Even as the ballots in the Dyster-Choolokian race wait to be counted, a pattern is emerging across Niagara County: the Democrats, like the Confederate troops at Gettysburg, seem to have overreached and come up short pretty much everywhere.
As we noted in prior analysis, Democratic Party Leader Nick Forster gambled heavily this cycle—and last Thursday almost every roll came up snakeeyes.
The Democrats now limp forward occupying some of the worst tactical ground their party has held in several cycles—a shocking accomplishment when one considers just a year ago Democrats were confidently predicting the demise of the Republican machine that has grown firmly entrenched in Niagara County over the past dozen years.
Yet Democrats failed miserably to capitalize on the political demise of State Sen. George D. Maziarz last year with the political implosion of their candidate, bright young Falls attorney Johnny G. Destino, who failed to break 30 percent on election night. The warning signs were there then.
Six weeks remain until the November elections, but a postmortem is not premature.
First off, there is the dismal picture facing Democrats in the Niagara County Legislature:
When he was elected Democratic chairman three years ago, Forster vowed he would topple the GOP organization that controls county government from the county courthouse in Lockport. In a February 2013 interview with the Niagara Falls Reporter, Forster told us he “plans to field a candidate for every office and is looking for public-spirited Democrats who want to be part of the political process.” Based on Thursday’s results, he is farther from delivering on that promise than ever.
A cocky Forster then promised the GOP majority he was coming after them. “A word to the Republican legislators who for so long have dominated the county government: Don't take Mr. Summer off,” he told the Reporter. Yet quite a few of them did precisely that this year.
Unchallenged in the GOP Caucus are District 1’s Clyde Burmaster, District 7’s Kathryn Lance, District 8’s Rich Andres, District 10’s David Godfrey, District 14’s John Syracuse, and District 15’s Mike Hill. All of them save Syracuse were challenged two years ago. That’s more than half of the Majority’s 11 members!
Democrats are challenging only three incumbents: North Tonawanda’s Randy Bradt in District 9, Lockport and Pendleton’s Tony Nemi in District 11, and Lockport’s William Keith McNall in District 13. Democrats also fielded two candidates in the open-seat races produced by the departure of Legislature Chairman Bill Ross of Wheatfield and Majority Leader Dick Updegrove of Lockport.
Republican Becky Wydysh is running to replace Ross in a district that is shaped like the numeral 7. It crosses the southern half of the Town of Lewiston from the Village of Lewiston to the farmlands of Sanborn, then shoots south through Wheatfield’s western side to Bergholz. While the Village of Lewiston is somewhat favorable turf for Democrats, Sanborn and Bergholz tilt heavily to the GOP.
Her opponent, Democrat Mike Johnson, a former town councilman with deep ties to former Supervisor Steve Reiter, is about as good a recruit as Democrats could get for that district, and yet indicators from the primary aren’t promising for him. While Johnson failed to contest Wydysh’s Conservative and Independence Party lines, Wydysh made a play for the Green and Working Families lines—two parties generally seen as more supportive of Democrat positions.
Two write-in votes were cast in the Green Party primary, and Republicans are fairly confident those votes will add to their tally there when they are opened at the end of this week or the beginning of next.
Republicans are also bullish about a pair of write-in votes cast in the Working Families primary. Should Wydysh win both lines, she will be the nominee of the Republican, Conservative, Green, Working Families, Independence, and Reform Parties. Johnson will only hold the Democratic line.
Add to that a strong campaign by GOP Supervisor candidate Steve Broderick, and Wydysh seems a safe bet to hold Ross’s 2nd District seat for the Red party.
If Democrats have any chance for a GOP upset, it’s probably against freshman lawmaker Bradt. There, North Tonawanda school board member Colleen Osborn is making an effort against the first-termer, who succeeded Supreme Court Justice Paul B. Wojtaszek in the Legislature—and represents both Wojtaszek and his elder brother, former County GOP Chairman Henry Wojtaszek, in county government.
But that is the crux of the Democrats’ problem there. If one examines a map of the 9th District, they quickly realize that the gerrymander that produced the district ensured that Henry Wojtaszek’s house would be in his brother’s district—so much so that the district boundary is half a block away. This is a decidedly Republican district, designed to remain in GOP hands.
It also sits in NT’s most Republican neighborhoods—large, affluent homes on the city’s east side, many of them hard to distinguish from homes in the nearby Amherst suburbs, fill the landscape here, as does the city’s golf course.
NT Republicans tell us they are pleased with a massive win by Bradt on the Independence line, which he held against Osborn by a 66-10 tally.
Bradt will be holding his breath to see if a bold attempt to steal away the Green and Working Families ballots succeeded. Republicans here say signs point to victory, but are being cautious.
“The fog of battle is a bit thick here,” one veteran North Tonawanda GOP operative and ex-marine told us.
Democrats pin their hopes on Bradt’s aggressive personality being out of step with the district. Bradt has shown himself to be a fierce partisan warrior, attacking Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso of Niagara Falls over accusations of a pension-padding scheme and Virtuoso’s ally, Falls Legislator Jason A. Zona, over direct payments of welfare home rental fees to landlords following one landlord’s prominent failure to pay millions in taxes.
Legislator Tony Nemi positively shamed his opponent here in the primary.
Retired Niagara Falls cop Russ DeFranco, a Pendleton transplant, launched an aggressive campaign against Nemi, including a Republican primary challenge—DeFranco is a Republican defector also backed by the Democrats.
Nemi positively mauled DeFranco, taking 60 percent of the vote to DeFranco’s 39 percent in the GOP primary. Unfortunately for DeFranco, that was his best showing of the night, as Nemi bested him with 89 percent of the vote in a high-turnout Independence primary driven by a town justice race in Pendleton. DeFranco failed to make an effort against Nemi on the Conservative line.
The 11th District has proved a nearly impossible nut for Democrats to crack. Two years ago, David Naus, an IBEW-union-backed Democrat running this year for town board, fell to Nemi by 66 percent to 34 percent. Prior to that, the last time Nemi was challenged was in 2009 in his former district, which was entirely in the City of Lockport. Then, Nemi took 61 percent against a Lockport attorney.
With Nemi campaign surrogates quietly assuring us that Nemi now controls every single line except the Democratic line going into November’s election, this looks like as close to a sure thing as a contested race can get.
William Keith McNall beat back an attempt at his line by retired Sheriff’s captain Bob Drury, an official with the local Boy Scout council.
Drury came closer than expected, but still fell to McNall by a 10-point margin—and only challenged the incumbent’s Republican line.
For Drury, who abandoned the GOP to take the Democrats’ backing, this could be an encouraging sign—except it eerily mirrors McNall’s last challenged race, four years ago, when Republican Andrew Chapman, a city alderman with deep ties to a local fundamentalist church, came even closer than Drury in the GOP primary—only to be blown out by 20 points on election night.
Insiders point to Republican McNall’s surprising strength among Democratic voters—many of them teachers who remember his tenure as president of the Lockport Board of Education fondly—and say Drury will be hard-pressed to overcome McNall’s ground game.
Add to that McNall’s long, strong ties with several of the local GOP establishment’s top election strategists, including former party chairman Mike Norris, who lives in McNall’s district, and the signs point to another GOP win here. As one party strategist in Wojtaszek’s inner circle said, “No one is worried about Keith—this is how his elections always go.”
Despite McNall’s organizational strength, however, Drury has a shot, and any stumble by McNall could prove problematic for the incumbent.
Meanwhile, Republicans are salivating about prospects of putting Democrats on the defensive after Democrats failed to take the fight to them on primary night.
In Niagara Falls, a GOP-backed Democratic primary challenge against first-term Legislator Mark Grozio in LaSalle’s 3rd District fell bitterly short, a sign that this district may be trending back to Democrats despite the best efforts of Falls GOP Chief Vincent Sandonato to reclaim his old district.
Grozio, the business manager for the local IBEW, positively crushed his challenger, professional musician Rob Bilson, by a 62 to 38 percent margin. While Republicans here remain optimistic that Bilson’s Democratic voters will stick with him in the general election and pick up Republican support, this is a healthy margin and points to the wisdom of Grozio’s strategy of avoiding controversial headlines in the County Legislature.
However, Republicans close to Sandonato told us that the Niagara Falls GOP is optimistic about Bilson’s apparent snatching of the Working Families line by a 15-11 margin—something that will be confirmed during Friday’s count of absentee and write-in ballots. With Republican, Conservative, Independence, Green and Reform lines all pointing to Bilson, Grozio will have to mount a defense from the Democratic line only.
Republicans seem to have blundered a bit in their own efforts here, coming excruciatingly close to snatching the Working Families line from Democrat Jason Zona—an effort that would have left Zona playing defense for the rest of the campaign season had it succeeded.
Instead, they came up one vote short—and worse for Joe Naccarato, the Republican challenger here in this district that ties DeVeaux to the Town of Niagara, Naccarato was positively thrashed in an Independence Party primary, by a 46-33 margin.
Zona is not completely out of the woods, but with his Working Families line intact and the Republican-controlled Independence line listing him as the nominee, Naccarato is a longer shot than Republicans here would like.
One Democrat who is facing more significant danger than normal this year is Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso.
In a rematch against his 2013 opponent, David Zajac, a school safety officer whose family operates a funeral home here, Virtuoso suddenly finds himself in his worst ballot position ever.
That’s because, despite Virtuoso’s best efforts to steal away both the Conservative and Independence lines from Republican Zajac, he came up short—after besting Zajac in the Independence contest just two years ago. This time, Zajac heavily beat Virtuoso on the Independence line—a sign that either the challenger has been working to re-register voters or Virtuoso has succeeded in alienating part of the electorate.
Meanwhile, Virtuoso held his Working Families line against a challenge by Zajac, while the Green line is anybody’s guess, although the Zajac camp expressed cautious optimism to us Monday.
Virtuoso could find himself facing off against an opponent holding five lines to his two in November—and, having managed just 59 percent against Zajac last time, despite dominating the ballot, this is unfamiliar territory for the veteran lawmaker.
This newspaper finds it doubtful that it will be documenting the Rise and Fall of Dennis Virtuoso just yet, but the veteran clearly has slipped in his primary game.
Further down the ballot, Republicans held off virtually every other attack on their Independence and Conservative lines Thursday, while appearing to have snatched away Working Families and locked down Green lines in a number of other contests.
Mayor Anne McCaffrey has the unenviable task of governing a city that faces problems long familiar to us here in the Cataract City: budget shortfalls, bickering among city officials, and an increasing reliance on the state to bail them out.
And yet, few political observers see her in any danger of failing to win a full term in her own right after her primary night performance.
The early signs on primary night didn’t necessarily point that way. The Democrats coalesced heavily behind a candidate, something their party needs to do to win. But McCaffrey showed she has organizational strength to be reckoned with.
Crushing a Democratic effort to capture the Conservative line by a nearly three-to-one margin, and comfortably holding back an Independence primary challenge by more modest 49-34, McCaffrey moves forward with her four lines—Republican, Conservative, Independence, and Reform—intact. Meanwhile, the McCaffrey camp is signaling that it believes it took the lion’s share of 11 votes cast in a Green primary—meaning that her opponent, Democrat Roger Sherrie is only safely assured one line in November.
It appears Sherrie may—may—have been bested in the Working Families primary, with eight write-in votes to his seven machine votes. If the winner of that contest was Mike Pillot, his Democratic opponent—who, incidentally, Sherrie crushed by a humiliating three-to-one margin—both Democrats will remain on the ballot and split their vote, assuring that, despite the Lock City’s problems—all the Lock City’s myriad problems—McCaffrey wins a full term.
If McCaffrey wins a full term on her own, credit Adam VandeMark, the Lockport GOP chief, with the win. VandeMark has operated a campaign largely free of controls from higher-ups in the local GOP establishment, and despite a political headwind, seems much more poised to hold his mayor’s office than do Falls Democrats at this point.
Elsewhere in Lockport, Republicans had a mixed night in their own party’s primaries, with two non-party-backed candidates pulling off upsets in council primaries here. As predicted earlier in this newspaper, Alderwoman Kitty Fogle, who had gained a reputation as a bull in a china shop, went down to defeat in the 3rd Ward against firefighter and Republican Mark Devine, while a complicated three-way GOP primary in the 1st Ward left party-backed candidate Jennifer D’Andrea-Terreri in third place and insurgent Joseph P. Oates in the winner’s circle.
GOP party leaders are already signaling they can work with both primary winners, and expect to mount credible campaigns to hold both wards.
Elsewhere, 4th Ward GOP nominee Dave Wohleben cruised to victory, setting up a battle against Pat Schrader—a long-serving, but battle-scarred, Democrat on the City Council. Many believe that in the well-to-do 4th Ward, home to many of the city’s mansions, Wohleben is set to defeat Schrader. This owes in part to of a bizarre late-spring incident where the incumbent Democrat sicced police on veterans selling refreshments at the Navy Marine Club during a popular classic car cruise-in—a spectacle that career Air Force veteran Wohleben is set to capitalize on.
The biggest unsettle question arising in Lockport may well prove to be the City Treasurer’s office. Incumbent Mike White showed his considerable organizational muscle and held off a Conservative primary, and is believed to have grabbed the Green line as well. However, challenger Sue Mawhiney held her Working Families line comfortably.
Many blame White for the city’s fiscal problems, and his relations with both McCaffrey and Fogle are known to be toxic. However, White may actually pull off the impossible. Six months ago, written off as politically dead, he appears on the verge of making a stand that may propel him back into office.
Still, it’s hard to imagine an elected official with the title of “treasurer” surviving the fiscal meltdown of his city. This race is too close to call at this point.
If Nick Forster’s plan ran aground anyplace, it was here.
Republicans in the Lumber City positively destroyed their Democratic foes, winning line after line on primary night.
Despite this, sources at Republican primary headquarters at the Deerwoods golf course tell us NT GOPers were glum Thursday after realizing they had lost two Working Families primaries.
“Someone’s going to have to tell Henry [Wojtaszek] we came up short,” said a source closely allied with both State Sen. Robert G. Ortt and Mayor Arthur G. Pappas, before bursting into laughter.
Pappas was the victim of one of those defeats, and moves forward with his Democratic opponent, former County Legislator John Tylec, holding both the Democratic and Working Families lines. Most observers expect an easy Pappas win, but the incumbent is not his predecessor, the charismatic and photogenic Ortt.
Meanwhile, with Republicans forced to more aggressively contest this race, expect Tylec’s 2011 drunk driving arrest to surface as an issue.
Elsewhere in the Lumber City, though, Republicans were crowing about completely destroying the political future of former County Legislator Pete Smolinski. Smolinski, who served in county government as a Republican, joined Democratic efforts in the city this year—only to have both his Republican and Democratic petitions knocked off the ballot.
In a sign of how serious the NT Republican’s own code of Omerta is, however, they even contested Smolinski’s sole line on the ballot—the Working Families Party—and torched the retired firefighter, besting him 28-25.
With lopsided ballot dominance here, and no Legislative race in the much more heavily Democratic 8th District, NT Republicans expect a big night. Democratic voters will be hard-pressed to turn out even as Bradt’s race in the GOP-heavy 9th turns out Republicans in droves—the perfect conditions for a Republican romp.
Nowhere are Republicans holding their breath more than here, in this town of 8,000 bordering Niagara Falls, where the GOP-backed town board candidate, Democrat Richard Sirianni, is 10 votes down in the Democratic primary. As outstanding absentee ballots and 10 write-ins are counted, Sirianni may overtake Democrat Robert McDermott. Should he do that, Democrats will have been dealt a serious gut-punch here, with the GOP essentially picking up one seat on the Town Board without a contest.
Should Sirianni fall, many expect him to easily win in November, as he is unlikely to shed much support from so close a race.
The only question remaining will be the second seat, a contest between strong-finishing Democrat Samuel S. Gatto and Republican Don Schildhauer.
With Democrats in neighboring Niagara Falls gobbling up resources to prop up a damaged Mayor Paul Dyster, McDermott and Gatto’s may find that the close primary with Sirianni is lethal to at least one of them, politically.
No surprises here. Republicans won everything they needed to win. Expect Bob Cliffe to win another two-year term against Democrat-backed Tom Larsen, whom he throttled in a GOP primary, while GOP stalwarts Larry Helwig and Gil Doucet are expected to fare well against Democratic challengers.
Republicans here are positively bullish after Republican candidates performed even better than expected on primary night.
One top GOP source who is actively involved with Republican campaigns in the small town that is rapidly transforming into a Buffalo exurb told us they credited the “tenaciousness” of the GOP’s town justice candidate, Niagara County Sheriff’s Lt. Kevin Mack, who effectively derailed the campaigns of former AFSCME Union President Ed McDonald and former Assistant District Attorney Susan Bjornholm on primary night. While McDonald did eke out a 45-vote win on the Democratic line, Mack dominated him on every other line, and marches forward with the Republican, Conservative, Independence, Green, Reform, and Working Families lines.
This benefits GOP Supervisor candidate Joel Maerten as well. Local fire chief Maerten, who is challenging incumbent Democratic supervisor Jim Riester, seems to benefit from a political tailwind brought on by an unpopular National Fuel gas compressor being constructed in town over local residents’ objections. Many point to Riester’s contradictory statements about when he knew the compressor was being sited in Pendleton and say they’re voting for the incumbent.
A bold, but ill-conceived, move by Riester, attempting to challenge Maerten in a GOP primary, has left the incumbent battered, with Maerten throttling him by a 282-60 margin. A second Riester primary effort failed just as spectacularly, with Independence voters spiking him 37-11.
Democrats now have nowhere to run to in Pendleton, with their ballot position reduced to the Democratic line, Republicans holding down the other six parties on the ballot—and Maerten, the town’s fire chief and a native whose family has deep roots, the best candidate the GOP has drafted here in some time.
This newspaper has heard from the campaign of Democratic candidate Mark Briglio that his is a viable candidacy against Republican Steve Broderick, and certainly is willing to entertain that motion.
However, nothing in Thursday’s primary suggests our initial forecasts of a Broderick win were off. Briglio, a registered Republican defecting to the Democratic camp, lost heavily to Broderick in a GOP primary, with Broderick topping him by 300 votes in the low-turnout election. The notion that Briglio is set to make major election night inroads into Republicans that Broderick can’t balance out seems in doubt.
A Briglio effort at primarying Broderick’s Conservative line ended in a 26-3 rout. Meanwhile, indicators point to Broderick having likely captured both the Green and Working Families lines, and Briglio didn’t even bother to challenge Broderick’s Independence line. Broderick is likely to emerge with ballot dominance and a strong family name.
He may, however, have another familiar family name to contend with on the town board.
Republican efforts to defang Francine DelMonte’s bid for town board came up short when the old war horse bested their efforts to steal the Working Families line by three votes. DelMonte can now proceed with the endorsement of the Democratic and Working Families lines, and will. That’s not to say DelMonte’s efforts at stealing GOP lines were more impressive—here, she fizzled rather spectacularly, garnering just 3 votes out of 24 cast in the Conservative primary.
As predicted, incumbent Joanne Sullivan easily won all the major party primaries for town justice here. Meanwhile, a spilt decision means the second town justice gavel is very much up for grabs.
This comes as no surprise; Sullivan is a competent jurist and a law clerk to County Judge Sara Sheldon.
The remaining contest, between candidates Lisa Trakas and Brian Gross, is anybody’s guess.