With only a small select group of attorneys specializing in election law in New York City and an overabundance of candidates seeking office in 2013, the demand far outstrips the supply. As a result, election lawyers can amass a stable of clients who may find each other strange bedfellows.
Much of this legal work falls on the old guard of mainly white male attorneys who were around City Hall in the 1980s when the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Board was established and its compliance laws and procedures were hammered out.
“When [the CFB] first started up, a lot of election lawyers didn’t want to get involved. I do campaign finance compliance now, but generally [candidates] have to take one of the few attorneys that specialize in it,” said Martin Connor, a former state senator and noted election attorney who has been retained by John Liu’s campaign for mayor.
Among the veteran attorneys dating back to the Koch administration who are still practicing and considered experts in the field of election law are Laurence Laufer, Lawrence Mandelker and Jerry Goldfeder.
Laufer, who served as the CFB’s general counsel from 1988–2000, is now with the firm of Genova Burns Giantomasi & Webster. His current blue chip clients include Bill de Blasio’s mayoral campaign, Daniel Squadron’s campaign for public advocate and Jessica Lappin’s Manhattan borough president campaign. In an illustration of how the ideologies of clients represented by the same election attorney can often conflict, Laufer is handling not only de Blasio, an outspoken champion of campaign finance reform, but also Republican mayoral candidate George McDonald in his litigation against the CFB to up his contribution limits should he not accept public campaign financing—a suit that could possibly deal a blow to the city’s matching system by diminishing the incentive for candidates to participate.
Laufer sees nothing out of the ordinary about representing both de Blasio and McDonald. “The challenge to the law by McDonald will have no legal effect on the law applicable to de Blasio or any other participating candidate,” said Laufer. “Whether a lawyer has a conflict turns on whether two of his clients are legally adverse, not ‘politically, strategically or philosophically adverse.’ These two are not legally adverse, not in the same case, not involved with the same applicable law, and not in the same primary election. We could rep Pepsi and Coke until and unless they are legally adverse to each other—and if they are, we withdraw.”
Mandelker, of the firm Kantor, Davidoff, Wolfe, Mandelker, Twomey & Gallanty, represented Ed Koch’s mayoral campaigns, both of Rudy Giuliani’s, and the Bloomberg campaign in 2001. Mandelker noted that while it is obvious that an election lawyer cannot represent two people running for the same office in the same election, it is possible to get waivers from candidates running for the same office in different primaries.
Goldfeder, who literally wrote the book on election law—the authoritative Goldfeder’s Modern Election Law—and whose firm, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, represents the Christine Quinn campaign, said he never represents candidates running against each other for the same office. “Unless competing candidates give waivers, it seems questionable to me,” he said.
Aside from CFB compliance and petition work, election attorneys handle all sorts of miscellaneous legal issues ranging from short-term campaign office leases to employment matters.
“For example, a lot of candidates hire young people to knock on doors, and the candidate has to make sure they go to a payroll company to take out taxes and unemployment and disability insurance,” said Connor. “It’s a felony under workers’ compensation laws to mischaracterize these types of workers as consultants. College students knocking on doors and collecting signatures don’t have a business. They are told what hours to work and where to knock on doors.”
As a rule citywide candidates generally don’t challenge opponents’ petitions anymore, but some election attorneys such as Aaron Maslow, who cut his teeth “cleaning petitions” in 1974 for a young Charles Schumer, continue to have a thriving practice on such work—particularly on the City Council level.
“If you hire Aaron Maslow, it’s 99 per-cent you won’t get challenged,” said Maslow, noting he’s only lost two candidates to petition challenges in 30 years of practicing election law while getting thousands of potential candidates kicked off the ballot on petition technicalities.
Maslow said he got his start in the wily ways of election law back in 1974 when he worked as a volunteer “cleaning petitions” for a young Charles Schumer, who was fresh out of Harvard Law School and running for the state assembly in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
“[Schumer] wanted to kick Arnold Schlissel, his Democratic opponent, off the ballot,” recalled Maslow. “So he drove a bunch of us volunteers to the Board of Elections office to challenge his petition, and we saw all these arcane methods [for] how to get off ballot.”
Maslow said the challenge to kick Schlissel off the ballot was successful, but the federal courts eventually put him back on.
Amid the small stable of election attorneys operating, there is very little diversity, a fact acknowledged by both Goldfeder and Laufer. “That’s a reason I lecture widely before African-American, Latino and Asian groups to foster an interest among those young attorneys,” said Goldfeder.
Dwayne Andrews, legislative director of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association of New York, said getting more minorities involved in election law needs a more proactive approach.
“Unfortunately, the lack of diversity in the election law bar is a reflection of the continuing lack of diversity at the highest ranks of law firms and the political party machinery,” said Andrews. “Having more black attorneys involved in the election law process is the next step in an evolutionary cycle that has slowly seen more people of color become elected officials and party leaders. While the numbers look bleak now, I am hopeful that the growing cadre of black political and legal leaders will work together to improve these numbers in the future.”
Sarah Steiner, one of the few female election attorneys, said the lack of diversity in election law bothers her, and a little more diversity would certainly be welcome.
Public advocate candidate Reshma Saujani said she retained Steiner as her election attorney because of her talent and experience, but also for their shared passion for female and community empowerment.
“Anytime there is a lack of diversity in a particular field, whether that’s law or politics, medicine or technology, we are losing out as a society on the best possible talent to help bring about positive change,” said Saujani. “For law specifically, having more women be a part of the process provides a broader and more balanced perspective in our political discourse.”
Tags: Aaron Maslow, Bill De Blasio, Campaign Finance Board, Daniel Squadron, Dwayne Andrews, George McDonald, Jerry Goldfeder, jessica-lappin, John Liu, Laurence Laufer, lawrence-mandelker, Martin Connor, reshma-saujani, Sarah Steiner