County Legislature Will Likely Remain in GOP Hands While Some Contests Promise Closeness, Experts See ‘Status Quo’ Election

Tuesday’s countywide election is likely to produce the same 11-4 split, with the same faces, on the Niagara County Legislature.


How likely is that outcome?


When we were asking Niagara County Public Information Officer Christian Peck about polling sites last week and asked him to handicap the races for county legislature, he joked, “I’m not expecting to have to upgrade any of the photos on the county webpage in January.”


Peck, who is not a political handicapper, does have a knack for repeating conventional wisdom, and in this case, the outcome of Tuesday’s races seems likely to see incumbents hold in every district.  We asked a former Republican Party chairman, a former Republican elections clerk, and two Democratic officials from city government to offer their handicapping for Tuesday, and they were nearly unanimous at every turn, and predicted the GOP maintains control of county government easily.


Still, the magic number at the County Courthouse in Lockport is eight: That’s how many seats constitutes a majority in the 15-member Legislature, and with enough seats currently in play, the Democrats have a theoretical path to the narrowest of majorities.


Here’s a district-by-district preview:


District 1 (Lewiston/Porter/Ransomville):  Political veteran Clyde Burmaster, the Legislature’s vice chairman, has been an institution in local politics for more than two decades.  That’s probably why on election night, he will be reelected without opposition, giving the GOP its first win of the night.


District 2 (Lewiston/Sanborn/Bergholz):  First-term lawmaker Rebecca Wydysh will square off against former Town Supervisor Fred Newlin, the Lewiston Democrat absent from local politics for the past eight years.  If Newlin entered this year’s legislative sweepstakes intending a political comeback, he has been conspicuously absent from the campaign trail, and a drive through the 2nd Legislative District didn’t turn up any Newlin signs.

Rebecca Wydysh

Wydysh, meanwhile, has racked up credibility throughout her term in office, after succeeding the old lion of the county Legislature, former Chairman Bill Ross of Wheatfield.  The Lewiston Republican, who is married to the county’s chief drug crimes prosecutor, was tasked with organizing the county’s response to the opioid crisis—and has won praise.


That Acting U.S. Attorney J.P. Kennedy held an announcement about a new drug “take-back” initiative at the County Sheriff’s Office with Wydysh just last week is an indicator of how brightly her star shines.


Expect a near-cakewalk as the freshman legislator becomes a sophomore.


That’s two for the GOP.


District 3 (Lasalle): Two years ago, Democrat Mark Grozio won a narrow, hard-fought victory against an energetic and enthusiastic former rock-and-roller named Robbie Bilson.


This year, despite the closeness of that finish, Grozio is unchallenged, a nod to his frequent visibility around the City of Niagara Falls.  A union official by day, the goateed lawmaker is a bit of wildcard, keeping a low profile at County Hall.  He proved too high a wall for county Republicans to climb over this cycle, however, and never drew opposition.


Grozio will represent a solid W for the Democrats.


District 4 (Hyde Park): Anyone who’s met Owen Steed knows he is a larger-than-life figure.  He certainly is one of the most immovable objects in the County Legislature.


That’s the lesson Democrat Keith Lindsay found out when he attempted to challenge Steed.  That, and actually live at the address you put on your paperwork.


The amiable Steed retains his seat, and continues representing the county’s only majority-minority district.  This gives the Democrats their second win.


District 5 (Deveaux and Town of Niagara): Jason Zona vexed county Republicans since capturing this seat, but his increasing win margins, and his success in entrenching himself during primary season made him a hard target to kill anyway.


That he has also shown a caginess previously absent on the minority side of the aisle, and a smart ability to work with the GOP majority to pass legislation valuable to the Falls is another reason many expect him to one day lead the Legislature’s Democratic caucus.  It’s also a major reason that, despite the protests of some who viewed Zona as a perpetual threat to GOP dominance, county Republicans didn’t raise an opponent for Zona, and the Independence Party—nominally allied with the county GOP machine—gave Zona their endorsement for the first time this year.


Zona takes the Dems to three wins.


District 6 (Independence Avenue and Little Italy): The closest race in the county, two years ago, was for Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso’s seat. Virtuoso eventually hung onto office by 145 votes—a hair’s breadth for a lawmaker who once commanded 800-vote victory margins.


Republican Jeff Flach, a retired Army officer, wanted to take the battle to Virtuoso this year. That appears less and less likely, however, with Virtuoso holding every line on the ballot save the Republicans’ Row B—not exactly a major vote draw in the Cataract City to begin with after this year’s primary election proved the challenger to be a Flach in the pan.


Virtuoso’s win this year looks to be easier than his last go-round, and gives the Democrats their fourth seat.


District 7 (Western Town of Wheatfield):  This may be the Democrats’ best hope for a pickup.


Republican Legislator Kathryn Lance comes into the general election a bit battered after a high-profile disagreement with GOP allies in the Town of Wheatfield’s government over sidewalks in the late spring.  Since then, however, the veteran GOPer has worked to solidify her relationships with town Republican leaders, and all are publicly supporting her reelection.


Her opponent, Adam Dickey, has been scrappy, and has done the work of knocking on doors and mounting a credible campaign against Lance.  As newcomers go, he’s doing the hard work of slowly building name recognition.


Still, it’s hard to imagine that in Republican-voting Wheatfield, Lance, who also carries the endorsements of the Conservative and Independence parties, will face much difficulty.


Add to that an unconventional campaign by Lance, and Dickey’s hopes fade.  While other candidates have sent out mailers, door-hangers, fliers, pamphlets, and everything under the sun to pitch their case to voters, Lance, who has become a pro at winning campaigns, took a different tack altogether. Instead of a typical campaign mailer asking for votes, Lance bet her campaign treasury on an October mailer to women in her district encouraging them to perform routine breast self-exams and get free mammograms offered through the county public health service if they qualified.  Lance, who when asked about the mailer, which coincided with Breast Cancer Awareness Month and her own tenth anniversary as a breast cancer survivor, said, “I’d rather make an impact on people’s lives than fill their mailboxes with one more campaign brochure.”


Expect Lance to win, but Dickey to come on strong and gain a respectable finish.


Lance brings the GOP tally to three seats.


District 8 (Western North Tonawanda): We’re told North Tonawanda Republican Rich Andres has an opponent.  It’s hard to imagine any scenario where Andres—who racked up 69 percent of the vote in his last challenged race, four years ago, loses to Democrat David Fingerlow—particularly given Andres’ control of every single ballot line except the Democratic row.

Rich Andres

Andres brings the GOP to four.


District 9 (Eastern North Tonawanda): This is an important contest to watch.  Majority Leader Randy Bradt represents a dynastic Republican seat in North Tonawanda.  His predecessor Paul B. Wojtaszek quit to become a New York State Supreme Court justice.  Wojtaszek, a member of the eponymous political family headed by his brother Henry, always won comfortable victories in this district, which benefits from a Republican gerrymander.


Bradt won easily two years ago, crushing his opponent by a margin north of 600 votes.  This election, however, portends to be somewhat closer.


Bradt is opposed by Ed Smolinski, a North Tonawanda cop and son of former County Legislator Pete Smolinski.  The elder Smolinski was always backed by the GOP in his runs, but has bucked his own party repeatedly since being retired from the Legislature—and drafting his son to run against the GOP majority leader is said to be a part of his efforts at revenge.


Smolinski also is rumored to have received backing and support from former Empire State Development Corp. head Sam Hoyt, who resigned from ESD unexpectedly last weekend.  That would explain some well-received YouTube videos the first-time candidate has posted online talking economic development issues.


Contrast that to Bradt’s more vigorous shoe-leather approach. The young majority leader has been hitting hundreds of doors in his district all summer and fall, and visiting downtown businesses.  He also has won significant praise for his aggressive work on hot-button law-and-order issues, including the opiate crisis.  Bradt authored the legislation authorizing the county taskforce addressing the issue and personally recruited Wydysh to head the county’s efforts.


Bradt and District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek—wife of Bradt’s mentor, Henry—were instrumental in bringing four new high-tech security cameras to downtown North Tonawanda, and recruiting local businesses to join the DA’s Operation Safe-Cam video surveillance database.


As a cop, Smolinski should be occupying the high ground on law-and-order issues, but instead has largely ceded that ground to Bradt.


Except this race to be closer than Bradt’s last grand-slam, but still a win for GOP, and for Bradt’s brand.


That takes county Republicans to five seats.


District 10 (Wilson/Cambria/northern Wheatfield):  Republican David Godfrey is an energetic, enthusiastic, highly visible legislator.  He has worked his district aggressively since taking over the seat once held by County Treasurer Kyle Andrews, a popular conservative Democrat.  He also is said to have very favorable personal relations with another Wilson product, County Sheriff James R. Voutour.


Godfrey was supposed to get a challenger.  That never materialized.  Even if it had, it’s doubtful it would have made much of a dent.


Godfrey is seat number six for the Grand Old Party.


District 11 (Pendleton/West End City of Lockport):  Few Republicans are as easily recognized from one end of the county to the other as Lockport lawmaker Tony Nemi.  The umpire and referee and Youth Bureau worker is well-liked inside his district and out.


Despite a full-court press by Pendleton Democratic Chair James Sacco, no one emerged to challenge Nemi.  And that’s good news for county Democrats, who saved their money here, because Nemi is accustomed to winning at least 65 percent of the vote.


Republicans can count on their seventh seat here.


District 12 (Town of Lockport):  Freshman lawmaker Will Collins benefits from several things.  He is the son of a beloved former legislator, the late John Collins.  He is a hardworking businessman, running a well-known local accounting firm.  He is also a three-time former Olympian who represented the U.S. on the national karate team.  Add to that the Town of Lockport’s Republican machine, which has always run on high-octane fuel, and it’s no surprise that County Democrats failed to draft anyone here.


Collins will put the GOP in majority status with their eighth seat on Election Night.


District 13 (City of Lockport):  This was supposed to be a high-profile effort by Niagara County Democratic Chairman Nick Forster to put a dent in GOP numbers and take out a high-payoff target.

Keith McNall

Legislature Chairman Keith McNall has been a stalwart soldier for his party, and an interesting figure, blending a conservative sensibility with a favorable track record in regard to labor.  Still, in this district, which does not have an overwhelming GOP tilt, every vote counts, and McNall had reason to fear a rematch against Democrat nominee Bob Drury.


That is, until Lockport Democrats balked at carrying Drury’s petitions.  It should be noted here that Drury was himself a Republican, and only took the Democratic backing to have a go at McNall’s seat.  That is rumored to have not sat well with Lockport’s Democratic Chairman, Roger Sherrie, and it is reported that Forster was forced to order Democratic Board of Elections workers to do the heavy lifting of circulating Drury’s petitions at the last minute.


That might all have been enough to place Drury’s fortunes in doubt, but a funny thing then happened.


Drury was also hired by Forster’s Niagara Falls Water Board majority to serve as superintendent of operations.  Not long after taking on this role, the water board grabbed global headlines for releasing foul-smelling sludge on a sunny July weekend afternoon.


Negative mail pieces making jokes about “discharging his doodies” would have been the stuff of nightmares for Drury, whose campaign is nearly completely invisible.


McNall wins an easy victory here, and takes the GOP to nine.


District 14 (Somerset/Olcott/Newfane):  Republican John Syracuse has built a strong reputation as one of the most conservative voices in county government.  Which is fairly easy, given he represents what is likely the most conservative district in the county.


That’s why Syracuse will get a free ride, as is usually the case.


GOP: 10.


District 15 (Royalton/Hartland/Middleport):  Mike Hill and his constituents might challenge our characterization of Syracuse and his district, as every word written above could translate here as well.


And that brings the Republican tent to 11.


Barring any surprises, that’s where the races will likely stand a half hour or so after polls close on Tuesday.

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