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By Mike Hudson

Occasionally, a candidate for public office comes along who is so committed to the ideals and goals of that office that political considerations take a back seat. Such is the case with Kathleen Wojtaszek-Gariano, who's running for the Niagara County Family Court judicial seat currently held by retiring Judge David Seaman.

"Family law is something that's appealed to me ever since I was admitted to the bar," Judge Wojtaszek told the Niagara Falls Reporter over lunch last week at Gadawski's. "It was the focus of my private practice and became the focus of my career."

After being admitted to the New York State Bar in 1994, she began her private practice, focusing on matrimonial and family law. From 1999 to 2001, Wojtaszek-Gariano served as assistant county attorney specializing in prosecuting persons in need of supervision and juvenile delinquents in Family Court.

She also served on the law guardian panel from 1994 to 2001, representing children in custody, and neglect and abuse cases.

A set of unusual circumstances led Wojtaszek-Gariano to her two judicial appointments in 2001. After Judge John Mariano retired from City Court here, former mayor Irene Elia appointed her to that bench. Shortly before Wojtaszek-Gariano ran for that position in the general election -- losing to Judge Robert Restaino -- Family Court Judge Paul Crapsi died unexpectedly, and she was loaned out by the city to fill that spot after her appointment by Judicial District Administrative Judge Vincent Doyle.

She served on both benches with distinction. Later, when Elia offered her another appointment on the City Court bench, she turned it down, privately telling friends she'd had enough of Niagara Falls' political infighting.

Former governor George Pataki appointed Judge Seaman for the bench, and Wojtaszek-Gariano accepted the position as his court attorney and law clerk.

"For the last nine years, I've had the honor of working for Judge Seaman as his law clerk. During that time, I've witnessed firsthand how his firm, fair and compassionate approach has had a lasting effect on families and brought positive results," Wojtaszek-Gariano said.

Wojtaszek-Gariano easily garnered enough petition signatures to qualify on both the Democratic and Republican lines. Her opponent, a North Tonawanda politico who works with Niagara County Democratic Party Chairman Dan Rivera at the law offices of former union organizer Mark Panepinto in Buffalo, has never practiced in Family Court.

"I'm running for Family Court because I have the courtroom experience and passion to continue making a difference for Niagara County families," Wojtaszek-Gariano said. "I'm not really paying attention to whoever he is."

In addition to her dedicated service to the community in the workplace, Wojtaszek-Gariano also serves on the board of directors for Community Missions, Inc., and the Health Association of Niagara County, Inc., and is an active member of the Niagara County Bar Association and the Judges and Police Executive Conference of Niagara County.

Earlier this year, she was named as the Niagara County Federation of Republican Women's 2011 Woman of the Year.

Federation spokeswoman Pat Castillo said Wojtaszek-Gariano received the honor because "she's a positive role model for women throughout this county."

"Those of us from Niagara Falls remember Judge Wojtaszek-Gariano as a firm, but caring, judge, who put public safety first," Castillo said. "Judge Wojtaszek-Gariano genuinely cared about the victims of violent crime and property crimes. But she also always kept an eye on the outcomes for those she sentenced as well."

Castillo also praised Wojtaszek-Gariano for serving on the boards of directors of Community Missions of Niagara Frontier, Inc., and the Health Association of Niagara County, Inc.

"What we admired most ... is her belief that the courts can make a positive difference in people's lives," Castillo said. "She's helped a lot of people navigate a very difficult place as Family Court clerk, and she's helped them recover their lives. That's the kind of leadership and compassion we look for in our Woman of the Year."

Perhaps Wojtaszek-Gariano's passion for Family Court law comes from the solid family foundation she's had in her personal life. Her brother Paul Wojtaszek sits in the Niagara County Legislature, and brother Henry Wojtaszek is the former county Republican Party chairman and was once a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Married to businessman and musician Tom Gariano, she is the mother of three, David, Francesca and Rob, who, with his wife, Nicole, gifted the Garianos with their first grandchild, Brooklyn.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 6, 2011