ethical person in that position would realize that, admit it, and move on.”
Reached by phone, Zellner denied that any conflict of interest exists between his two roles. “I would say that’s a ridiculous accusation, and it comes from somebody with obviously not a lot of experience in the political or governmental world here,” he told New York Focus when asked about Walton’s comments.
One good government advocate disagreed. Zellner’s two positions are “clearly a conflict of interest and shouldn’t be allowed,” said Tom Speaker, policy analyst for the non-partisan good government organization Reinvent Albany. “It shouldn’t be allowed for someone who arguably has an interest in promoting a certain party’s candidates to also have a role in determining who gets on the ballot.”
‘Is Everything Straight?’
Zellner obstructed Walton’s candidacy throughout the primary process, she charged.
After declaring her candidacy in December 2020, Walton scheduled a meeting with the county party’s executive committee to discuss the possibility of an endorsement. But three days before their scheduled meeting, Zellner announced that the committee was endorsing Brown. “I just wanted a fair shake. I wanted the committee to hear me, and then a decision to be made,” Walton said.
Walton continued her campaign, collecting signatures and winning the endorsement of the Working Families Party, on whose ballot line she planned to appear in the general election.
When she and her staff went to the Board of Elections to submit their petition signatures for Walton to appear on the ballot, Zellner came out of his office to observe their submission. “My campaign manager said to him, ‘Is everything straight?,’ and he said ‘You’re good,’” Walton recalled.
But Zellner and the Board of Elections neglected to inform Walton or her campaign staff at the office of a quirk of New York State election law that requires individuals not enrolled in a party to sign an affidavit accepting that party’s nomination in order to appear on the ballot. Walton, a registered Democrat, had not signed an affidavit to appear on the Working Families Party’s ballot line.
The day after the deadline to accept the nomination, Zellner called Walton to tell her that since she had not accepted the Working Families nomination, she would not appear on its ballot line in the election.
“If he wanted to have a fair and democratic process, he would have called me before,” Walton said.
Zellner denied personally accepting Walton’s petitions. “She did not not follow the directions, she did not follow the law, and that’s why she is not on the ballot for the Working Families Party in the fall,” he said.
‘You’re not what a sheriff looks like’
Beaty also faced Zellner’s opposition in her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for Erie County Sheriff, The Buffalo News reported in April. Beaty, who has 30 years of experience in law enforcement, said that Zellner repeatedly attempted to dissuade her from running and discourage her campaign, leading to her briefly dropping out of the race in February before rejoining it in March.
“You’re not what a sheriff looks like,” Beatty alleged that Zellner told her. Beatty is Black, and the Erie County Sheriff’s post has historically been dominated by white men.
One of Beaty’s supporters, former Erie County legislator and progressive activist Betty Jean Grant, told The Buffalo News that her granddaughter was fired from the Board of Elections as retaliation for Grant helping Beaty collect petition signatures.
Zellner has denied that he ever discouraged Beaty from running or obstructed her campaign.
Candidates in previous cycles say they faced obstruction from Zellner as well. In 2019, Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux, a registered nurse, mounted an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Erie County legislature after five years of involvement in the county Democratic party, she told New York Focus .
Zellner did not respond to Martin-Bordeaux’s requests to meet with him to discuss her candidacy, she said. “I wanted to meet with him because he’s our Democratic leader, I’m a Democrat, and I want to run for office in my district,” Martin-Bordeaux, who is also Black, said.
Neither Zellner nor any member of the Erie County party met with Martin-Bordeaux before the party voted to endorse Howard Johnson, the incumbent, who was appointed to the office mere months before the election.
When Martin-Bordeaux filed her petition to appear on the ballot, then-executive director of the Erie County Democratic Committee, Samantha Nephew, filed an objection against her petition.
Grounds for such objections are often “frivolous things to basically keep the candidate tied up in court and not focusing on campaigning, and exhausting their resources, because they may have to pay for legal counsel to try to stay on the ballot,” Martin-Bordeaux said. The objection was eventually dropped.
Zellner denied that he or either of the organizations he heads had obstructed Martin-Bordeaux’s campaign. “I really don’t put much faith in anything that Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux has to say. She’s been repeatedly attacking the organization and the party, and she has a political axe to grind,” he said.
In the same election, Zellner and fellow BOE chair Ralph Mohr, a Republican, disqualified three Democratic Buffalo Common Council candidates from appearing on the primary ballot on the grounds that their petition signatures were not accompanied by a statement that the petitioner was a member of the Democratic Party. All three disqualified candidates were women running against the county Democratic Party’s endorsed candidates.
Zellner has previously defended his dual role by pointing to other counties in New York where one individual has held both positions simultaneously, including Brooklyn and Westchester. Asked about this defense, Speaker, the good government advocate, said that it indicated the need for statewide reform. “Applying stronger ethics policies to local boards is much needed. Across the state, policies are clearly too weak,” he said.
Speaker also noted that Zellner’s dual roles would be prohibited if a recent law governing the state’s campaign finance board was also applied to county-level Boards of Elections. The law, passed in 2020, mandates a five-year period between being an officer in a political party and becoming a commissioner of the state’s campaign finance board.
“People can argue about what these restrictions should be regarding length of time between someone leaving an official party position and serving as a referee, but it’s clear that no one should be able to hold those roles at the same time,” Speaker said.