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CITY COUNCIL CANDIDATES HOPING TO NARROW FIELD IN RACE FOR PIVOTAL SEAT

ANALYSIS by David Staba

Spin-off development has remained little more than talk since the opening of the Seneca Niagara Casino, but the city's annual share of gambling revenue, and the things that could be done with it, convinced George Lodick to step out from behind the political scenes and onto the ballot.

"With the casino money, we have a golden opportunity to better do the things we need to do -- the timing was right," Lodick said of his decision to run for the Niagara Falls City Council seat now held by Democrat Jimmy Stewart.


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Lodick and Stewart meet in the Independence Party Primary on Sept. 14. Stewart faces city water authority worker Glenn Choolokian in the highest-profile local primary that day, with the Democratic line at stake.

Lodick, the endorsed Republican, wants to see a portion of the city's share, expected to far exceed last year's $9 million haul, earmarked for tax relief. All but $2 million of last year's take was divvied up for various projects, most of which remain little more than plans as the city plunges toward insolvency and taxpayers brace for a seemingly inevitable rate hike.

"My top priority is to fight to get our full share of the casino revenue and apply that to some relief for our taxpayer," said Lodick, who lives with his wife and four children on Cleveland Avenue near 18th Street. "The mayor's been projecting a budget deficit, so it makes tax cuts sound insane. But unless we give our taxpayers a break, we're never going to attract anybody long term, whether new housing or new businesses. We can't keep telling our residents that you can pay more for one more day while we keeping giving this guy a break, or giving that piece of property away."

Given the overwhelming numerical advantage held by Democrats in Niagara Falls, Lodick can use every line he can get. But Lodick, who worked for Young Americans for Freedom, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative group focused on national security issues, from 1989 to 1993, said he thinks he shares the goals promoted by the party that grew out of Ross Perot's third-party presidential bids in 1992 and 1996.

"I find myself close, ideologically, to the Independence Party -- returning power to the people, reforming government, changing our tax system to be positive instead of punitive to the citizens," Lodick said. "I feel really in tune with what they're talking about. I think that's a message that's good for Niagara Falls."

While there are only about 560 registered Independence Party members in the city, the race could provide a preview of the lone citywide race on the November ballot, should Stewart -- the endorsed Democrat -- fend off Choolokian's challenge.

The Independence Party tilt could also set up a three-way race in the general election, should Stewart top Lodick for the Independence line, but get knocked off by Choolokian.

Both primaries shape up as an early referendum on Mayor Vincenzo V. Anello. Little more than eight months into his term, the hiring of political cronies for key administration positions and a series of no-bid deals lowlighted by the Hyde Park Golf Course giveaway have angered even some loyal Democrats.

While each appointment and deal was approved by the Council, Stewart has been a particular target of critics and some city workers' unions, since he cast what proved to be the deciding vote on the golf course deal.

Stewart defends the decision, saying the city could no longer properly maintain the course and that the 30-year lease awarded to Greater Niagara Sports was the best deal on the table at the time.

Anello has been able to count on the support of Stewart and Council Chairman Charles Walker on nearly every issue, and Democrats Lewis "Babe" Rotella and Bob Anderson on most. Rotella and Anderson voted against the golf course deal, though. Should Stewart lose the seat, the Council could swing from generally supportive to usually hostile.

The golf course flap has been a central theme of Choolokian's campaign. Lodick also questioned the wisdom of the deal. A citizen's group, Save Hyde Park, has retained local attorney Ned Perlman to sue the city, alleging violations of state and local law governing the alienation of public park land.

"I'm not opposed to privatizing management of the golf course, if that works for the city and it's a good deal," said Lodick, whose platform is outlined online at www.electlodick.com. "I'm not sure this deal is that great, or any deal where you don't have competition is good. It's confusing to me how any deal where the city has to do more work to get back part of what it's already owed is a good deal for the city or for the taxpayers."

The Democratic Primary presents party members with a distinct choice.

Stewart points to his background in labor relations and as a local business owner, as well as his family's connections to Chinese investors who he said have already closed or will close soon on seven downtown properties worth roughly $2 million. On the campaign trail, he also rips Choolokian's inexperience.

Choolokian, meanwhile, considers what Stewart calls a weakness to be his biggest strength, reprising the criticisms of "recycled politicians" that earned him a surprisingly close fourth-place finish in last year's Democratic mayoral primary, his first run for office.

While the Democratic and Independence party primaries shape up as the most competitive, there are several other races on the Sept. 14 ballot.  

STATE ASSEMBLY -- 138th District

Incumbent Francine Del Monte and challenger Paula Banks-Dahlke hold the undisputed nomination of the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, but face off in next week's Independence Party Primary.

In addition to providing a valuable extra line, that race serves as a general election preview. A strong showing by Banks-Dahlke next week would point to Del Monte's toughest race since winning the seat from one-term Republican Rob Daly in 2000.

Del Monte's vote in favor of the state's smoking ban and general acquiescence to her party's leadership in Albany have made her the target of no small amount of voter anger, but also assure her of no small amount of campaign cash from the state party, which spent $300,000 on her race against Daly, who beat her for the seat in 1998.

Should Banks-Dahlke win the Independence Party Primary, or even show particularly well, expect the checkbooks at party headquarters in Albany to snap open once again.  

CONGRESS -- 28th District

Veteran Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-Fairport) faces a primary challenge in her second area run since portions of Niagara and Erie counties became part of her district in 2002.

Late last month, the State Court of Appeals restored Francina J. Cartonia, who also holds the Independence Party line for the general election, to next week's Democratic Primary ballot. Slaughter sought to have Cartonia bounced from the primary, alleging fraudulent signatures on the challenger's petitions.

While Slaughter points to her 18 years on Capitol Hill, Cartonia's campaign has centered more on geography than issues, alleging that the incumbent ignores Buffalo and Niagara Falls at the expense of her Rochester-area base.  

STATE SENATE -- 60th District

Incumbent Byron Brown faces not only his biennial challenge from former state Sen. Al Coppola, but the two former Buffalo Common Council members are joined on this year's Democratic Primary ballot by Emin "Eddie" Egriu, a Queen City pizzeria owner who, like Choolokian, is running on the "I'm not a politician" platform.

While Brown's vote for the smoking ban also incurred the wrath of some local business owners, his campaign apparatus is too well-oiled and financed to get derailed by even multiple challengers.


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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. 7 2004