The making of an election ballot behind the scenes

The large black man wore a suit like a well pressed tent. He steered me toward two young black women in the hallway of the County Board of Elections offices with something on his mind.

“I think when a white woman tries to kick two black women off the ballot because they are black, that’s something you should write about,” he says.

The women are Dr. Donna Laws and Carlene Clark, two of 15 candidates running for one opening as a traffic court judge. They are pressed into a narrow passage between rooms filled with election records, rooms which have been transformed into courts.

Setting the scene

These days the election board is not a place so much as a scene. Picture three Common Pleas Court judges plucked from their chambers and transplanted here with this mission: In just three days bang out every possible legal action that could impact the upcoming primary election May 17.

For first-time candidates like Laws and Clark, who both say they’ve entered politics to rid the city of past political ugliness, this is the scene of the first real fight for their political lives. For more entrenched personalities it’s where you start to win races.

Laws said her predicament began when a white woman, the mother of one of her opponents, filed objections to her nomination petitions, she said, to intimidate her and try to keep her from running.

“She said it was a white woman’s seat,” said Laws.

Carlene Clark’s experience was no different. “She actually included paperwork in mine so that I could sign myself off the ballot,” Clark said. “I said ‘thank you.’”

It’s ‘just’ politics

Both women feel the comments and actions of Donna Augment, the challenger to their nomination petitions, are a prime example of the old time bully politics that today’s candidates should avoid.

But Augment, a white woman with short spiked hair who looks to be about 60, walks these halls passing friends at every turn – white and black. She calls workers here by their first names. A lawyer walking the halls bends to get the attention of lively Aiden Patrick Laughlin, her great grandson, whom she pushes in a stroller.

Augment has lead the 33rd Ward in Northeast Philadelphia off-and-on for a total of 12 years and she sees the racial balancing of political tickets as a key to her success. And to the Democratic Party’s success.

Augment lists off the racial identity of the existing battery of traffic court judges on her fingers: “three white males; one white female; one black male; two black females,” she says. “I think it should be balanced to reflect the city.”

And since the seat up for election on the traffic court belongs to a white woman, it would only be right for a white woman to retain that seat, Augment believes. She says that white woman should be her daughter, Marnie Augment-Loughrey.

Challenge your challengers

To get this done, Augment has spent so much time at the election board over the last several days, pouring over records of those who signed nomination petitions, that she didn’t even have time to celebrate her 47th wedding anniversary. Together with another volunteer for her daughter’s campaign she is challenging 9 of the remaining 15 candidates.

Near the elevators a lawyer asks Augment how the hearings are going.

“If you know what you’re doing,” she says. “We just do what we do, and we mow them down.”

This strategy is common to all races in the city. Experienced candidates and front runners send proxies in the form of attorneys who fight for the rights of the voters, often campaign volunteers like Augment, filing challenges against other candidates. In most cases, the less experienced and less well funded candidates are there in person to defend their place on the ballot.

In “Courtroom 3,” otherwise known as the Election Material Storage room, Judge James Lynn’s territory was overrun by reporters Monday waiting to catch the outcome of a challenge to Milton Street’s nomination as a Democratic mayoral candidate. The challenge was known as incumbent Mayor Michael Nutter’s work. It alleged that Street did not live in Philadelphia over the last several years, including the time he was in prison. Mayor Nutter lost that fight.

Elsewhere Judge Chris Wogan berates Damon Roberts, a candidate for the Second District City Council seat, because his lawyer is not there. Wogan later apologizes when he learns the mix up is the fault of another judge. Still, the hearing over challenges against Roberts begins without Roberts’ lawyer. For the opposition, Kevin Greenberg, a lawyer who some associate with Second District candidate Kenyatta Johnson, accuses Roberts of forging his election petitions.

Many are simply scrambling to survive the madness of this three-day blitz at the County Board of Elections. But for the more politically savvy candidates, it’s simply one step on a longer campaign trail.

Thus, when Roberts’ case breaks for the day, the accused candidate leaves the makeshift courtroom to do a video interview in the hallway for a documentary about his council run.

The challenger in person

Marnie Augment-Loughrey arrives late in the process to see how everything is shaping up. Donna Laws survived her challenge and will remain on the ballot. The same is true for Carlene Clark, who’s allegedly fraudulent circulator was only a divorcee using her maiden name, the judge found. 

Like a family business, Augment-Loughrey has learned how to run for political office from her mother and she shares those feelings of entitlement. She is frustrated that so many candidates have cropped up for the judge’s seat on traffic court after she has put in so much effort.

“I’ve worked for a year for this seat,” she says.

Augment-Loughrey believes in her mothers words: “Everybody [gets] their ethnic group to represent them.” It’s not about setting limits on certain groups, she says, but about making sure city government reflects the city itself. She says she probably would not have run for traffic court if it hadn’t been the seat of a white woman up for election.

In a quiet spot in the hallway between hearings, someone asks Donna Augment about her health. Seven years ago she was given six months to live.  She calls it the same cancer that killed Farah Fawcett, to keep things simple. Chemo, 48 rounds of radiation and one heart attack later, Donna Augment is still ready for a fight regardless of how people like her personal politics or the way she marshals the family business.

“She’s the Eveready Bunny,” her daughter says.

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