Hennessy regains enough petitions to secure Democratic line

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Former Oneida County legislator Michael Hennessy won a place on the November ballot Wednesday as the Democratic candidate for county executive after a state judge restored enough challenged petition signatures to win the party’s line.

Hennessy needed 21 signatures restored from registered and eligible Democrats who live in the county to have the minimum 750 needed to get on the ballot through petitioning. His attorneys, Kevin Ryan and Nadine Bell of Costell Cooney Fearon of Syracuse represented him Wednesday before New York state Supreme Court Justice David Murad at the Oneida County courthouse. Murad heard witnesses who signed Hennessy’s petition and from some supporters who carried it for other registered Democrats to sign. Murad restored 29 signatures.

“I feel elated,” Hennessy said. “I have a newfound confidence in the court system. Judge Murad was fair.”

The objector was James Genovese, who works both for the county in County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr.’s office and for the incumbent’s campaign. He was represented by attorney David Previte of the Albany firm Himan Straub, and the county Board of Elections by Assistant County Attorney Robert Pronteau.

Hennessy’s attorneys called witnesses who carried nominating petitions for Hennessy during the petitioning period in February and March — earlier than usual this year after the state Legislature altered the state election schedule so that local and state primaries are held in conjunction with primaries for federal races in June instead of the traditional September.

That meant candidates and their supporters who used to go door-to-door seeking petition signatures in mid-summer had to do so in winter. That sometimes meant petition signers wrote quickly in the cold at a front door, sometimes in the wind, and often signing was rushed and left hard to read, witnesses said.

Challenges were also raised over signatures’ legibility, whether a printed script constituted a valid signature, and whether the signature collector adequately verified a signer’s name.

Under questioning by Previte, William Shaughnessy, a former Sylvan Beach village trustee who carried petitions for Hennessy, recounted how he knew certain registered Democrats whose signatures he collected always print their signatures.

The outcome sets up a contested race for county executive for the first time in two election cycles for the four-year-term office. Picente was appointed in late 2006 to fill the remainder of the term of Joe Griffo, the former Rome mayor who had just been elected to the state Senate, where he remains. Picente was elected three times and faced no general-election opposition in 2015. Picente faces a Republican primary June 25 against former county legislator David Gordon. Picente was endorsed by the county Republican Committee, as well as the Conservative and Independence minor parties.

Hennessy took issue with Picente’s campaign challenging his petition signatures, though that is a common tactic among political rivals in New York, and said he looks forward to debating the issues. The last three weeks since he was notified that county elections officials had upheld enough signature challenges to block him from the ballot before taking it to court were very difficult and put him under pressure, Hennessy said.

“We listened to the people that signed my petitions, because they wanted me to go forward .. This is a win for them, for Democrats around the county, and the public.”

The county executive’s salary is budgeted at $142,996 for 2019.

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