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N.Y. Democrat Wins Primary After All

Election: Ruth Messinger narrowly avoids runoff in mayoral race, counter to city's earlier declarations. Opponent Al Sharpton says he'll sue.

September 18, 1997|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Never mind.

More than a week after the Democratic mayoral primary, as the candidates who finished first and second were busy campaigning against each other, the New York City Board of Elections ruled late Wednesday that the runoff wasn't necessary.

Absentee ballots and a recount of voting machines allowed Manhattan Borough President Ruth W. Messinger to limp across the 40% threshold necessary to win the Democratic nomination over the Rev. Al Sharpton. She will oppose Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is the favorite to win a second term in November.

The final tally came amid heavy criticism of the board for its slow count and for waiting a week to begin considering absentee ballots--but the board's executive director, Daniel De Francesco, retorted that the problem rested with badly drawn state laws that need to be changed.

"The Board of Elections has been taking some raps the last few days," De Francesco said. "But when you follow the law and take raps, it is a bum rap. Numbers are numbers. The numbers are there. No one is getting robbed."

After days of laboriously counting paper ballots by hand in scenes that resembled 19th century Tammany Hall politics when the Democratic Party machine ruled New York, the board finally completed its tally and ruled that Messinger had received 40.175% of the vote.

The Board of Election's final tally in the Sept. 9 primary showed Messinger with 165,333 votes--a scant 699 over 40%. Sharpton had 131,739 votes, or 32%. The board will formally certify the results today. Sharpton on Wednesday refused to concede and indicated that he will sue the board for voter fraud.

"No one thought we'd get that many votes," the fiery preacher-turned-politician told supporters at a church rally. "That's why they tried to find some votes tonight."

As Giuliani's supporters looked on with barely restrained glee at the prospect of a shorter general election campaign and at the Democrats' uncertainty, Messinger launched her own broadside against the board while the votes were still being tallied.

"We're in this ridiculous situation," she lamented. "The Board of Elections should finish the job."

Giuliani labeled the board badly antiquated and called upon the state Legislature to modernize its mandate.

Under current laws, the Board of Elections must wait at least a week before the process of counting absentee ballots begins. That leaves precious little time between a mayoral primary and a runoff two weeks later if no candidate can cross the 40% threshold.

Political strategists said Messinger, who was criticized for running a lackluster campaign during the primary, must now assume an added burden in the general election: winning the allegiance of thousands of Sharpton supporters who may well feel disenfranchised by the board's decision.

Unlike the days of Tammany Hall, when political clubs had real clout with Democratic voters, only about 400,000 out of 2.2 million registered Democrats voted in the primary last week.

"One of the reasons for the low turnout was the feeling the city is being run pretty well now," said David Garth, the veteran political consultant who ran Giuliani's successful campaign for mayor four years ago.

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