GLOVERSVILLE — Political Republican Mayoral candidate William Rowback Jr. has filed a challenge with the Fulton County Board of Elections against the political party petition filed by political newcomer and Black Lives Matter activist Lashawn Hawkins, placing in jeopardy her ability to run on the Democratic Party line for city councilperson-at-large.
While Hawkins missed the Feb. 14 change of enrollment deadline to register as a member of the Democratic Party, she gained authorization to run on the Democratic Party line via a 7-2 vote of the Gloversville Democratic Party Committee on March 11. However, to get on the ballot, she was still required to gather at least 31 signatures from registered Democrats. Hawkins submitted her petition to the county Board of Elections at 10:46 a.m. on March 25, according to records provided by the Fulton County Board of Elections.
Fulton County Republican Election Commissioner Lee Hollenbeck and Democratic Election Commissioner Gerry Ryan confirmed Rowback has challenged Hawkins’ petition on two grounds:
• that she was not legally permitted by state election law to collect the signatures of Democratic Party members, even though she had been authorized by the local Democratic Party to run.
• that Hawkins indicated on her sworn petition that she was a Democrat, which she is not, potentially leaving her exposed to a criminal charge of filing a false instrument.
Ryan said the Fulton County Board of Elections has consulted with the New York State Board of Elections and confirmed that Hawkins’ petition is likely invalid for the reasons cited by Rowback.
“I understand why Lashawn may have been confused because I can understand, having been given the opportunity to run on the Democratic ticket, she might have believed she could carry a petition, and that she was now a Democrat, neither of which is true,” he said.
Hawkins has said she was registered as a Democrat when she was registered to vote in the state of Florida in 2008. However, when she registered to vote for the first time in Fulton County in 2020, she inadvertently left her party affiliation blank. She said she had meant to register as a Democrat and would have changed her registration by the Feb. 14 deadline had she realized she was not registered as a Democrat.
The Fulton County Board of Elections sent Hawkins an email Tuesday notifying her of Rowback’s challenge to her petition.
“I’m meeting with an attorney,” Hawkins said. “It’s a mess, to be honest with you. This is how I feel about it. I came out, and it wasn’t a secret, that I don’t have a lot of knowledge with this.”
Ryan, who is also a member of the Gloversville Democratic City Committee, said he’s not surprised Hawkins didn’t know all of the rules pertaining to the petition process, because he doesn’t know all of them either.
“I’m learning as I go, and I’ve got good people at the state Board of Elections helping me,” Ryan said. “It’s not my role to advise candidates on who they should get to carry their petitions, but the way I interpret our role [at the county board of elections] is to make it as easy as possible to let the candidates get their petitions in.”
Hawkins said she believes an official at the county board of elections advised her to write that she was a Democrat on her petition. Although she isn’t certain who that person was, she knows it wasn’t Ryan. She also said there was confusion when she first attempted to turn in her petition on March 25, when she was told by a board of elections official that she didn’t need a petition because she already had the authorization from the Democratic Party to run on the line. She was later called back to submit her petition anyway.
Ryan confirmed a member of the board of elections staff on March 25 had incorrectly told Hawkins her authorization from the city Democratic Committee meant she would not need to submit her petition, but after discussing the issue, the county BOE determined she did need to file it.
“I was led to where I’m at right now,” Hawkins said. “Everybody who I went out with to get signatures was a Democrat. There was a Democrat with me for every signature that I got, and I did that without even knowing I was supposed to have a registered Democrat with me. That was just me saying I should go out with a witness who is a Democrat in case something went wrong.”
Hollenbeck said he and Ryan will conduct a hearing regarding Rowback’s challenge to Hawkins petition. He said, although it is possible the two election commissioners could disagree, resulting in a stalemate, he does not anticipate that will happen.
“If you read the law, it should be either yes or no, so there should be no stalemate,” Hollenbeck said.
Hollenbeck said the Board of Elections will not determine whether any criminal charges should be filed against Hawkins regarding her having stated she was a Democrat on her petition.
Hawkins announced she would be a candidate for councilperson-at-large during the first week of February, a month before incumbent councilman-at-large Rowback declared he would not be running for reelection on the council, but instead seek the Republican nomination for mayor against incumbent Democratic Mayor Vince DeSantis.
Rowback’s announcement was shared with political newcomer Wayne Peters, a retired sheriff’s k-9 deputy who is seeking the Republican nomination for councilman-at-large, potentially setting up a November matchup between a retired law enforcement officer and a BLM activist.
But Peters will first face a primary election for the Republican nomination for city councilman-at-large against 2nd Ward Councilman Art Simonds. Simonds has indicated he is in the race to help rally Republican support for DeSantis, himself a former Republican. Simonds has said he will also likely file an independent petition to run on the November ballot irrespective of whether he wins the Republican primary against Peters.
Peters said he had heard Rowback was going to challenge Hawkins’ petition, but he said he has no opinion on whether it was a good idea.
“I had kind of heard about it, but I had nothing to do with it as far as having no idea of what it’s all about,” Peters said. “The only thing I heard was she was supposedly not a Democrat, but she was running on the Democratic ticket, but I know nothing about that stuff. I have no reaction at this time. I was not involved in it at all.”
Peters said he will not file a complaint with law enforcement regarding Hawkins petition.
“Because, there’s the thing of whether it’s done intentionally or not,” he said. “I had to look into it, but from what I know right now, I’m not 100 percent sure she did anything wrong.”
Simonds said he received no support from the Gloversville city Republican Committee in circulating his petition to challenge Peters, but he has received party support in the past. He said political parties can provide candidates with advice and help getting signatures, and help them to avoid some of the legal problems Hawkins is running into, but without party assistance novice candidates can make mistakes that could result in being kept off the ballot or even criminal charges. He said he didn’t know Rowback was the candidate who challenged Hawkins’ petition.
“He didn’t share that with me, he doesn’t share much with me,” Simonds said. “I don’t really have a fear one way or another, if she runs or doesn’t run. Makes no difference to me personally. I don’t really know that much about her, besides what I’ve read, but I hope she runs. The more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned.”
Hawkins rose to prominence in Fulton County in 2020 organizing her signature “silent protests” in response to the death of George Floyd. Her protests featured protestors holding up signs with messages about racial injustice, but not chanting or marching or other activities that might be vulnerable to agitators seeking to turn peaceful protests into violence and property destruction.
Becoming active in the BLM protests of 2020 led Hawkins to quit her career working for Lexington Center and form a nonprofit called “I Can Breathe And I Will Speak.”
Hawkins was invited into the state mandated police reform process for Fulton and Montgomery counties working with sheriffs Richard Giardino and Jeff Smith. She also worked on the Gloversville police reform, serving on the police reform committee with Democratic Mayor Vince DeSantis and city Republicans like Rowback and Fourth Ward Councilwoman Ellen Anadio.
Hawkins said she’s unsure of Rowback’s motivation in challenging her petition.
“I’m not worried about his petition and the investigation that he’s got going on,” she said.
The city Common Council formed a committee in January to probe Rowback’s conduct with respect to allegations made by city Department of Public Works Director Chris Perry. The committee, which has subpoena power, has not yet released a report.
Rowback did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Rowback attended both of Hawkins’ BLM rallies in the city of Johnstown and Gloversville over the summer and it was Rowback who introduced the resolution to adopt the Gloversville police reform, which received unanimous bi-partisan support from Republicans and Democrats on the council.
Rowback has had a history of seeking law enforcement or other sanctions against political rivals in the city. In 2017 Rowback filed a criminal complaint against then Republican Mayor Dayton King, alleging King committed an act of official misconduct when he spoke about Rowback’s personnel file from his decades of service as a city firefighter during a live radio debate on WENT in Gloversville. The issue at stake in Rowback’s personnel file had been whether he allegedly went bowling on a sick day, and may have been passed up for promotions due to the incident. Rowback has denied bowling during the sick day, but said it was his wife who had been ill, and that they had gone to a bowling alley to watch others play.
King ultimately defeated Rowback in the 2017, but only after an initial count of the votes showing Rowback was the winner was overturned by the Fulton County Board of Elections when officials discovered an accidental overcounting of ballots for Rowback. King would later plead down the official misconduct charge, but would then later in 2018 be arrested for stealing some office stamps from city hall and would resign as part of a plea deal.
Simonds said he believes the Republican party in Gloversville has changed largely due to Rowback’s leadership. He said the city Republicans started turning on the elected Republicans on the council after Rowback became councilman-at-large in 2019, and he believes city political discourse has become “coarser.”
“We had three guys on the council with more than 10 years experience, and the city Republicans didn’t ask one of us to run for councilman-at-large?” Simonds said. “So, I decided to run, because I’m not going to allow the administration of the party to decide who’s going to run.”
Hawkins said she intends to run as an independent even if her bid to run on the Democractic line is rejected due to flaws in her petition.
Ryan said the Fulton County Board of Elections will hold a hearing on Tuesday to determine the fate of Hawkins’ political petition.