September 10, 2008

Out of bounds - An Independent state Senate candidate may get sued out of contention


The last time I saw Scott Ritcher out, about six weeks ago, he was gathering signatures in the dim light of the outdoor patio at Nachbar, the trendy Germantown pub. He kept a silver clipboard case tucked under his arm. Each time a petition sheet filled up, it went into the case. 

Ritcher needed 100 people to sign a petition to get his name on the November ballot, as the Independent candidate for state Senate in the 35th district, which covers much of central Louisville. In Kentucky, unless you belong to one of the two major political parties, you must gather the signatures of 100 registered voters who reside in your district and officially request that your name appear on the ballot. 

Ritcher gathered 105, and delivered his nominating petition to the Secretary of State’s office last month. 

Then last week, Denise Harper Angel, the Democratic incumbent running for re-election, filed suit against Ritcher, the Secretary of State and the Jefferson County and state Boards of Elections, alleging that 18 of the 105 signatories live outside District 35. Angel is asking that votes for Ritcher not be counted. 

“That’s a straightforward requirement in order to be on the ballot,” says Jennifer Moore, chairwoman of the Kentucky Democratic Party. The party examines all petitioning candidates for irregularities, Moore says. 

Ritcher delivered a letter to Angel’s lawyer Monday, asking her to drop the suit and let the race — already likely to turn in her favor — play out. In an e-mail blast Sunday, Ritcher asked supporters to call and e-mail Angel’s Senate and home offices and ask of her the same. As of Tuesday, more than 100 people had signed a petition of similar effect on Ritcher’s website. 

Ritcher says Angel is trying to sue her way back into office, and that if he is disqualified, voters will have no real choice — Republican John Albers, whose name will also appear on the ballot, was arrested last month and charged with felony wanton endangerment, menacing and fourth-degree assault, accused of physically confronting a man he claims stole from him, then firing at him with a handgun. 

In a hearing Monday evening, Judge A.C. McKay Chauvin gave Ritcher — who is representing himself — until Sept. 24 to file a response with the Jefferson County Circuit Court. While it is too late for his name to be removed from the ballot, if the judge decides against Ritcher, votes for him would automatically be disqualified. 

Amy D. Cubbage, an attorney representing Angel who volunteers her services for the KDP, said during the hearing that her client wants finality in the matter before the Nov. 4 election. Kentucky law is sympathetic in this area, allowing for quick decisions on suits that pertain to current elections. 

Angel did not return calls seeking comment by press deadline. 

Maps courtesy of Kentucky Legislative Research Commission: LEFT: The 35th state Senate District was a glorified square in 1996. RIGHT: By the time the state legislature got a hold of it in 2002, it came to look more like Gorbachev’s birthmark. The move created a district that is some 70-percent Democratic.
Maps courtesy of Kentucky Legislative Research Commission: LEFT: The 35th state Senate District was a glorified square in 1996. RIGHT: By the time the state legislature got a hold of it in 2002, it came to look more like Gorbachev’s birthmark. The move created a district that is some 70-percent Democratic.

Known mostly for his contributions to the indie scene as the leader of the band Metroschifter, Ritcher came into a brief reputation as a quixotic candidate for the unheard 10 years ago, when he ran for mayor on the Reform Party platform. He got around 2 percent of the vote, losing to Democrat Dave Armstrong. 

His state Senate campaign is largely a ground effort that appeals to the more idealistic tendencies of the average voter: Ritcher wants better housing and medical care for Kentuckians, to simplify the tax code and end taxpayer subsidies for profitable companies. He has raised only a few thousand dollars, and while his yard signs are fairly abundant in areas of Germantown and the Highlands, his reach is not as broad as that of a candidate from a major political party. 

It is a stark contrast to Angel’s campaign, which has raised about $45,000 this year. Her donors are mostly individuals, but the list also includes big corporations like Citigroup, Eli Lilly (the pharmaceutical company) and Humana. 

Ironically, much of Angel’s financing comes from outside her district, a fact not lost on Ritcher. He is campaigning, in part, to remove corporate interests from government, and has publicly asked Angel to return her corporate donations and pledge to accept funding only from individuals. 

Angel, whose history in public office dates to 1990, when she became Jefferson County’s property valuation administrator, has not responded.

Ritcher acknowledges now that not all the people who signed his petition live in District 35. He says three-quarters of the signatories disputed in the suit — most of whom are registered Democrats — live within 2,000 feet of the district boundaries, some of which are difficult to ascertain. Ritcher claims that even the map provided by the Secretary of State’s office is missing some of the smaller streets.

There doesn’t appear to be any wiggle room in campaign law on the matter. However, this raises an intriguing question: Why does District 35 look like Gorbachev’s birthmark?

The easy answer is that Kentucky’s public officeholders have rigged district boundaries to benefit their own parties, otherwise known as gerrymandering.

Every 10 years, after census data is released, the General Assembly determines new districts. The current boundaries were signed into law in 2002, and follow mostly along county lines — with the exceptions of Jefferson and, to a less dramatic degree, Fayette and Kenton counties. 

There are eight Senate districts in Jefferson County, and the 35th is probably the most awkwardly shaped. It includes a number of sharp lines and zigzags to include major points, like Louisville International and GE’s Appliance Park, and some 70 percent of registered voters there are Democrats.

In the ’90s, District 35 was a glorified square. 

“Every time they do the redistricting, we try to get them to appoint a nonpartisan board or commission to try and divide it fairly,” says Richard Beliles, director of the Kentucky branch of Common Cause. “(We’re) getting more and more Democratic districts and more and more Republican districts, and making it less competitive. That’s been the process, the way it’s been going, which I don’t think is in the public interest.”

Common Cause is currently working to establish fairer redistricting laws in 10 states, including Indiana, says spokeswoman Mary Boyle.