Corruption News

A N.Y. story – New York Daily News


Democrats’ chances in this year’s midterms depend not only on turning out lots of voters but also on training and sending legions of poll watchers to voting sites and board of elections offices. With GOP election deniers prepared to claim victory regardless of the actual outcome, It’s no longer enough to “trust but verify.” It’s time to head off the worst.

In 1982, I became a “poll watcher” almost by accident, while reporting for The Village Voice, when I walked into the Brooklyn Board of Elections one morning and saw supporters of state Sen. Vander Beatty “checking” voter registration cards in a Democratic primary election that had just been held for the retiring Rep. Shirley Chisholm’s Bedford-Stuyvesant congressional seat.

Beatty had just lost, 54-46%, to his far better state Senate colleague, Major Owens. But what I witnessed that morning — long before cell-phone videos and opaque elections technology could have recorded it — paralleled last week’s New York Times’ report that Trump operatives, with “the blessing of” Georgia’s Coffee County elections board, had “scanned all the equipment, imaged all the hard drives and scanned every single ballot” in the 2020 election, as one of them assured Trump lawyer and conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell, who’d hired some of them.

Back in Brooklyn 40 years ago, Beatty had used anti-racist rhetoric to deflect liberals’ attention from his and the Democratic Party machine’s corruption. He’d been endorsed for election to Congress by The New York Times and by most other elected Democrats in Brooklyn. But I saw his campaign workers forging signatures on voter-registration cards that they were supposedly just checking. His lawyers then submitted those forgeries to a party-machine-selected judge as “evidence” that Owens had rigged the election, and they sued to invalidate Owens’ victory.

I saw it only because a political operative had called me and said, “Get your butt down to the Board of Elections right now and see what the Beatty people are doing.”

If I hadn’t done that and reported the scam, Beatty would have won his suit before Brooklyn’s compliant — indeed, complicit — judiciary. Black politics in Chisholm’s district would have taken a bad turn. “Look at it this way,” my tipster said. “[Beatty] is either going to Congress or he’s going to jail.”

The party machine judges did rule in Beatty’s favor in Brooklyn trial and appellate courts. But my reporting on what I’d seen at the Board of Elections, coming atop a long exposé I’d published about Beatty’s record, prompted the late New York Times columnist Sydney Schanberg to alert the rest of the world. A month later, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, overturned earlier rulings for Beatty.

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Owens served honorably in Congress for a 24 years, retiring in 2006. Beatty was convicted in federal court of corruption unrelated to the election scheme, and, in 1990, he was assassinated by a non-political rival. When Owens died in 2013, I attended his funeral and wrote this about his courage and my education in that election.

In those long, hard months of investigating Beatty and defending my findings against a corrupt regime and quite a few indifferent liberals who didn’t want to cross a Black officeholder, I learned that the truth may not interest people if it comes from people without the “right” connections and if its larger dangers aren’t made clear.

Put another way, sometimes dedicated, passionate, partisan advocates need to see through their own loyalties and wishful thinking. To do that, they need to field historical memory and sound judgment against orchestrated and random distractions. They need not only to do their jobs honestly but also to present the public with a clear understanding of what they’re doing and why.

If the Beatty-Owens contest had unfolded in 2022, maybe the Owens camp could have accomplished by Twitter and electronic monitoring what only a lone investigative reporter with my good luck accomplished in 1982. But the Owens side would have had to be trained and organized to thwart the Beatty operatives with an organizing and communications strategy potent enough to arouse the public by showing that what happens in Board of Elections offices really matters.

In Brooklyn, telling the truth also required shattering some “anti-racist” liberals’ and Black activists’ indulgence of corruption by a demagogue who preyed very effectively upon their legitimate grievances. Some Brooklyn Democrats were able to tell that truth well enough to prevail, even against other Democrats, but just barely, in 1982.

There aren’t enough Republicans like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger who understand many Republicans’ own legitimate grievances but are willing to tell them consequential, painful truths about where they’re wrong. Democrats can’t do that for them. But Democrats can hope to out-organize and out-strategize Republicans against formidable odds, even at Boards of Elections offices. Are they ready?

Sleeper was a Daily News columnist from 1993 to 1995.

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