A Bay Ridge political back-and-forth which erupted on social media in the wake of the August 3 Summer Stroll on Third has led to questions of legality, and it has more to do with just balloons and tote bags.
Days before the stroll – where liberal activist group Fight Back Bay Ridge distributed stop-sign shaped fans and yellow tote bags filled with literature detailing state Sen. Marty Golden’s voting and driving record, while the pol’s staff handed out nearly the same color yellow balloons with his name on them – the pol’s re-election rep penned a letter urging the New York State Board of Elections (BOE) to investigate the grassroots group, which, Golden’s campaign claims, had failed to register as an independent expenditure committee despite raising funds to unseat the longtime pol.
Following the stroll, objections to Fight Back Bay Ridge’s campaign were also raised on Facebook and Twitter by Golden staffer John Quaglione, in a post that garnered hundreds of comments as area residents debated whether, as Quaglione asserted, the people at the event for Fight Back Bay Ridge were aggressive in their efforts, a complaint that members of the group flatly deny.
The letter, penned by Golden’s campaign spokesperson Michael Tobman, focuses on Fight Back Bay Ridge’s distribution of flyers, as well as its creation of a GoFundMe page to fund the printing of literature as well as “other ideas that will help unseat Marty Golden.”
Tobman has also written to GoFundMe in hopes of getting the site to remove the fundraiser. To date, it has raised more than $1,500 towards its $2,000 goal.
In his letter to BOE Co-Chairs Peter Kosinski and Douglas Kellner, Tobman claims that Fight Back Bay Ridge “is clearly violating a number of provisions to Section 14 of the New York State Election Law by engaging in campaign activities against” the pol, who is up for re-election this November.
The GoFundMe’s description, Tobman continues, “makes it clear that the goal of the effort is to influence the outcome of an election, and that they are fundraising for overt, specific campaign activities.”
To do this, Tobman claims, Fight Back Bay Ridge must have first registered with the BOE as an independent expenditure committee.
The group had its own rebuttal. Its attorney, Bay Ridge resident Eugene Strupinsky, sent the pol’s office a cease and desist letter demanding that Golden’s staffers stop “discouraging and criminalizing” the group’s First Amendment rights to free speech – with Quaglione’s post and subsequent comments made by fellow Golden staffer Arlene Rutuelo, a focal point.
The letter, sent to Golden’s office on August 8, claims that, following the stroll, Quaglione “stated on social media his intent to prevent the group from participating at future strolls” and that Rutuelo, “who approves applications for tables at the event, also publicly claimed the group lacked a permit, and so were in violation of event ‘rules.’”
“My clients don’t need a permit to engage in protected First Amendment activity, nor do they need to rent a table for an act of protest on a public street,” said Strupinsky, who, with his letter, produced proof of threatening comments from local residents which came in response to Quaglione’s post, which he eventually deleted on Facebook, which stated that Fight Back Bay Ridge was “creating hostility” at the Stroll.
“I don’t know if he was acting under your authority as your communications director, but to state such things numerous times, and throughout the weekend, only to finally delete many of these comments when some of your purported defenders offered to bring ‘bats’ and ‘riot gear’ to the next stroll, was irresponsible at best,” Strupinsky wrote, stressing also Quaglione’s original wording, which referred to the scene at the stroll as a “battlefield.”
“We don’t dispute that John Quaglione can complain about us — he has the right to freedom of speech as well,” Fight Back Bay Ridge organizer Mallory McMahon told this paper, “but the problem is that he has traditionally used both his Facebook and his Twitter in a professional capacity.”
McMahon went on to say that since Quaglione so often “is a convoy for Marty’s office,” for example in such Facebook groups as “Bay Ridge Talk” and “Bay Ridge Parents,” it might be hard to determine the difference between a personal post of Quaglione’s and one made on behalf of Golden’s office.
“It was clear, to us, that he was just using his Senate capacity to influence merchants to keep us out of future Strolls,” she contended.
Tensions have always been high between Golden and the group. (Aside from not agreeing politically, Fight Back Bay Ridge has long claimed to be ignored by the state senator and his staff, on both social media – many members blocked by either Golden’s official accounts or those of staffers – and in person, some saying they have been denied the opportunity to meet with the pol, despite being his constituents, and months-long waits.)
As for Tobman’s letter, Fight Back Bay Ridge, which has since begun the filing process to register with the BOE, issued a full statement on the matter, comparing the complaint to “the use of a mallet to swat a mosquito.”
“Everything we say about Marty Golden is true,” said Sally McMahon, one of Fight Back Bay Ridge’s lead organizers. “He can’t attack us on our veracity, so he tries to stop us from telling other people the truth.”
Most recently, the group has focused on the fact that the Republican-led state Senate declined to take up speed camera renewal legislation; Golden — a powerful member of the body’s GOP delegation — has said he supports the effort, which its backers say can save lives, but his detractors say he has done little to push for its passage.
Golden’s campaign, for its part, maintains that that Fight Back Bay Ridge should identify itself as an election effort moving forward.
“Fight Back Bay Ridge, immediately filing as a campaign committee with the Board of Elections when challenged, finally admits what common sense suggested all along,” Tobman told this paper. “Whatever their spin otherwise, Fight Back Bay Ridge is an election effort opposite Senator Golden, and everything they say should be filtered through that lens.”
As of Tuesday, August 14, all of Fight Back Bay Ridge’s paperwork had been sent to the BOE. The group is just waiting on confirmation and finalization, until which, McMahon told this paper, members will not be spending any money “in an election capacity.”
“It is my belief that this was another attempt from Golden’s office to prevent Fight Back Bay Ridge from participating in our neighborhood and exercising our freedom of speech against Golden,” McMahon said, adding that, if all goes through with the BOE, Fight Back Bay Ridge will “now exist as an independent expenditure.”
“It seems like Marty and his staff have inadvertently helped Fight Back Bay Ridge level up,” she said.
As for the cease and desist letter, Tobman responded, “Concerning their lawyer’s letter, which to my mind reeked of nervousness, my response is this: Saying something doesn’t make it so, facts matter, and move on.”