Third parties aren’t going down without a fight

Conservative Party Chairman Gerard Kassar spoke with City & State about his party’s stance on the Campaign Finance Reform Commission.
Conservative Party Chairman Gerard Kassar spoke with City & State about his party’s stance on the Campaign Finance Reform Commission.
New York Conservative Party
Conservative Party Chairman Gerard Kassar spoke with City & State about his party’s stance on the Campaign Finance Reform Commission.

Third parties aren’t going down without a fight

Conservative Chairman Gerard Kassar on the state’s new ballot requirements.
December 6, 2019

The Campaign Finance Reform Commission has released its recommendations, which will be binding without immediate action from the state Legislature. Included in the proposals are new requirements for third parties. They now must reach 130,000 votes – or 2% of total votes cast, whichever is higher – every presidential and gubernatorial election. In addition to the higher vote threshold, parties would need to requalify every two years, rather than every four. 

The state Conservative Party is the least likely out of New York’s third parties to be hurt by the new rules, but it has opposed the recommendations on principle, both because it disagrees with the publicly funded elections and because it maintains the commission is illegal. State Conservative Party Chairman Gerard Kassar spoke with City & State about his party’s stance on the commission, its ongoing lawsuit on the matter and being on the same side as the Working Families Party.

The commission creating a public campaign financing system is recommending that third parties much reach 130,000 votes in gubernatorial elections in order to survive. Does the Conservative Party have concerns about that?

I’ve gone back about 30 years and I haven’t seen any indication that we would (have a problem) hitting that number. We’re usually way over that number. We don’t think we’d have a problem with the presidential (election) either, which will probably end up being between 140,000 and 160,000 votes per election. But there is an issue here. The issue is we’re not standing for it and we’re in court Dec. 12. We do not agree with the existence of this commission. We do not agree that the Legislature had the authority.

The Working Families Party and several Democratic lawmakers have themselves said that this commission should have never existed, despite supporting public campaign financing, which you don’t.

That is the essence of our argument. We had two essential arguments in the beginning. One was that fusion voting was constitutionally protected, which I think put fear in the commission’s eyes, because they knew we were right. And we also were pivoting on the idea most people consider is a logical argument that the state Legislature cannot create commissions that have statutory authority. And that is a big part of our argument going into this. (Our attorneys) have submitted quite a bit of stuff.

"We’re not standing for it. We do not agree with the existence of this commission.”

What has it been like to be on the same side as your ideological opposites, the WFP?

We pretty much limit ourselves to discussions relating to this. They are like us, very philosophically driven, but just from the entirely opposite side. I’ve always been part of what I consider the nontraditional political movement. I’ve always been active in the third-party movement, but through the Conservative Party. And I generally believe that this is an aspect of politics in New York state that may be unique, but it’s good. It really gives people more options. It’s a freedom of speech issue for me, additionally, because we and they say things different from the traditional big parties. In that sense, we’ve always shared a certain common ground.

Are you hoping that your lawsuit will have far-reaching implications preventing commissions like this in the future?

When I hold meetings with my state leadership, we are all very hopeful that is exactly what it does. We spend our time trying to elect legislators to do their jobs as legislators in terms of reviewing, creating, dismissing potential legislation or laws. This thing is beyond out of hand; it has become an abuse. What does concern me is the fact that they’ve been able to use taxpayer money to defend, so that has always given them the advantage.

What have been the commission’s main arguments against you so far?

They have been heavily attempting to get it dismissed, and they have failed. I think their major argument has been – it’s almost like they’re trying to thread a needle and find something, somewhere, that says commissions can do this. But they’re really like a salmon swimming upstream. There’s a lot of current against them on that argument, and our guys seems fairly confident.

At one of the hearings, a Conservative Party leader pointed out that the commissioners never took an oath of office. How did that revelation come about?

I had worked for the Legislature for a lot of years, and I was very familiar for the need of an oath of office. And I was very familiar with the fact that state legislators who did not file run the risk of being pushed out of office. And I was very familiar with the 30-day notice on it, so I advised our attorneys of this, and then I simply had to check and they hadn’t filed. I don’t know what the consequential outcome would be on this. All I know is that I saw it, I lived through it at other times in my life, and we’ve never had an issue. I mean, everybody files. It’s almost ridiculous to think you wouldn’t file. So if they left themselves open or didn’t leave themselves open is something for them to argue it out, but it is something they missed. This commission from day one has not been managed well.

How confident are you that the lawsuit will be decided in your favor?

I can only go by what my lawyers tell me, and they think they have solid arguments. And I will say that Richard Brodsky, the Working Families Party attorney, believes the same. I do believe we have very strong arguments, and we have logic on our side too. But it’s a process, I truly don’t know.

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Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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