But Kari's opponents saved the most scurrilous attacks for the general election. In her recent mailings, Gwen Johnson accuses Kari of intimidating and harassing seniors. Why would Gwen say such a strange thing? To understand the source of this bizarre accusation, we need to take a step back and remember all of the controversies surrounding absentee ballots in Poughkeepsie--and Gwen's starring role in those controversies.
Gwen pretends to be an innocent when it comes to problems with absentee ballots. But of course, Gwen has been at the center of these problems in the past. All of this has been carefully chronicled by the Poughkeepsie Journal . Back in 2011, the outcome of a close primary battle between Gwen Johnson and Herman Da'Ron Wilson hinged on one absentee ballot, submitted on behalf of an elderly voter who--when asked later--had no memory of voting. The parties couldn't agree on what to do about that single absentee ballot, which in the end was never opened. Gwen Johnson lost that race to Mr. Wilson. (Later, Democratic Board of Election Commissioner and former Gwen Johnson ally Francine Knapp would lose her job and face criminal charges for tampering with documents and absentee ballots in other campaigns, potentially as early as 2008.)
So, there's a long history of controversy about absentee ballots in Poughkeepsie. That's the context for the Johnson-Rieser primary election battle of September 2015. Both primary races--2011 and 2015-- were so close that the outcome hinged on the absentee ballots. But while the controversies of 2011 emanated from a small race with little significance (a 5-to-5 tie for a relatively insignificant third-party line), the stakes in this year's race were enormous. Just 23 votes separated Johnson and Rieser for the important Democratic Party line, with over 70 absentee ballots out. Given the fact that the outcome of the race might depend on absentee ballots, and because of all of the controversy in the past, the Rieser campaign asked Judge Christine Sproat to oversee the process of opening and counting all of the absentee ballots. We wanted to make sure that there was no ballot tampering and that all the ballots were counted accurately.
We also asked an investigator to interview the voters who had sent absentee ballots. This is standard procedure. Absentee voters who require assistance can designate an agent to serve on their behalf--help them fill out the ballot, etc. We wanted to make sure that no one else--i.e., someone not listed as the agent--was interfering. We wanted to protect these voters from intimidation by someone who wasn't authorized to assist them. (More on this in a moment.)
Gwen Johnson also claims that our attorney, Joshua Ehrlich, "was going to drag these sick OLD seniors into court in their wheelchairs." If that sounds ridiculous and untrue, that's because it is. Mr. Ehrlich obviously never said that, nor did he challenge anyone's ballot. Our attorney's concern was not voter fraud by seniors, but ballot-tampering by Gwen Johnson or anyone associated with her campaign. We wanted to protect seniors from anyone who might intimidate them or tamper with their ballots. Mr. Ehrlich talks about his concerns about ballot tampering on the Poughkeepsie Journal's video interview, which can be accessed here.
Now, the big reveal: did our investigation uncover evidence of ballot tampering and intimidation by Gwen Johnson? The answer is: Yes. Two elderly voters said that Gwen Johnson had tampered with their absentee ballots. A third voter claimed that the "bully woman" was well known for pressuring seniors to vote for her.
Here are the investigator's affidavits for Voter 1 and Voter 2 (to protect their identity here, we've covered up their names, voter #, and descriptions). Voter 1 says that Gwen Johnson "told her what to write on the form" and "took the ballot with her." Voter 2 says that Gwen Johnson actually filled out the form and took it with her. Gwen Johnson was not the voters' listed agent and she was not authorized to fill out or handle these ballots on their behalf. Simply put, Gwen Johnson broke the rules. In fact, it would be hard to find a clearer case of unauthorized ballot-tampering than this.
Here's the Poughkeepsie Journal article about the ensuring investigation.
Voter 3's case is different. Voter 3's ballot wasn't tampered with. This voter was able to fill it out and drop it in the mail box herself. However, as the investigator was leaving, this voter volunteered some interesting information. She said: "The 'bully' woman with the ballots goes around and tells people, the older ones, what to write on the ballots." She also told the investigator that he should ask other residents at the nursing homes if they had ever been bullied too.
As for Gwen and the gun lobby: after she stood with pro-gun Republicans at a press conference in the spring (organized to oppose a gun-storage measured proposed in the Poughkeepsie city council), she earned the support of radical gun-rights advocates and the gun lobby. One of the most vocal "gunners" in Poughkeepsie wrote a letter of support for Gwen in the Journal on September 5, 2015; Jacob Rieper of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association (NYSRP) (which staunchly opposes New York's SAFE Act) sent out mass emails encouraging support for Gwen; and the group began sending mailers to Poughkeepsie residents, paid for by the NYSRP Political Victory Fund. My friend Werner received this mailer (see below) just before the primary election. It's an amateurish piece, and obviously didn't work very well, but makes the point pretty clearly: Gwen Johnson is supported by the gun lobby.
All of this information was forwarded to the Board of Elections. We hope that the county BOE and District Attorney's offices will do a better job of protecting voters from this kind of unauthorized third-party interference in the future.
There's my beautiful family. I'm the rakish dude in the background. This was taken during a visit to Sophie's grandmother in California (Sophie's other wonderful grandmother lives here in the Hudson Valley). Nice work Kari--not bad for a selfie!
Then, just before the primary election, voters received the infamous "mystery mailer." It's full of crude caricatures, punctuation errors, out-of-context quotations, and factual errors. (Our favorite is the bizarre statement on line four. We've never lived in Red Hook, nor have we ever backpacked there!) This document is so outrageous that it prompted a state investigation (as the following Poughkeepsie Journal article explains). The author is unknown. The document only claims to have been produced by the "True Blue Democrats."
WE DID IT!
Kari Rieser Defeats Dutchess County Legislator Gwen Johnson
Challenger Wins Rare Landslide Victory over Incumbent
Poughkeepsie, NY, November 3, 2015: In a landslide result Tuesday night, Kari Rieser defeated Gwen Johnson, the incumbent legislator for Dutchess County, District 9. According to the Dutchess County Board of Elections, Rieser, who ran on the Democratic Party and Working Families Party lines, ended the night with 728 votes (64%) to Johnson’s 393 votes (35%).
Asked about the lopsided result, Rieser said: “It’s pretty simple. Poughkeepsie residents are fed up with the status quo. They’re ready for positive changes and they want county government to be an active partner in achieving progress.” Rieser continued: “In the legislature, I’ll do exactly what I said all along. I’ll work with the city to implement the Main Street revitalization plan, while pressuring the county to help us build a youth center downtown instead of this ridiculously expensive jail.”
On a night when most incumbent legislators kept their seats, Rieser’s rout was especially notable. Incumbent Gwen Johnson, who had lost the Democratic line to Rieser in the September primary, ran on the Independence Party line. Rieser had earned all major endorsements, including that of current County Legislator Barbara Jeter Jackson, Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation, and the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee.
This is Rieser’s first elected position. She is a former business owner, community volunteer, and mother of four year-old Sophie. “Sophie was the inspiration for this campaign,” said the County Legislator-Elect. “My husband Andrew and I wanted to show her that by working together, we can strengthen our communities and help working families in this city thrive. And I wanted to show my daughter that strong women can change the world.”
Rieser also thanked her opponent. "Let's take a moment to honor my opponent in this campaign, Gwen Johnson. Listen, serving in public office is hard work. During her ten years in office, she no doubt gave up countless evenings to attend committee meetings and community events, while fielding endless constituent calls. She deserves our thanks for her years of diligent effort and service on the city council."
Rieser continued: "This was a tough campaign in which both sides made sharp contrasts. But it was never personal, for either candidate. This race was always about the issues, like which upticket candidates to support, how to best assist seniors with absentee ballots, how to keep us safe from guns, and how to revitalize downtown, and whether we need a big new jail. She and I were on opposite ends of all of these issues, obviously. But I never doubted, and have always admired, Gwen Johnson's strong faith in God and her deep feelings about Poughkeepsie and its people. It was an honor to run against Gwen Johnson. And now, with her political career drawing to a close, I hope everyone will join me in thanking her for her years of dedicated public service, and in wishing her the very best in all of her future endeavors."
While I'm disappointed in the negative attacks by my opponent, I'm staying focused on the things that matter to the residents of Poughkeepsie, like bringing jobs to Main Street, protecting children from guns, and creating alternatives to incarceration. I'm busy talking to voters, attending meetings, and volunteering in the community. I look forward to earning your vote on November 3 and bringing my energy, fresh ideas, and optimism to the legislature. Together, we can move Poughkeepsie forward!
- Kari Rieser
Andrew Rieser's Statement about Gwen Johnson's Attacks
Like Kari, I've also been too busy to pay much attention to our opponent's attacks. But Gwen Johnson's most recent mailers accusing Kari of "intimidating" and "harassing" seniors... it's just too much. I just can't sit by and let someone spout these slanderous falsehoods about my wife.
Unfortunately, these latest slanders are variations on a theme. I thought it would be useful to assemble a "greatest hits" compilation of Gwen Johnson's most demented and impolitic attacks on Kari and her supporters during this campaign. Although I had a little fun with it at times--it's hard not to chuckle at the ridiculousness of it all--I must admit that reporting these facts makes me quite sad. Gwen's political career started off with such great promise ten years ago. But then it veered disastrously off course. Instead of learning something useful from her primary defeat--e.g., that most voters, especially seniors, don't like bullies who boss them around, and most Democrats don't want their elected officials to support Republican politicians and policies--she seems determined to continue on her new path. Now, she's lashing out meanly and bitterly. No doubt, she was the author of her own primary defeat and I think will lose the general election as well. So I'm not entirely sympathetic. But I do feel sad when a promising career by a fellow Democrat comes to such an undignified end.
So, let's set the record straight: From the very beginning of our campaign, Gwen has been on the attack--attacking Kari, Kari's supporters, and anyone else who share's Kari's vision for moving Poughkeepsie forward. First came nasty Facebook comments accusing Kari of doing the "devil's work." It only got worse--here are screenshots of Gwen Johnson's Facebook page from this summer, including the infamous "Paid Assassin" comment and using a crude slur to describe Kari's supporters. These hateful posts were later removed--you can see why--but not before these screenshots were recorded for posterity.
Gwen's newfound interest in the gun issue is puzzling to observers. She rarely addressed the issue while she was in the city council. Why all of the sudden interest now?
The question is made all the more fraught by her shifting positions in public statements: at one point, reassuring everyone that she doesn't own a gun, then saying she's for the Second Amendment, then saying she supports the SAFE Act. How could one oppose safe-storage but then not oppose the SAFE Act, which gun-rights folks think is much more objectionable? Gwen's stances on other important issues are similarly obscure: for instance, is she for or against this ridiculously expensive $125-200 million proposed jail? Kari's oppositional stance on the jail couldn't be more clear, but where is Gwen?
When faced with questions about her unclear or shifting positions, Gwen's typical response is simply to say that voters should call her and she'll explain it over the phone. Hmmm... is that really how representative democracy works? Voters don't have time to call every single one of the scores of officials who represent them in local, county, state, and federal government. We need our elected officials to communicate effectively in public and explain their votes and positions on issues in clear prose. If they are confusing us so much that we have to call them--that means they haven't done their job of communicating effectively.
Kari has always been a pro-choice progressive Democrat who believes in sensible safe gun-storage measures and comprehensive planning to promote Main Street revitalization; she is opposed to mass incarceration and the proposed new jail. She's never wavered from these positions. But Gwen is all over the map! Depending on her mood, she is either a "progressive Democrat" (August mailer) or stands with "Republican women" like Nan Hayworth (October mailer). That's not bipartisanship--it's flip-flopping or pandering, take your pick.
Given Gwen's mean-spirited attacks and shifting positions, it's not surprising that she lost the primary and that contributions to her campaign dwindled to practically nothing. Meanwhile, Kari has enjoyed support from scores of individuals who have rallied behind her vision to move Poughkeepsie forward. She's proud to have received endorsements and contributions from groups like HVALF and fellow Democrats like Barbara Jeter Jackson, Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee, and the City of Poughkeepsie Democratic Party. Please go to our campaign finance page on the state Board of Election website (http://www.elections.ny.gov/ and do a search by our Filer Id#, which is C04633) to see the list of our supporters. As the Treasurer of the campaign, I'm grateful for the support of our family and friends, and I know they are proud to support Kari. And as a husband, I couldn't be prouder of my wife. Go Kari go!
- Andrew Rieser