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NOV 05 - NOV 12, 2015

Despite Dyster Re-Election, GOP Wins Big Across County

Deborah Eddel

NOV 05, 2015

Elliot Spitzer and Francine DelMonte
Randy Bradt
Mayor Art Pappas
Jim Riester
Mark Grozio and Dennis Virtuoso
Joel Maerten
Joe Jastrzemski
Dan Quinn, City Clerk
Anne McCaffrey

WHEATFIELD

The mood at Niagara County Republican Party headquarters Tuesday was frenetic.

While most Republicans at the St. Johnsburg volunteer fire hall that sits on the border of Wheatfield and North Tonawanda milled about, drinking slightly-chilled beer and flat, oversweet pop, a coterie of top Niagara County GOP brass—including former Niagara County Republican Chairman Henry Wojtaszek—were tabulating numbers from various campaigns.

Former State Sen. George D. Maziarz, was watching the race for Niagara County Clerk attentively—this was, after all, his old office two decades ago.  Finally, convinced that the numbers were bearing out a victory by Republican candidate Joe Jastrzemski, he flashed a “thumbs-up” sign to Jastrzemski’s wife, Kathy.

Meanwhile, Niagara Falls GOP chief Vince Sandonato was checking and re-checking numbers on a computer spreadsheet being constantly updated by Wheatfield Councilman Larry Helwig, shaking his head in disbelief as numbers rolled in affirmed a third-term win for Paul A. Dyster, the embattled Democratic mayor of Niagara Falls.

Noticeably absent were prominent Republican figures from Pendleton—where Republican candidates swept every office, ending a dozen years of Democratic rule—and Lockport, where Mayor Anne McCaffrey was being returned to office, but has an uncertain future with a Common Council that is, at best, divided between Republicans and Democrats.

This was the snapshot at roughly 9:15 Tuesday night.

NIAGARA FALLS

That’s not quite how my day had begun.

I had been embedded with the Republicans for much of the afternoon, watching their get-out-the-vote operation in Niagara Falls.  The first signs of worry began to creep into the GOP camp shortly after 3 p.m., when tabulation of numbers from several key precincts showed too few GOP targeted voters showing up here.

While panic was setting in with Falls Republicans about their plans to topple Dyster, county GOP leaders were feeling increasingly confident not only of a Jastrzemski win by mid-afternoon, but also of holding all 11 Republican seats, and possibly picking up one or two in the Falls.

Leaning against a table at the GOP’s makeshift headquarters at the Accardo Agency, I asked Wojtaszek what I should be watching.

“Three things. First, Joe Jastrzemski and Jamie Moxham. My gut says Joe takes it by about 3,000 votes.  It might be more, though. He’s going to sweep the towns, and as long as they have decent turnout, he wins in a walk,” Wojtaszek said. (Wojtaszek’s 3 p.m. projections would prove only slightly optimistic; Jastrzemski’s margin over Moxham was 2,418 at press time, but absentee ballots may expand his lead.)

I asked if the Falls mayoral race driving voters to Moxham was a concern.

“That was always a concern for us, because it was always the Democrats’ strategy,” Wojtaszek told me. “It won’t even be a factor today. We took a lot of steps to make sure it didn’t affect us countywide.”

Wojtaszek, who, a dozen years ago shepherded Republicans from a 9-10 minority in the County Legislature to a 14-5 majority, tells me he is confident about Republicans’ chances there as well.

“The closes races for the Legislature will be the ones inside Niagara Falls. Every seat outside the Falls is going Republican.”

This is a statement of fact from the tall, good-looking man still seen in many circles as the de facto leader of county Republicans; there is no hesitation on his part.

I ask about Democratic Chairman Nick Forster’s repeated vows to take the seat being vacated by outgoing Legislature Chairman Bill Ross of Wheatfield.

“Becky Wydysh will win by at least 10 points,” he told me.  (At press time, Wydysh’s margin was closer to 8 percentage points; still an impressive win.)

Wojtaszek’s estimates did not all err on the high side of his candidates’ numbers; in his own North Tonawanda district, he boldly predicted “Randy [Bradt] by 400.”

The actual election night tally put first-term lawmaker Bradt over NT School Board President Colleen Osborn by 639 votes—a 63 percent to 37 percent blowout.

Wojtaszek later told me he was caught off-guard by the size of Bradt’s win, part of a GOP wave that locked down North Tonawanda yet again.

LOCKPORT

The exuberance in Wheatfield was dampened somewhat as negative reports trickled in from Lockport, where a late-breaking revelation that the GOP’s candidate in the 2nd Ward—the most Republican-leaning ward in the city—had failed to pay taxes on a property she owned left Republican hopes of retaining a working majority in city government severely constrained.

This left Anita Mullane, a Democratic bulldog backed heavily by unions and with views normally out of step with the 2nd Ward’s voters, the only viable alternative. Mullane, who won by a three-vote margin in a special election a year ago, cruised to an easy victory over her challenger.

All the best efforts of Lockport GOP honcho Adam VanDeMark to stave off a governing crisis in the Lock City would come to naught when the venerable Joe Kibler, alderman-at-large and a loved figure among not only Eastern Niagara County Republicans and city youth, would lose a bruising citywide battle to challenger Joe O’Shaughnessy, a Democrat whose entire campaign boiled down to his complaints that the city’s decision to contract with Twin City Ambulance instead of costly unionized city fire department EMTs somehow left him in jeopardy because of his own failing health.

O’Shaughnessy’s victory, by around 250 votes, leaves the Lockport Council divided with three Republicans and three Democrats. Unfortunately for Lockport’s GOP leadership, however, only one of the three Republicans was the initial party-backed candidate.

It will be up to VanDeMark, McCaffrey, and former Niagara County GOP Chairman Mike Norris to negotiate a workable government with newcomers Joe Oates and Mark Devine. Oates, an outspoken opponent of government excesses, seems well-suited to advancing Republican and conservative concerns, though he and McCaffrey are likely to bump heads.

Devine, on the other hand, is an enigma to Republican leaders here. A longtime Republican who agrees with the party on many issues, he is also a retired city firefighter and supporter of the firefighters’ union that has been locked in a contract war with McCaffrey since shortly after she became mayor.

Republicans close to VanDeMark say he is hopeful he can build a political relationship with Devine, who he considers a personal friend, and who he is said to respect for his commitment to his ideals.

The question, then, for Devine will be whether he throws in his lot with union-backed Democrats, or works with his own party going forward.

PENDLETON

Meanwhile, even as Republicans in Lockport were watching their decade-plus with near-total control of city government seriously jeopardized, Republicans in Pendleton were launching into a boisterous celebration at their town headquarters as results from Pendleton’s six voting districts showed a Republican wave here had swept out 12-year incumbent Democratic Town Supervisor Jim Riester and taken every single townwide office on the ballot.

This was mirrored at Republican HQ in Wheatfield, where a loud cheer rang out in the room as the vote tallies in Pendleton splashed across a projection screen, showing Riester had been defeated by political newcomer Joel Maerten, chief of the local volunteer fire company.

Credit for flipping Pendleton to red—one of the GOP’s brightest points of the night—was hard to pin down, though many suggested that leaders of the town GOP had perfectly capitalized on Riester’s being “asleep at the wheel.”

Also boosting Pendleton Republicans’ efforts was a ham-handed decision by Riester’s town assessor, Kelli Coughlin, to send letters to veterans across town cancelling a popular tax exemption afforded to those who have served. Those letters, which arrived at most Pendleton addresses on Monday morning, are seen by many as the final nail in Riester’s coffin.

“We like veterans here,” one Pendleton Republican told me gruffly in a Wednesday morning phone interview.

Also buoying Pendleton Republicans’ chances was the town justice candidacy of Niagara County Sheriff’s Lt. Kevin Mack. Mack, who squared off against former AFSCME union head Ed McDonald, positively crushed his opponent.  Many point to McDonald’s questionable decision to attack the police in a townwide mailer as a pivotal moment in the campaign.

Mack, whose homegrown campaign was largely managed by his wife, is said to have spent the entire summer and fall knocking on virtually every door in this town of 6,500 on the Erie Canal. He was widely viewed as a favorite heading into the final stretch, but McDonald’s political mailer—which questioned if Mack, a 32-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office could be trusted to be fair as a judge—may have actually boosted Mack’s vote share, and helped Maerten against Riester.

Meanwhile, Pendleton’s Democratic chairman, Jim Sacco, once vice chairman of the Democrats’ county organization, emerges as perhaps the biggest loser of the night, with his entire party swept from power in town government and town Republicans ready to put their own team in place. Given the heavy Republican registration tilt in Pendleton, Democrats will have a nearly impossible road back to power here.

LEWISTON

County Republicans were also watching Lewiston intently, waiting for late-reporting precincts to trickle in.

While Republican Supervisor candidate Steve Broderick ultimately won a comfortable victory, it was narrower than previous reporting here projected.

With a 317-vote margin, Broderick easily bested Democrat politician Mark Briglio, the outgoing deputy supervisor—a 10-point win, but not the 20-point margin Lewiston Republicans had long planned.

“Lewiston’s future is bright!” Broderick proclaimed confidently as his lead became insurmountable.

Meanwhile, Lewiston’s other big-ticket contest seems to have ended badly for a once-powerful Democratic figure, former Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte.

DelMonte, who was attempting a comeback here, is still in the fight for the second of two seats on the Lewiston Town Board—though most political bookmakers see her odds as less-than-even.

That’s because she is trailing fellow Democrat Robin “Rob” Morreale by 20 votes, who is currently in second place.  And, while 162 absentee ballots remain to be counted, many voters who cast ballots for her are likely to have also voted for Morreale.  Republican leaders also expressed increasing optimism as the evening wore on that a significant number of ballots likely contain votes for first-place finisher Bill Geiben and fourth-place finisher Bill Conrad, which makes DelMonte’s task even tougher.

“The math gets very hard for Francine,” Lewiston Republican Chairman Karl Frankovitch told us.

Meanwhile, Republican efforts in Lewiston and Bergholz to turn out the vote for Ross’s replacement, Wydysh, were going better than planned.

NORTH TONAWANDA

The same news was playing out in North Tonawanda, where tabulators were tracking another County Legislature contest. As precinct after precinct in North Tonawanda’s 9th east side came in showing lopsided margins for Bradt, once considered Forster’s top target due to his combative style, local Republicans were clapping NT GOP Chairman Mike Carney on the back.

Two months ago, they told me, Republicans invested enormous effort—much of it captained by Carney—in ensuring a big win by Bradt.

“Randy’s our guy, he’s doing a great job, and Nick Forster failed badly,” is how Carney put it to me as he waited for one sluggish precinct in the 1st Ward to report. “We’re looking at a margin of 600 votes here.”

Carney and NT Republicans including former Niagara County GOP Chairman Scott Kiedrowski were quietly celebrating a night of easy wins for citywide offices, with Mayor Art Pappas claiming a 1,000-vote win over his rival, former Democratic County Legislator John Tylec.

“We’re back to business in the morning,” an understated Pappas said. “It’s a good win, but we need to get back to work for NT.”

The numbers mean Pappas, who along with City Clerk-Treasurer Dan Quinn was appointed to his job as the departure of Sen. Robert G. Ortt and his chief of staff, former Clerk-Treasurer Scott Kiedrowski, left a gaping hole at the top of NT government, will begin a full term with a strong mandate.

LOCKPORT

I was stirred from this conversation by a murmur rippling through the crowd at Republican HQ in Wheatfield. Lockport City Treasurer Mike White—a Republican who has been at war with McCaffrey—was losing. Badly. By 60 percent to 40 percent against Democrat Sue Mawhiney.

And yet, a ballot proposition to severely cut the city treasurer’s salary was also going down to defeat by a 59-41 margin.

Sources in the Lockport Republican Party say that the news of White’s defeat was met with wolf whistles and applause at Lockport GOP HQ, located at the city’s Flight of Five Winery—although several White loyalists, mostly from the city’s West End, were said to have been upset by the display.

The battle between White and McCaffrey—each, essentially, blaming the other for the city’s financial woes and monies that had never been properly accounted for by Treasurer’s Office staff—had spilled out onto the ballot.

For the moment, McCaffrey, and her recently-hired finance director, Scott Schrader, who was key to pushing the scaling back of both White’s duties and pay, seem to have prevailed—although many question what White’s next move will be, politically.

NIAGARA FALLS

In the Cataract City, meanwhile, another Wojtaszek prediction was coming true.

Democratic Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso narrowly beat back a challenge by Republican David Zajac, who came within 115 votes of ending the incumbent’s 24-year career.

Many in the GOP credit a last-minute surge by Zajac to effective messaging by Zajac that highlighted his family’s long ties to the city neighborhood that plays host to their funeral home, which has operated since the mid-twentieth century, as well as scrutiny of Virtuoso’s results after a quarter-century in office.

This means that at 52 percent to 47 percent, this was the closest Legislative race—certainly not where Virtuoso expected to end up after what has been one of his more vigorously partisan terms in office.

“I’m proud of what we did,” Zajac told me at Republican headquarters. “We came within five points against a guy who has been there too long. I can’t thank the people who supported me enough.”

Virtuoso, meanwhile, took to Facebook to offer his own reflections roughly an hour after polls closed Tuesday, writing simply, “I WON.”

Meanwhile, as Wojtaszek predicted, the race between Rob Bilson and Mark Grozio in LaSalle proved similarly tight, with Grozio hanging on by 134 votes.

Father-of-five Bilson shrugged and then offered this observation: “Those are just numbers on a screen. I get to go back to my wife and kids. So, I guess I win after all.”

 

 

 

 

 

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