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SEP 08 - SEP 15, 2015

Did Democrats Stumble in (not) Fielding Candidates For Niagara County Legislature?

SEP 08, 2015

Becky Wydysh
Randy Bradt
Russ DeFranco
Mike Johnson
Keith McNall and Tony Nemi
Joe Naccarato
Colleen Osborn
David Zajac


Nick Forster became Niagara County Democratic Party chairman by vowing that the failure to recruit opponents for virtually every GOP legislator which occurred under his predecessor, Dan Rivera, would cease, and Democrats would march back into power in county politics.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t shaped up this way.

Not that Forster didn’t try.  However, faulty petitions and invalid petition signatures saw Democrat candidates tossed out in North Tonawanda and Wheatfield, while along the Lake Ontario shore and in heavily Republican eastern Niagara County, candidates failed to materialize.

Unchallenged in the GOP Caucus are District 1’s Clyde Burmaster, District 7’s Kathryn Lance, District 8’s Rich Andres, District 10’s David Godfrey, District 14’s John Syracuse, and District 15’s Mike Hill. All of them save Syracuse were challenged two years ago. (Districts 3, 4, 5 and 6 are all held by Democrats—and all but District 4’s Owen Steed face challengers, though all are fighting uphill battles.)

The only way then that Democrats can capture the Legislature is if they manage to completely run the tables.

Still, this third part of our roundup of races will consider the Democrats’ chances for increasing their number of seats on the 15-seat County Legislature, now held by 11 members who caucus with the Republicans and 4 Democrats.

First, the Democrats’ attempts at flipping red seats to blue:


District 2 (Lewiston/Bergholz):  Democrats are bullish on the chances of former Lewiston Town Councilman Mike Johnson, a well-liked figure in Lewiston politics, to swipe the Lewiston-based seat currently held by Legislature Chairman Bill Ross.  Ross underperformed expectations last cycle—which, aside from his increasing age, may have been a factor in his decision to bow out of elected office.

Johnson’s opponent, Republican nominee Becky Wydysh is assured of the Republican, Conservative, and Independence lines, with Democrats making no moves to contest either of the latter two. Meanwhile, Wydysh is making a play for the Working Families and Green lines—a sign of confidence on the part of the candidate. Wydish, who works in the 8th Judicial District courts system, assigns jurors to trials.  The district has some built-in advantages for a Republican: A substantial portion of the district is in very Republican-friendly Sanborn, then doglegs south to Bergholz—perhaps the least Democratic place in Western Niagara County.

Wydysh’s performance in Thursday’s primaries will be a barometer of her strength. If she takes the Working Families and Green lines, Wydysh will be in a stronger positon to win, but will have to work it through Election Day.


District 9 (North Tonawanda east):  Most Republicans concede that freshman GOP lawmaker Randy Bradt is feeling the heat this election, with a strong challenge by Democrat Colleen Osborn. However, Osborn is fighting on difficult turf.

This seat was formerly held by Republican Paul Wojtaszek—younger brother of former GOP Boss Henry Wojtaszek, and beneficiary of a gerrymandered district designed to remain in the younger Wojtaszek’s hands even amidst the political equivalent of a Cat 5 hurricane.

Bradt, who replaced Wojtaszek when he departed to become a Supreme Court justice, has become the GOP’s streetfighter, taking on Democrat leader Virtuoso over a host of issues – some of them substantive and others more likely clearly political.

Thursday’s vote will be a test of Bradt’s strength. Osborn is gunning for him in an Independence primary at the same time he is looking to deprive her of the Working Families line. If Bradt prevails in both, he is a reasonable bet on election night; if Osborn wins both, Bradt is in jeopardy of being a one-termer. If Bradt holds the Independence line and Osborn saves her Working Families spot, Bradt may be the safer bet, given the heavy GOP tilt of the 9th District.


District 11 (Lockport-Pendleton):  Democrat-backed Republican Russell DeFranco has launched an aggressive campaign against incumbent Independence/Republican Tony Nemi, and many are wondering how DeFranco’s insurgency will play out with Pendleton facing a number of high-profile elections this year.

The GOP-backed Nemi will contest DeFranco on the Independence and Republican lines on Thursday, and the Democrat-backed DeFranco on the Green and Working Families lines.

Nemi has spent considerable time giving out “candy” on both ends of his district.  In Lockport, he and fellow County Legislator William Keith McNall secured $108,000 from the county’s share of Seneca Niagara Casino revenues as a one-time gift to the city treasury that was to be used to scale back city tax hikes. In Pendleton, Nemi delivered casino funds and advised the town board to utilize them to hire a lawyer to fight against a proposed gas compressor station being constructed by natural gas monopoly National Fuel. Those actions have been key talking points for the Nemi campaign ever since.

DeFranco, when he announced his candidacy in June, said one of his major reasons for running was Nemi’s support for legalizing sparklers in Niagara County ahead of this year’s Fourth of July celebrations. At the time, DeFranco criticized Nemi for “passing laws that our public safety organizations oppose.”

Days later, ironically, perhaps coincidentally, the North Tonawanda Walmart—the closest fireworks vendor to Pendleton—became one of the highest-selling fireworks retailers in the state.

Nemi’s ties to Lockport’s politically volatile West End and decades coaching, refereeing, and umpiring youth athletics have left Nemi with a political network that stretches from the Thirty-Mile Point lighthouse to Cayuga Island.  DeFranco, by contrast, a recent transplant to Pendleton, a former Niagara Falls police officer and Falls native, is not as well known in this district that spans from Pendleton’s farms and the Town of Lockport’s open countryside to the 3rd Ward of the City of Lockport, where all things Niagara Falls are viewed with suspicion.


District 13 (City of Lockport): Democrats face daunting odds on the east side of the City of Lockport, where longtime political fixture William Keith McNall faces a primary from another Democrat-backed Republican, Bob Drury—who, like DeFranco, is a former law officer.

To Drury’s benefit, he is an engaging public speaker, and wants to offer up a fairly conservative vision of government. However, most point to the soft-spoken McNall and see him already implementing a conservative governing agenda.

McNall, when contacted by the Reporter, noted, “Taxes are over a dollar per $1000 lower than when I took office,” former UAW official McNall told us. “That’s a metric I’m happy to be judged on.”

Drury, who is an ally of local activist and historical freedom principles advocate, David Mongielo, will benefit from a geared-up Lockport Democratic Party looking to make gains on election night.  For Drury, the best hopes of major wins by the Democrats are the 1st and 3rd Wards—while McNall’s 13th District is concentrated mostly in the 2nd, 4th and 5th Wards, and only the most Republican portions of the 1st Ward.  A Democrat-backed candidate will be fighting an uphill battle on this turf. 


District 12 (Town of Lockport):

This is the district currently occupied by departing Majority Leader Dick Updegrove.  So entrenched is the incumbent that the best Democratic challenger he faced in years, Anthony Molinaro, who is closely tied to a popular downtown eatery and the son-in-law of local Democratic powerbroker Dennis Devine, a former school principal who sits on the board of the city’s economic development corporation, was thrashed by Updegrove, losing by 62 percent to 38 percent.

Democrats are fighting on very bad ground in the 12th.

William J. Collins the candidate the GOP chose to succeed Updegrove.

With white collar credentials, but blue collar tastes, this accountant and homebuilder transitions to the worlds of hunting and martial arts, both of which he is reputed to excel at.

Facing Collins on Thursday in an Independence Party Primary is local activist and Facebook regular William “Bill” Nye, while local activist and Facebook regular David Mongielo face him in a Conservative Party primary. The two campaigns have been coordinating message, even issuing joint statements against Collins.

To Mongielo’s credit, he has managed to win Conservative primaries before, and may very well do so again.

And Nye will hold down the Democratic line in November, regardless of performance on Thursday, but a win is not likely in the cards in this very red district.


The Republican Counteroffensive: Republicans, meanwhile, are gunning for the Democratic minority.  With Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster experiencing a drop in popularity, leaving many wondering if he will survive Thursday’s Democratic primary against Glenn Choolokian, but likely to prevail in a Working Families primary, city Democrats are in a panic.


District 3 (Lasalle):  Democratic incumbent Mark Grozio is facing a spirited challenge from musician Rob Bilson.  However, strong organized labor muscle from the local IBEW, where Grozio is business manager, means that a Bilson win in Thursday’s primary is, at best, a remote possibility.

The general election may prove a more level field for Bilson, however, with Republicans standing ready to run him against Grozio in a district where Republicans Vincent M. Sandonato and Cheree Copelin proved the GOP line could win, despite a headwind.


District 5 (Deveaux/Town of Niagara):  This newspaper has found incumbent Jason Zona, a Falls firefighter, to be an engaging lawmaker, willing to show a great deal of transparency – a refreshing character trait almost unknown in his local city party.

His opponent, Town of Niagara-based small business owner Joe Naccarato, has waged an underdog campaign and while GOP leaders say he is “within striking distance” of Zona, this newspaper doubts that the Democrats’ lock on this district is in danger.


District 6 (Downtown/Independence Avenue/Hyde Park):  Few Democrats have been bigger newsmakers, over the years, than incumbent Minority Leader, Dennis F. Virtuoso, now in hnis 22nd year in the legislature.

It’s hard to imagine a victory by a Republican candidate, any Republican, even one is engaging as David Zajac in this super-heavily-Democratic district.






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