by Chris Potter
I owe an apology to fans of 19th Ward politics — which is to say "everyone who cares about the future of this great republic of ours." Last Friday marked the first skirmish in a coming Primary Day fight between 19th Ward chair Pete Wagner and his nemesis, Anthony Coghill. And though I wrote a preview of the coming fight last week, I've yet to disclose the outcome of its opening salvos.
The box score: Team Coghill 4, Team Wagner 1. Though the game isn't over.
As I noted last week, Coghill is engaged in a second effort to topple Wagner from his long-held position as chair of the county Democratic committee's 19th ward. That fight will ultimately be settled on Primary Day, when both men hope to elect their allies in some 59 contested races across the 19th. But on March 21, Coghill and Wagner both sought to prevent a handful of each other's supporters from appearing on the ballot at all ... by challenging election petitions in court. And while Coghill was nowhere to be seen in Judge Joseph James' courtroom — much to Wagner's chagrin — he managed to score a few points anyway.
Coghill's attorney, Chuck Pascal, challenged five would-be committeepeople in the area. In one instance, involving confusion over a married couple's signatures, James held off on a decision until a later hearing on March 31. But Pascal convinced James to remove the other four candidates, largely because some of the signatories were not registered Democrats. One petition, for example, contained multiple Republicans — "probably the only Republicans living in the 19th ward," James joked.
Soon after, it was Wagner's turn to take the offense: He and an ally, Kevin Cagni, challenged three candidates for whom Coghill had personally collected signatures. The complaints alleged various problems with the petitions while arguing that, taken together, the errors represented a pattern of misconduct that could amount to racketeering.
But before anyone could get to allegations of fraud — AKA "the juicy stuff" — both of Cagni's challenges got hung up on a question of what the lawyers call "standing." Standing — AKA "the very dry stuff" — is the idea that you can only sue over something that actually causes you an injury. Where petition challenges are concerned, the people who have standing are usually the voters who live in the area in question. And Cagni, although a member of the 19th ward, does not live in the precincts that the candidates were running in.
That might have been enough to end the dispute right there. But Charles Fedel, the attorney representing both Wagner and Cagni, noted that recent court cases had ended a previous requirement that petition circulators actually live in the district. And if the person who compiles a petition doesn't have to live in the district, Fedel argued, neither does the person who challenges it.
"I don't like it," Fedel said, "but that's the state of the law now."
"Oh, I doubt it," said James. But he agreed to hear a fuller argument on the issue for March 31 (when, he somewhat wryly suggested, Fedel could explain how he could overturn 200 years of precedent). That left Wagner's challenge against Linda Vennare.
Before that challenge could be heard, though, Wagner rose to tell James he had subpoenaed both Coghill and the notary who authenticated all three petitions. But the two men "did not appear here today," Wagner observed.
James allowed that subpoenas in an election challenge were binding. But as it turned out, there was no longer a Vennare petition left to argue. Pascal revealed, to Wagner and Fedel's evident surprise, that Vennare had withdrawn her candidacy that very morning, making Wagner's challenge moot. With that, the day's battle ended.
"It's obvious [the withdrawal] was in response to the subpoenas," Wagner said afterwards. "It was a move by counsel to eliminate my challenge — a smart move."
Contacted later by City Paper, Pascal said Vennare had dropped out for "other reasons," and said that Wagner's complaint would have faced an argument over standing too, had it gotten that far. (Pascal did, however, concede "I am as brilliant as Pete Wagner thinks I am.")
Whatever the reason, Vennare's withdrawal scores as a win for Wagner. But he isn't finished. Since "Mr. Squeaky-Clean Coghill signed all three" petitions Wagner said, he would subpoena Coghill for the hearing on the 31st too.
Still, if James rejects Fedel's argument over standing, he could decide to toss Cagni's challenges then and there. In that case, Coghill would remain mum. Inside the courtroom, anyway.