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By David Staba

Last week's primary proved one thing beyond a scintilla of a doubt -- the Democratic Party's machinery in Niagara Falls and Niagara County is downright invincible.

As long as its opponent is named Irene Elia.

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Staba: Citycide
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Local History

With Glenn Choolokian's decisive win over incumbent Councilman Jimmy Stewart, the party suffered yet another embarrassing defeat by one of its endorsed candidates in a head-to-head campaign.

At the county level, the party-backed Dems got whipped in every competitive race in last year's primary and general-election seasons. First came the wins by Republican-backed county legislature candidates Steve D'Anna and Rebecca Cuddahee in the September 2003 primaries, followed by a countywide GOP rout two months later.

While Democratic mayoral candidate Vince Anello defeated Elia decisively, that was at least as much of a statement on the incumbent as an endorsement of the challenger. And while Democratic candidates won both open Council seats in a four-way race, Lewis "Babe" Rotella earned the most votes without having received the party's initial endorsement.

Still, 2003 proved a banner year for the party that once enjoyed unquestioned supremacy in the city and rotating control of the county compared to this mess.

Stewart ran unsuccessfully in last year's Council primary before getting appointed to the vacancy created when Anello became mayor. In accepting the seat, he took on the challenge of running a two-year campaign, since this November's race is a special election, with a full four-year term at stake in 2005.

Some thanks he got.

First, Anello let him take the fall for the Great Hyde Park Golf Course Giveaway after his vote helped the deal pass, 3-2. Then the party thoroughly abandoned him through the primary campaign, which Choolokian effectively turned into a vent for the anger of city workers and disaffected party members.

Outgoing county chairman Frank Soda and city boss Tony Mondi drove the final nails into Stewart's electoral coffin on Primary Day, issuing bizarre quotes that essentially slammed their own endorsed candidate for a front-page story in The Other Paper.

In a story entitled, appropriately enough, "Low voter turnout expected today," Soda fired up the troops thusly:

"I would be shocked if it was more than 25 percent of the registered Democrats," he said of his expectations. "I bet you don't see 3,000 Democrats (vote) in the city."

Stewart must have been thrilled to see such enthusiasm from his party's chairman.

Then Mondi juiced both candidates in the Democratic Primary, effectively blaming them for the pessimism of party leaders because they hadn't hit the campaign trail hard enough.

To be fair, the city chairman did offer something of a backhanded compliment to his party's chosen candidate, saying that Stewart didn't need to campaign as much, since "he can run on his record," TOP reported.

You know, the record of voting for the Golf Course Giveaway that Anello and the Dems foisted on him in the first place. Not to mention the faithful support of a loyal party member when it came to approving the administration's unbroken string of blatant patronage hires for key, highly paid city positions.

Fortunately, Soda didn't get "shocked," as only 2,210 of more than 17,000 registered Democrats in the city went to the polls. Only 44 percent of them voted for the party's endorsed candidate. Tough to say which figure is more pathetic, or a greater indictment of Democratic leadership.

After Choolokian's win, party leaders threw up their hands and sighed that there wasn't anything they could have done differently, since election law prevents the party from backing specific candidates in the primary.

What a load.

Their predecessors, former county chairman Nick Forster and the late Leo Alcuri, who ran the city committee, were masters at finding creative, yet legal, ways to support their endorsed candidates by setting up committees through which party money could flow to where it was needed.

They certainly didn't allow them to get whipped by registered Republicans in Democratic primaries, or leave loyal party members twisting in the wind, left to get ambushed by unproven upstarts.

The current Democratic Party not only didn't do any of the things that worked in the past, or anything to help Stewart, period, they did nothing to improve the lousy voter turnout they bemoaned. No advertising, no rallies, nothing.

Choolokian not only proved that you no longer need any party support to win a Democratic primary, he won precisely because he wasn't attached to that ineffectual, broken-down excuse for a machine.

His victory virtually guarantees an untenable position for Anello, the local Democratic standard-bearer, for at least another year. Choolokian aimed his campaign barbs more pointedly at the mayor than at his opponent, and the next two months figure to bring more of the same.

While Choolokian's Republican opponent, George Lodick, hasn't been as acerbic in campaigning against the current regime, the administration won't be able to count on his vote as an automatic either, should he prevail in November.

Stewart's defeat also further encouraged Niagara County Republicans, led by Chairman Henry Wojtaszek and state Sen. George Maziarz, who were already eyeing Lodick's candidacy as a potential point of entry into City Hall.

While both have their critics, particularly Maziarz, in Niagara Falls, there's no questioning them on two fronts: They know how to raise money, and they know how to win elections.

Part of that success has been welcoming new faces and names into the GOP. Besides recruiting candidates like Cuddahee and D'Anna, the Republicans got another youthful infusion this year when Niagara Falls firefighter John Breed took over as city chairman.

Meanwhile, Gary Parenti, local boy-turned-Democratic operative, tried to start a Young Democrats Club earlier this year. Soda and Mondi saw the effort not as an attempt to invigorate a tired organization, but as a challenge to their supremacy. So they snuffed it.

Soda is turning over the county chairmanship to Charles Naughton, his hand-picked successor. Whoever runs the local Democratic Party would be wise to stop complaining about Wojtasek and Maziarz and their methods and start taking a few pointers.

Or get out of the way and make room for someone who will.

The Choolokian-Lodick race shapes up as the most intriguing Council race in years.

Part of that's due to the unique nature of the campaign. Council seats normally hit the ballot in bunches, but this year's special election for what amounts to a one-year term narrows the spotlight to two candidates for a single seat.

Then there are the candidates themselves. Choolokian, a water and sewer authority employee, will have to make adjustments to his primary campaign, which decried "recycled politicians" and Stewart's record, particularly on the Hyde Park controversy.

Lodick, who topped Stewart among the 71 Independence Party members in the city who made it to the polls, is making his first run for office as well, and has also criticized the Golf Course Giveaway.

While Choolokian doesn't figure to get much support from the Democratic leaders he spent the summer campaigning against, he's already shown he doesn't necessarily need it, particularly with apparent backing from many city workers.

In Lodick, the Republicans have a candidate well-versed in government at a number of levels who figures to be a force not only this fall but in 2005, when three Council seats will be on the ballot.

Both men have young children, giving them a vested interest in the city's future. They also give city voters an opportunity seldom offered around here -- a true choice.

Primary Day in Niagara County held no other surprises, with incumbent state Sen. Byron Brown and Rep. Louise Slaughter easily swatting away feeble challenges in Democratic primaries and Assemblywoman Francine Del Monte topping Republican challenger Paula Banks-Dahlke in an Independence Party tilt.

One Buffalo primary, though, is worth taking note of in these parts. Assemblyman Sam Hoyt beat back a challenge from Common Council member Joseph Golombek in a Democratic primary. Golombek received a flood of money and support from Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, who is sort of a Republican, as well as his backers in the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Hoyt's opposition to a casino in Buffalo has infuriated Giambra and some Partnership members who stand to make a killing if the Seneca Nation actually ever wanted a downtown casino -- which they don't.

Golombek was seen as more compliant on that issue and in general to the same people who spent well into six figures two years ago in a successful effort to get rid of Common Council President James Pitts, who had the gall to question the Partnership's various self-serving initiatives.

Golombek got additional support from supporters of state Sen. Byron Brown, Hoyt's potential opponent in Buffalo's 2005 Democratic mayoral primary. Defeating Hoyt now, the thinking went, would eliminate him next year, and either way, a serious challenge would force him to spend money he'd rather save for his bid for mayor.

Whatever the motivation, Golombek's campaign also produced some fairly goofy advertising. His broadcast advertisements and Web site trumpeted one of the most lukewarm endorsements imaginable in this 18-month-old quote from the Buffalo News: "North Council member Joseph Golombek Jr. continues to come up with ideas worth considering."

Wow. "Ideas worth considering"? So, you mean he's not a complete crackpot whose ideas should be dismissed immediately? Is that something you really want to be bragging about?

With fiery rhetoric like that, you'd almost think Niagara County's Democrats were running Golombek's campaign. Except that they don't bother with things like advertisements or Web sites.


David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 21 2004