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An Average Guy, Campaigning For NY Governor

Charles Lane

Michael McDermott will let the phone ring and ring. But when his lawyer calls, he stops talking mid-sentence.

"Hold on this is our lawyer," McDermott says, "Hey Gary, any word?"

The newly minted head of the Libertarian Party of New York weaves in and out of traffic in this last week before election day. Before the phone rang he was cataloging the many obstacles for his party before election day--like getting on the ballot, and staying on the ballot.

"Well, I told her to expect it," he says to the lawyer, "They're going to every length and money is no issue."

The call is about yet another challenge to one of his down ballot candidates. Lawyers for Senate Republican Carl Marcellino are making their fifth and final attempt to kick off the ballot Libertarian challenger Gigi Bowman.

"They just want to bleed her to the point where she depletes all her resources," again to his lawyer.

When McDermott hangs up, he goes back to describing the problems of minor parties like the Working Families, or Libertarians, or the Green Party. McDermott says that the system is rigged to favor the two major parties, Republicans and Democrats.

"The arduous petition requirements is probably the biggest thing. To get on the ballot, you have to get so many signatures and they immediately come in and challenge the signatures."

"They" being the Republicans and Democrats. And not just one challenge, but a challenge at each layer of court.

"They go through each one to see if you got it right or if you didn't get it right. If someone is not in your district or you can't read someone's name. There's like forty-two points that they try to attack to make signatures invalid. And not being professional petition gathers, mistakes are made."

The way around the ballot petition process in New York is through automatic ballot access, where a political party gets fifty thousand votes for their gubernatorial candidate. If achieved, then for the next four years all of the party's candidates have a much lower threshold to get on the ballot.

Credit Charles Lane
McDermott waits for the crew of a production company to finish setting up before recording several short infomercials.

That is what McDermott is really campaigning for. He would love to be Governor, but with automatic ballot access, McDermott says Libertarians can start eroding what he calls the "concentration of power" that the two main parties have.

"We're doing it so the people of New York are empowered to be able to get on the ballot and start winning elections and I think it's going to be a game changer. And all I need is fifty thousand votes."

Still, fifty thousand is a lot, especially when you don't have the ad money and main stream media coverage that the major parties have.

McDermott's first stop of the day is at a social media production company, where he films a series of short infomercials that can be uploaded and shared cheaply. Then he visits WUSB, Stony Brook's college radio station where Bruce Alan Martin hosts a libertarian talk show in between updates on the next big solar eclipse in 2017.

For ten minutes, McDermott has the ears of maybe a thousand people. He lambasts the state board of elections for placing him at the bottom ballot where voters can easily get confused. McDermott says professional politicians use the board of elections to stack the deck to keep average people like him out of office.

"Would that be better if I spoke quicker and was more polished, had on a five thousand dollar suit and a bodyguard behind me. I'm just one of the people. And if we get fifty thousand votes then that means we have the ability to put one of the people on the ballot in every election and we'll start winning seats starting next year."

Credit Charles Lane
McDermott during an interview at WUSB, the college radio station at Stony Brook University. He complains main stream media refuse to cover him because he is "just a blip" not worthy of coverage.

Election officials point out that bipartisan boards of elections date back to the state's Constitution of 1894 and that it is more fair than, say a state like Connecticut, where a single elected official oversees the elections.

But Howie Hawkins, the Green party candidate for Governor, says it is those bipartisan commissioners who keep the minor parties out.

"The major parties get commissioners, the minor parties don't. That should be civil service jobs, they should not be linked to partisan politics," Hawkins says.

The campaign for Democrat Andrew Cuomo did not respond to multiple queries and the campaign for Republican Rob Astorino declined to comment on whether the state election system is fair.

"I don't think it's possible for a so-called average person who has not broken into politics at a lower level and worked their way up through the system to win a major statewide office," says Larry Levy, dean of the National Center of Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

But that may not be a bad thing, Levy adds.

"People here are fairly sophisticated and even though some folks consider politicians to be a dirty word, what they really want are good politicians, professional politicians, who will work hard to get their issues through and block the ones they oppose."

McDermott calls himself an average guy, but admits that not many average people run governor.

Last week after a debate with Cuomo, Astorino, and Hawkins in Buffalo, McDermott drove home opting to sleep in his car rather than spend money on a hotel. 

Credit AP Photo/Gary Wiepert
AP Photo/Gary Wiepert
New York State Gubernatorial Candidates Republican candidate Rob Astorino, Democratic incumbent Andrew Cuomo, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, Libertarian Party candidate Michael McDermott make closing remarks during a debate Wednesday, Oct., 22, 2014, in Buffalo , N.Y.

McDermott has been divorced twice and foreclosed twice. He says he earned $12,000 this year working as a real estate broker and lives in his daughter's basement. While campaigning he wore pants with a cigarette burn in them and a shirt that still bore the coffee stains from last week.

McDermott frowned and hunched over the steering wheel when told of Levy's comments about the implausibility of a political neophyte successfully navigating New York's political sphere.

"Well, I think that's a real shame and we've lost something," he said.

Then McDermott leaned back.

"Maybe it's a simple approach. And I'm sure I'll get lots of chuckles 'there's that McDermott guy again, that idiot, he doesn't know what's going on.' Well, I'll learn real quick what's going on and I'm going to try to find people who at least feel that they have a right to be represented--truly represented by one of their own."

When asked if his lack of political sophistication was an advantage or disadvantage, McDermott said it helps. Though it may take three or four campaigns to prove it. 

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.
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