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By James Hufnagel

"I wouldn't ask too much of her," I ventured. "You can't repeat the past."
"Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!"
-- "The Great Gatsby," By F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Don't look now, but Francine Del Monte is already staging a comeback mere months after her wholesale rejection at the polls. She's pulling out all the stops to reclaim the New York State Assembly seat that she believes is rightfully hers, and she's relying on the same game plan that enabled her to outlast the competition 10 years ago.

That was 1998, when distinguished Assemblyman Joe Pillittere retired. His chief of staff and protege Francine was waiting in the wings.

Other than having worked in state government for 20 years, her qualifications at the time to represent the people and interests of the 138th Assembly district were rather modest.

A Buffalo State "Communication Arts" degree led to a job at the Niagara Gazette, and it wasn't long before she was tapped for the Albany staff position, blazing a career path followed by future Gazette reporters like Val Pillo, Angela Berti, Nick Mattera and others, young people who parlayed the low-paying, insufferably boring drudgery of work at the Gazette for an exciting job in politics at the state capitol.

Having paid her dues at Buff State and the Gazette and as Pillittere's apprentice, Francine was ready for the big time. The torch was being passed to a new generation, etc.

However, a stumbling block by the name of Renae Kimble, who had the audacity to challenge Francine's accession to the throne, stood in the way.

The two split the vote in the heavily Democratic district, and Republican Rob Daly won a two-year stint in the legislative body.

Kimble accepted the verdict of the voters, moving on in public life as a county Legislator, fighting like a tiger for the interests of her Niagara Falls district.

Del Monte bided her time, assiduously tending to the connections made over her 20 years as an Albany operative and insider, running again in 2000, and this time prevailing.

Fast forward to 2010. John Accardo challenged Del Monte, the vote again split, and Republican John Ceretto won the seat.

The Del Monte spin was that her candidacy fell victim to the Niagara County voter turn-out for Carl Paladino, among other unconvincing excuses. The fact is, she was one of only two incumbent Assembly members statewide to be ousted on Primary Day 2010.

Clinging to a slim lifeline on the Working Families Party line, there was a point during the six weeks between the primary and general election when, despite a solid win by Accardo, a tight three-way race was a possibility in the minds of many voters.

Del Monte vowed to fight it out: "The boys might have knocked me down, but I'm not out," and "I will shut down every lie the boys in this race tell." Considering that there's not much difference between Accardo and Ceretto other than the fact they owe allegiance to different tribes, it seemed like a rational approach that might have played well to certain demographics.

On the other hand, most Democrats simply hoped and prayed that the debacle of 10 years ago wouldn't somehow repeat itself, and Francine Del Monte would step aside. Whether for the good of the party, or because she had been offered a position elsewhere, it didn't matter, as long as the seat stayed Democratic.

Voters more or less adhered to party lines on general election night. Winner John Ceretto garnered a total of 16,722 votes; John Accardo, 11,985; and Del Monte, 7338; so it's clear that the election would have been Accardo's had it not been for the Del Monte vote, in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 12,000 registered voters.

Having stayed in the race until the bitter end and played the role of spoiler, even though the results of last-minute polling surely must have indicated that the selfless thing to do would be to withdraw and throw one's support behind the leader, Francine instead vindictively punished the same constituents who had previously believed in her and elected her no fewer than five times during her decidedly unaccomplished time in office. Or at least, many thought that was her motivation.

The purpose of this piece is not to pile on Francine Del Monte like other detractors have, but to point out the damage she did to us.

Ceretto is a decent, intelligent man of integrity, worthy of respect as our elected representative. However, in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, he is allowed to do little. Minority members of the Assembly are relegated to second-class status. They cannot advance bills out of committee for floor votes. They are routinely allocated less funding for their districts. They get less money for staff, services and communications. Like it or not, these are the facts of life in the New York State Assembly, and it's where Del Monte delivered us.

A cursory review of her Assembly career adduces various achievements, if one defines "achievement" as the repatriation of tax dollars from Albany. When it came to the fundamental structural changes we needed here over the past 10 years, well, you be the judge.

During her years in office, State Parks extended its control over 80 percent of the waterfront of the city of Niagara Falls, signing a multi-decade contract with Delaware North to feed the 8 million tourists who visit Niagara Falls State Park every year with their restaurant and three food stands in the park, and Maid of the Mist concluded a lease with the state that, unbelievably, resulted in the landlord, being us, paying them rent, instead of the other way around.

Even though the Niagara Power Project is squarely in her district, she was an absolute no-show during the 50-year relicensing talks that took place over the course of the better part of two of her terms, remaining dead silent as a deal was "negotiated" that left the NYPA hegemony over Niagara County untouched and unscathed.

She never formed a task force. She never even spoke out once to obtain a better deal for her district. It was as if she was invisible during this extremely critical juncture of historic proportions.

In fact, one of the reasons for her electoral defeat last year was that she actually voted to sweep $550 million out of NYPA to "save" New York state from default.

During the debate between her, Ceretto and Accardo last fall, Del Monte contended that her opponents were either naive or purposefully misleading voters, because even if the $550 million were somehow returned from the state, it would go back onto NYPA's balance sheet, not to the local communities. Which is beside the point.

NYPA treats Western New York like a doormat, diverting incredible wealth out of the area. Would Silver and the Assembly Democrats have forgiven Del Monte for a "no" vote on the sweep, or even delivering a speech on the Assembly floor demanding better treatment from NYPA and retention of the $550 million for possible local use? Probably, but "raising Cain" on our behalf by the Albany veteran of 30 years is, and was, unthinkable.

When candidate Alice Kryzan obtained evidence of philandering during her race against shirtless congressman Chris Lee, she suppressed it. Del Monte dug up dirt on primary opponent Gary Parenti four years ago, and used it. She dug up dirt against Accardo last year, and used it. Both times as a weapon of first resort.

After the 2010 loss, you'd think Francine might want to consider writing a book, going on a long vacation, or maybe even joining the local block club, so as to keep an eye out for crack houses on River Road. But Francine never had a doubt as to her next move.

Had Accardo won the Assembly seat, he probably would have been securely ensconced and served for years. Instead, Del Monte, by purposely throwing the election to the Republicans and having the temerity to show her face all over the political scene since, gets the chance to stage a comeback next year.

Of course, she planned it that way.

That Assembly seat, she thinks, has her name on it, no one else's.

Hopefully, the voters know better.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 31, 2011