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Ross Has Become Legendary Figure in County

By Craig Tretiak

William Ross. (Photo by NCCC)

People close to Bill Ross, the longest-serving chairman of the Niagara County Legislature ever, say he's been expecting a challenge for months, and isn't particularly worried.

That's because, according to one Republican Party source, Ross has "an extremely safe district that includes just about the most Republican area in Niagara County"—namely, the Wheatfield hamlet of Bergholtz.

The challenge by Sean O'Laughlin may prove a bit vexing to the 79-year-old Legislature chairman, who is in his 10th year as head of the sometimes-controversial body. Ross has become increasingly immune to challenges in recent election cycles.

In 2011, the incumbent racked up 1,738 votes—and went unchallenged.

In 2009, Ross crushed challenger Robert J. Collins of Wheatfield—taking 69 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Collins.

Ross hasn't seen a difficult challenge since at least 2007, when attorney Charles J. Naughton of Wheatfield managed 38 percent against him—the highest percentage any challenger to Ross has achieved in the past decade.

The Naughton race followed three successive elections where Wheatfield Democrat Gerald McCormick—who also lost in an open-seat race against newcomer Kathryn Lance of Wheatfield two years ago—lost by at least two-to-one.

None of this is to suggest that Ross isn't vulnerable to the right challenge, of course.

For Ross, a registered Conservative, challenges from Republicans with strong family names have been a problem in the past.

In the 1990s, Ross, who holds the distinction of having served in town government in both the town of Niagara and his present home of Wheatfield, found himself without a seat in county government when a popular Wheatfield Republican named Art Kroening decided to seek a seat in the county legislature.

Actually, the Republican Party is the only party Ross hasn't been a member of. During his 1980s stint in Niagara town government, Ross was a Democrat—and served in that party during his first run in the county legislature. Later, Ross switched to the Conservatives after finding that the national Democratic Party had drifted too far from his closely-held beliefs about a number of hot-button items, including social issues.

Known to many as "The Coach" for his decades mentoring and training student-athletes at Niagara-Wheatfield High School, where he was a teacher and later a guidance counselor, Ross has relied on substantial personal popularity, a dogged work ethic, and a reputation for reasonableness and fairness to remain both in the legislature and sitting atop the dais at the front of the legislature's ornate chamber in the county courthouse.

"Bill has had to be fair and open to both sides of the political aisle. He has had to give equal time to the minority caucus and the majority. He has had to ensure that the Legislature, above all, is fair to all parties and viewpoints," the Legislature's majority leader, Republican Rick Updegrove of Lockport, said in a press release issued on the occasion of Ross's 200th meeting as chairman earlier this year.

Updegrove, who as majority leader has gained a reputation as his caucus' leading pugilist, frequently locking horns with Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso of Niagara Falls, went on to discuss Ross' ability to build consensus in the governing body.

"On those occasions when compromise has proven the best course for this government, Bill has played a key role in fostering a climate that made such bipartisan agreements possible," Updegrove wrote.

That ability to overcome differences—honed both as a high school coach and during his years as a starting player on the Michigan State Spartans' early 1950's squads, including the 1953 Rose Bowl team—has been Ross' greatest political strength, and positions him well for the challenge from O'Laughlin. As hard-right Republican John Syracuse of Newfane noted, "He's never gruff, he's never unkind—even if he disagrees with you."

His fellow lawmakers also pointed to Ross' frequent appearances at everything from ribbon-cuttings to the boards of the many institutions on whose boards he serves as evidence of a work ethic that rivals even that of Sen. George D. Maziarz, who has been known to appear at events on both ends of his vast senate district, that stretches from Niagara Falls to the Rochester suburbs, in the same day.

"Ross has, more than anything, dedicated himself to being the public face of this county. He is everywhere. [Ross] runs rings around men half his age," said North Tonawanda Legislator Paul Wojtaszek, whose brother Henry Wojtaszek remains one of the county GOP's most powerful and popular leaders, said at the time of Ross' 200th meeting as chairman. The endorsement from a member of the Wojtaszek clan is a sign of Ross' strength, as well as his importance to the GOP organization that currently dominates Niagara County politics, with control of 12 of the Legislature's 15 seats.

If Ross survives O'Laughlin's challenge, his sunny disposition, along with a level of energy that gives lie to his advancing age, may prove the most potent weapon in the incumbent's arsenal. So, too, might his close ties with Republican Party leaders.



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

JUN 11, 2013