September 18, 2013 12:01 am
They were holding a baby. The St. Bernard was barking. They have bad handwriting.
Allegheny County Judge Joseph James heard every excuse in the book Tuesday. But they were enough to put county council Constitution Party candidate Jim Barr back on the ballot, proving voters had indeed signed his nominating petitions — even if you couldn’t read their writing.
County Republicans challenged Mr. Barr’s papers last month, charging that several dozen of the 289 signatures he collected were illegible or inaccurate. Over Mr. Barr’s protestations, Judge James threw out more than 50 signatures, pushing the third-party candidate beneath the required 250.
If you can get these voters to swear they signed for you, you’re back on the ballot, the judge told him.
Most people would have given up. But not Mr. Barr, who took the judge at his word and subpoenaed dozens of the folks who signed their names to his nominating petitions, calling them to Downtown to the City-County Building.
They showed up en masse Tuesday afternoon, crowding Judge James’ courtroom with knitting, strollers and plenty of exasperated sighs.
“You’ve subpoenaed half of the North Hills,” the judge marveled.
It was an unusual court proceeding. Mr. Barr is not a lawyer; his opponents were. He shuffled through papers and sometimes struggled to make his points clear to Judge James. They challenged almost every witness he called.
And he called plenty.
One man’s signature was challenged because it had a line through it. “I think I was holding the clipboard and it slipped,” he confessed. “It’s pretty hard to sign when you’re holding the door.”
“And when you’re trying to get back inside,” the judge quipped.
Another man had trouble with the dog. “I was trying to hold back a 140-pound Saint Bernard,” he testified.
“But you signed voluntarily, even with the Saint Bernard?” The voter nodded and was dismissed.
Others admitted to getting C’s in Cursive. “My signature is horrible,” one man said. “That’s why I’m here.”
There were plenty of folks who signed “J” instead of “Jim,” or used their married name, or just drew a bunch of lines. But when confronted with real, live voters, all testifying they signed their support for Mr. Barr’s campaign, Judge James waved them all through.
Afterward, Mr. Barr enjoyed his David vs. Goliath victory, thanking the folks who came in to testify. But he had to wonder: Why him?
“I’m a weak challenger,” he said of the District 1 council race. “So why are they coming after me? The system is biased in favor of the two-party system — that’s why I’m running.”
His Republican opponent, Tom Baker, said he just wanted to see justice done. “We wanted to make sure the law was followed,” he said. “It was not a frivolous case.”
Tell that to Justin Sichles, a chemistry teacher from West Mifflin Area High School, who was the last to testify. His signature was pretty bad, he admitted, but at least it’s consistent: He pulled out his driver’s license to prove it.
Afterward, he admitted he wished he had never seen Mr. Barr, or signed his petition. “Usually, I never do,” he said. “But when he asked, I thought, I’ll help a guy out …”
First Published September 18, 2013 12:00 am