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SEP 22 - SEP 29, 2015

Forster's Folly Lockport, NT Benefit From Democratic Leader's Ineffective Plan

By Deborah Eddel

SEP 22, 2015

Art Pappas
Phillip R "Russ" Rizzo with 2012 Canal Queen.
Pete Smolinski
Nick Forster
Joe Kibler
Anne E. McCaffrey
Roger Sherrie
Mike White
John Tylec
Joe O'Shaughnessy
Dave Wohleben


Last week, we examined the results, countywide, of Democrats’ strategy in the September primaries: battling the Republicans on 106 different minor- and major-party lines, Democrats failed in virtually every contest outside Niagara Falls.

Since then, two patterns have emerged here in the Falls: several veteran Democrats managed to stave off a political nightmare by the barest of margins, while at least one Democratic insider paid a heavy price at the polls.

The problems of the Democrats seem to owe to two things:

First, the wild unpopularity of their party’s elected figurehead, the mayor of this city, Paul A. Dyster. Reelected four years ago by a scant 700 votes, Dyster’s margin has narrowed: at press time, he has held off Councilman Glenn Choolokian in a Democratic primary by a measly 64 votes.

And second, the bad electoral strategy of Niagara County Democratic Chairman Nicholas J. Forster, who gambled across the county—and lost badly. Tying up the Niagara County Republican machine with 106 primaries may have seemed like a bold strategy, but after Republicans outside Niagara Falls smashed through the Democrats’ defensive positions one after another outside Niagara Falls, Democrats are looking at an absolute rout on election night.

The good news is, Democrat officials here won’t have to do much sprucing up of their webpage, which lists just three—three!—candidates for office in the entire county: Lewiston Town Board candidate Francine DelMonte, County Clerk candidate Jamie Moxham, and City Council candidate Alicia Laible.

Actually, that last one is problematic, as Laible was already knocked out in her own party’s primary. Laible, a Democratic inner-circle insider, loyal to Dyster and Forster, couldn’t hold back independent Democrat Bob Anderson, or political upstart Ezra Scott Jr.

In other words, the Democratic Party’s public face is still wearing, nearly two weeks later, a death mask.

So, even if—miracle of miracles—Dyster survives his head-to-head matchup with Republican nominee John G. Accardo, that may be the only piece of good news greeting Democrats the morning after.

This newspaper expects, with the exception of a few breakouts, Republicans will contain Democrats in most of the county’s 12 towns.  With the possible exception of Francine DelMonte’s quixotic run for Lewiston Town Board, Democrats are expected to fall in most town contests. Republican strategists we spoke to point to signs of pick-ups in the Lewiston and Pendleton supervisors’ offices, and all signs point to positive territory for GOP County Legislature candidates hailing from the towns.

That leaves the county’s other two cities—North Tonawanda and Lockport—as the Democrats’ only hope to change the narrative away from a Democrat bloodbath. And most veteran political observers in both parties that this newspaper spoke two believe that failures to reverse the GOP tide in either of those two cities will most certainly mark the beginning of the end of the Forster Era.


First, North Tonawanda:


Mayor—Mayoral candidate Art Pappas is no political newbie. Running as a spoiler in a mayoral primary in 2005, he helped set the conditions that led to GOP nominee Michael Carney’s defeat by Democrat Larry Soos in a painfully close election.


Carney and Pappas then found themselves both elected to North Tonawanda’s school board, where, over time, they seem to have worked out any animosities stemming from the 2005 election.

Fast-forward to 2015. Ironically enough, Carney spent primary night bolstering the efforts of the man who once denied him the NT mayor’s office. However, veteran observers say this shouldn’t surprise anyone. A top leader in the county GOP told us, “Mike Carney is a Republican first, and more committed to victory then ego.”

The results seem to bear this assessment out across the Lumber City.


Clerk-Treasurer—In addition to Pappas, who controls all but two lines against a weak opponent—John Tylec, a former Democratic county legislator resurrected from the political graveyard to head up the NT Democratic slate here in NT—Lumber City Republicans are excited by the prospects of city Clerk-Treasurer Dan Quinn.

Quinn, appointed to the post from obscurity in January, succeeding former Clerk-Treasurer Scott Kiedrowski (who departed to helm State Sen. Robert G. Ortt’s ship), blitzed a series of primaries, taking every single ballot line except the Democrats’ Row A. He moves forward as the candidate of the Republican, Conservative, Green, Working Families, and Independence parties.

How effective was Quinn’s organizing?  Not only did he snatch away Democratic nominee James McGinnis’s Working Families line by a half-dozen votes, but he managed to hold back McGinnis’s bid for the Independence Party line by a 111-11. That’s a 10-to-1 margin.

Many credit Carney’s well-oiled machine with Quinn’s margins. The political greenhorn is well-positioned for a commanding victory on election night.


Alderman-at-Large—Nowhere has Carney’s NT GOP operation scored a more significant victory than in the battle for alderman-at-large.  In North Tonawanda, where there are only three wards, there are two alderman-at-large posts.

With one of those posts filled by Bob Pecoraro—an appointee chosen after the death of popular Republican Bob Clark—Forster thought he had landed a surefire way to score an upset on the home turf of Ortt, GOP capo di tutti capi Henry Wojtaszek, and former Sen. George D. Maziarz.  Forster plucked Pete Smolinski, a former Republican county legislator who hailed from the city’s 2nd Ward, out of the political dustbin and gave him the Democrats’ nod to challenge Pecoraro for an abbreviated two-year term as alderman-at-large.

Republicans in the Lumber City tell us that it’s not secret Smolinski felt slighted when he was pushed out of the County Legislature during redistricting and downsizing, and has been harboring a grudge against the local GOP organization. With Forster’s backing—and that of the Democrat-allied Working Families Party—Smolinski set out to take down Pecoraro, all while telling voters he planned to stay for a full four year term. Simultaneously, Smolinski passed Republican petitions to challenge Pecoraro in a GOP primary—part and parcel of Forster’s strategy of primarying Republicans ahead of November.

Smolinski—and Forster—never saw what hit them.

In a scene eerily reminiscent of the baptism scene in “The Godfather,” GOP lawyers led by Wojtaszek invalidated Smolinski’s GOP and Democratic petitions in court. With just a Working Families petition left keeping his bid for office alive, Republican operatives then channeled “The Godfather Part II” and gave Smolinski’s political career the Fredo treatment, dumping him overboard by a 28-25 margin.


The other alderman-at-large race, meanwhile, isn’t much of a contest, with incumbent Catherine G. Schwandt likely an easy victor.


1st Ward—In May, 1st Ward Alderman—and Common Council President—Phillip R. “Russ” Rizzo announced he was retiring from politics.  After a successful career that included two separate stints on the Common Council, punctuated by two years on the County Legislature, the grandfatherly figure announced that he’d seen enough of politics.

This left North Tonawanda political honchos scrambling for a replacement. After four weeks in limbo, local Republicans including Carney prevailed upon Rizzo to make one more run for office in this ward, the toughest piece of real estate for NT Republicans.  The 1st Ward, which spans a part of the city referred to locally as The Avenues, is heavily Polish and disproportionately elderly, although GOP organizers here have noted a number of young families moving into this older, lower-rent part of town in recent years.

In short, Republicans saw Rizzo as their best hopes of holding this ward as it goes through a political and socioeconomic metamorphosis.  Many also credit Rizzo—a quiet, unassuming fellow with a jovial demeanor—with actually being a hardnosed negotiator who gets exactly what he wants when he makes a deal.  Nowhere was this more evident than his two years in county government, which were culminated by the county, the City of North Tonawanda, and the Town of Wheatfield signing a three-way, multi-million-dollar agreement to mitigate annual flooding concerns on Witmer Road.  This has even earned Rizzo the nickname “The Consigliere” in GOP circles.

Rizzo does face an opponent, and elections in the 1st Ward have been close, historically, even for this popular figure. Dom Polski Club President Cathy A. Brachmann is challenging Rizzo, but was a no-show on primary night, suggesting she doesn’t have the experience, or organization, to battle the veteran for ballot dominance going into November.

Still, the Dom Polski Club remains a critical hub of the Polish community here, and while Rizzo bested his last opponent by a 450-vote edge two years ago, the election before that came down to counting absentee ballots. On paper, Brachmann is a formidable candidate, but on the campaign trail, she has yet to emerge.


2nd Ward—Carney’s team relentlessly beat back a GOP primary in the 2nd Ward. There, GOP incumbent Donna Braun, who a top NT Republican organizer called a “team player” who “knows what jersey she’s wearing” took 91 percent of the vote in an intra-party race against Lori Calamita. So bad was Calamita’s performance that she didn’t receive a single vote in two voting districts in her ward.

Calamita, who was endorsed by Democrats and the Working Families Party, limps forward now. The Republican primary shows that she is a hard sell for Republican voters here. Meanwhile, Board of Elections officials tell us the Working Families primary ended in a tie—meaning Calamita may keep the line, but has shown she lacks the organizational skill necessary to hold down friendly ballot lines convincingly.


Few expect Braun, a popular member of the board of the United Way who has been a vigorous campaigner for revitalizing the city’s blighted Oliver Street business corridor, to have any trouble overcoming the challenge by Calamita, who is an active volunteer at St. Jude’s Shrine in Lewiston.

Aiding Braun further is the fact that the 2nd Ward is competitive turf where both parties seek to win, but recent elections have shown a decided tilt to the GOP. Two years ago, Braun destroyed Democratic opponent Lisa M. Spencer by a 61-39 percent margin. The election prior saw her predecessor, Republican Rich Andres, who now sits in the County Legislature, dominate Democrat Patrick Barry by 66-34 percent, while two years before that, Andres bested long-time Democratic officeseeker Jerome DiVirgilio by 65-35 percent.

Ironically enough, two years before that—2007—Democrat Kevin Brick narrowly eked out a win in the 2nd. His opponent? A Republican named Lori Calamita.


3rd Ward—The most heavily Republican ward in North Tonawanda by far, this area is home to the city’s new development—large homes, large lots, and a large deer population.

So large is the deer population here that the local municipal golf course is called Deerwoods, and the city, every few years, ends up debating whether to bait—and shoot—the nuisance beasts.

They might as well be elephants, though, as a more fitting symbol of this ward’s tilt.

Incumbent 3rd Ward Alderman Eric Zadzilka—a stocky, bearded giant who looks like he would be at home on the Bills defensive line—has held this seat since 2009, when he posted a nearly-500-vote win over his opponent. That margin repeated itself in 2011, while it increased to nearly 700 votes in 2013.

Heading into November, Zadzilka has locked down virtually every single line on the ballot, save opponent John G. Jacobs’ Democratic and Working Families spots. In the more blue-collar portions of North Tonawanda, the lack of a Working Families line might cause the Republican to sweat; here, though, it’s inconsequential, given the heavy tilt of the playing field.


That all leaves Lockport—Democrats’ only real hope to damage the GOP on its home turf.


Lockport is, of course, a mess.

It is not a mess on the order of Niagara Falls, where a $7 million structural deficit is barely commented upon for more than a few days, but it is a mess nonetheless, borrowing money from the state—with interest—to cover its own deficit.

An ongoing war with the city’s firefighters union, meanwhile, has exposed political faultlines and put Democratic crosshairs on Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey’s back.

This may be Nick Forster’s best hope for salvation. A significant win here, taking out McCaffrey or leaving her with a Democratic council, could provide him cover as Democrats assess the damage from an otherwise bad election night.

Unfortunately for Forster, local Republicans sent in the Marines.

Or, actually, Marine, singular.

Adam VandeMark, who has emerged as the leader of city Republicans, a Marine Reservist who looks the part, and more importantly acts it, is directing the ground war here, and indicators are he may beat back the Democrats’ ambush in the Lock City.

VandeMark is said to be meeting regularly with McCaffrey and other GOP loyalists here, including former Niagara County GOP Chairman Mike Norris and City Attorney John Ottaviano, plotting out a bold plan to blunt Democrats’ thrust. If the Sept. 10 primary is any indication, VandeMark’s plan may be working.


Mayor—Anne McCaffrey is a bit atypical of mayors here. A photogenic woman, she is a former head of a nonprofit. With a degree in political science, she is far-removed from the more blue-collar, and generally more masculine individuals that have recently occupied the mayor’s office here. One long-time Eastern Niagara County GOP figure referred to her as “our very own Carly Fiorina”—a title that is earned, given the mayor’s outspoken bluntness in assessing her city’s problems.

GOP insiders tell us that polling indicates McCaffrey is popular and poised to win—voters aren’t blaming her for the city’s problems, but rather two men named Mike: former Mayor Mike Tucker and City Treasurer Mike White.

And, don’t let McCaffrey’s slender frame, pastel business suits and ever-present strand of pearls fool you. City Hall insiders tell us that former Mayor Mike Tucker’s departure wasn’t driven by claimed private-sector job offers, but rather a very public monthlong campaign for his ouster waged by McCaffrey when she brought in an outside investigator to probe misuse of Tucker’s city credit card.

McCaffrey and VandeMark stand ready to take a war to the Democrats here, ward by ward.

In a show of their combined organization force, McCaffrey easily held off a challenge to her Conservative line by a 47-17 margin, and an Independence Party primary by 49-34. This kind of primary night discipline—even as two Republican council candidates were being bested—suggests the Lockport GOP remains an organizational powerhouse.

Democrat Roger Sherrie, meanwhile, handily won his party’s primary, but as of this writing, the outcome of a Working Families primary remains in doubt, with more write-in votes than machine votes, and it has been suggested that Republicans may have helped tip the primary to his challenger. Should Democrat also-ran Michael Pillot upset former union boss Sherrie there, it will be a significant drag on both the Democrat standardbearer and the overall anti-McCaffrey/anti-Republican vote.


City Treasurer—This may prove the best chance for Democrats to score an upset. And yet, for many in the city GOP, it won’t count as one.

Incumbent Treasurer Mike White—the brother of Maziarz’s wife, Beverly, incidentally—has found himself easily the most divisive figure in the Niagara County GOP this cycle.

A war of words between White and McCaffrey has spilled out into City Hall’s council chambers, with each casting the other as to blame for the city’s financial distress.  Unfortunately for White, his tenure at One Locks Plaza predates McCaffrey’s relatively recent move there.

With Democrat Sue Mawhiney being quite openly backed by several Republicans in Good Standing, White is an outsider in this election. And, while White beat back Mawhiney’s bid for his Conservative line by an impressive 38-11 (meaning many of those who voted for him there also voted for McCaffrey, and vice-versa), Mawhiney held off White’s effort to snatch away her Working Families line.

The Republican blood feud in Lockport may very well claim White’s scalp—but he’s a cagy politician, and alliances in each ward of Lockport mean he will mount a fight that may become the main event on election night. Still, with fingers being pointed at the incumbent and the city’s finances front-and-center in this election, a White victory has to be scored as unlikely.

Unfortunately for Forster, he won’t be able to claim this win as one of his own; with several prominent city Republicans working to engineer White’s ouster, this must be scored as a GOP bloodletting.

That leaves the battle for control of the Common Council.


Alderman-at-Large—Early indications are the GOP is likely to net at least three of the five ward-based alderman slots, and the GOP is pinning its hopes on a win by incumbent Alderman-at-Large Joe Kibler to get to four. Kibler faces a spirited contest—a first for the popular figure—against Democrat Joe O’Shaughnessy. Most give the incumbent a narrow edge here, but Lockport Republicans are expected to be holding their breath on election night.

Observers will be waiting to see the outcome of nine votes cast in a Green Party write-in primary here to see whether Kibler adds to his Republican, Conservative, Independence, and Reform lines, or O’Shaughnessy evens out the ballot by adding to his Democratic and Working Families lines.

This race will go down to the wire, and the battle between McCaffrey and White couldn’t come at a worse time for the incumbent. Most GOP stalwarts we talked to, though, believe Kibler’s magic hasn’t run out just yet.


1st Ward—This is the Democrats’ single best hope for a win here on election night. Republicans found themselves backing Jennifer D’Andrea-Terreri in the GOP primary. D’Andrea-Terreri was a singularly attractive candidate, with strong financial resources and a large amount of favorable press about her efforts to help Western New York veterans through her S.E.R.V. Niagara initiative.

If only she lived in the 1st Ward.

The revelation that D’Andrea-Terreri was house-shopping in the ward she hoped to represent rankled a number of veteran political operators here, as well as a core of vigorous political activists who set out to destroy D’Andrea-Terreri in what can be called the “Facebook primary.” By primary night, the candidate was mortally wounded, and blown out of the water by Joseph Oates, an insurgent who was backed by some GOP insiders, including City Attorney John Ottaviano, in a sure sign the GOP here was hedging its bets as D’Andrea-Terreri’s candidacy imploded.

Oates positioned himself as a reform candidate, seeking to force change at City Hall. Typical was this statement from the candidate: “[Residents] are looking for answers [from City Hall] and they don’t get them…so I’m going down to try and get them answered.”

First Ward Republican primary voters ate up what Oates was serving, giving him 99 votes to 21 for D’Andrea-Terreri (and 28 for perennial political gadfly Shirley Nicholas, a novelty candidate who has contested previous 1st Ward primaries). 

Meanwhile, city Democratic Chairman Ed Tracy had a clear path to his party’s nomination. The rumpled, bespectacled Tracy offered up long family ties to the city when he announced in June, and attacked the direction of city government under the current administration. However, like many Democratic candidates outside Niagara Falls, he is a retread from a different era in Democratic fortunes, a former alderman who served in the late 1980s.

As a staunch defender of unions and union spending prerogatives, Tracy would be a thorn in McCaffrey’s side for the next two years.

Sources close to the GOP in this city say they expect D’Andrea-Terreri—who holds the Conservative and Independence lines—to throw her support to Oates in the near future.

“Jennifer is a good Republican, and knows that Ed Tracy will give the unions everything they want and pass the cost to the taxpayers,” said a source in VandeMark’s inner circle. “We know she will back Joe and help keep this ward—and the council—from being controlled by the unions.”

Should that occur, Republican chances of holding the 1st Ward are decent.  Despite including some of the lowest-income portions of the city, this is the same ward that elected Republicans Richelle Pasceri and Phyllis Green dating back to the 1990s. However, if Democrats have any hopes of capturing Lockport’s government, they will have to reverse that trend.


2nd Ward—By contrast, the 2nd Ward is the GOP’s absolute breadbasket. It includes some very high-end neighborhoods in the city southeast, centered on Continental and Independence Drives.  This is the part of the city that first elected McCaffrey to the Common Council; it is where former GOP County Chairman Mike Norris grew up; it is a lopsided Republican polity. 

Which is why Lockport Republicans find current Alderwoman Anita Mullane so vexing.

A pro-union Democrat whose sister is a unionized city department head, Mullane eked out a three-vote win a year ago in a special election here against Republican Pat Feeley, who, in addition to being skewered for all of the city’s problems, ran a dismally lackluster campaign, even declaring, in essence, he hoped to lose.

This time, Republicans are pinning their hopes on Maria Updegraph. Updegraph, a young mother who co-owns a theatrical special effects and construction specialty company with her husband, has strong ties to the business community here. Working part-time at the city’s Flight of Five Winery, Updegraph was visible throughout the summer at markets and street festivals.

To her credit, Mullane struck an early conciliatory tone, vowing she “ran for office to help turn our city in a positive direction—not to wage a political vendetta. I am looking forward to meeting with Mayor McCaffrey as soon as possible, and I hope this marks the beginning of a cordial and productive partnership.” Unfortunately, McCaffrey and other council members have since repeatedly locked horns with Mullane.

Mullane and Updegraph both largely chose to forego electioneering and move forward on their parties’ native lines heading into November. Given the heavy GOP tilt of this ward, one must expect a strong shot at a GOP capture here; however, Mullane enjoys the advantages of incumbency and being against the administration of a city most agree is heading the wrong direction.

This will be a race to watch on election night.


3rd Ward—This newspaper was not alone in predicting the demise of Alderwoman Kathryn J. “Kitty” Fogle on primary night—though no one could have projected how massively Fogle would be turned out at the polls.

Republicans have reason for optimism here, however.

Mark Devine, the winner of the GOP and Conservative primaries here, is said by several Lockport GOP insiders to be “a reasonable, mainstream Republican.” Devine breaks with city Republicans on one issue: the ongoing fight over the firefighters contract, layoffs, and ambulance services.

Those same insiders report that, in the days immediately after the primary, Devine and top Lockport Republicans have reached out and seem to be finding enough common ground and rapport to proceed as a team. Those same sources indicate city GOP leaders will ask Fogle to suspend her campaign from her remaining ballot lines and back Devine.

Meanwhile, few expect Democrat Zachary Parker to be able to top Devine. At 22, Parker seems a weak matchup for the seasoned and likeable Devine—fresh off a 123-35 primary win—and Republicans believe this will give them a clear hold to govern.


4th Ward—Career Air Force veteran Dave Wohleben is Republicans’ best hope for a pickup on election night, sources in the VandeMark camp tell us.

“Dave is a strong candidate, with a solid record of service to his nation, and a long affiliation with DeSales Catholic School. He’s as good a candidate as you can run in Lockport’s south side,” is how a former officeholder here put it.

While several lopsided primary night wins indicate a campaign that is geared up and ready, Wohleben would normally have his work cut out for him.

Patrick Schrader has a lengthy tenure in Lockport politics. In 2001, he bested a candidate named Mike Tucker for his 4th Ward seat. He is one of the most seasoned and capable candidates that Democrats in this city have managed to nominate.

Unfortunately for Schrader, though, and incident where he contacted police to shut down a concession run by the city’s Navy Marine Club on Memorial Day because it conflicted with a popular car cruise-in he helps organize left him severely damaged this cycle.

So bad was Schrader’s performance that The Lockport Union-Sun & Journal wrote a May 31 editorial that condemned him and his actions.

Schrader finally issued a rambling, grammatically-strained letter that tried to justify his actions on June 22, in which he blasted the veterans club, writing, “I, am also upset that a couple of individuals, tried to take advantage of the ‘Cruise’ for financial gains” after asserting he had not acted alone.

Schrader has proven vulnerable to challenges before, and Republicans are cognizant that he was bested by 10 points in the 2009 election when several key figures in Lockport political circles turned against him.

There are political missteps, and then there are outright boners. This is the latter. It’s hard to imagine Schrader being able to push back effectively against a candidate as well-positioned to capitalize on his error as veteran Air Force aviator Wohleben.


5th Ward—With the retirement of GOP stalwart Ken Genewick from politics, former school board member Allan Jack is the GOP pick here.

A “nuts-and-bolts” candidate, Jack’s announcement for this seat was heavy with policy specifics, targeting the city’s privatized garbage pickup, a Tucker initiative, for reforms.

Former Lockport Streets Department employee Rick Abbott is the Democratic nominee. Abbott, who has spent 35 years in various public-sector jobs, offered this rationale for his candidacy: “We are paying a premium tax rate; so therefore, we need to provide quality services to our residents. Quality services is not a perk, it is an obligation.”

The two proceed without any primary night electioneering, so it’s difficult to gauge the outcome of this race based on performance there. However, Jack benefits from a GOP tilt to the ward and strong name ID after serving on the school board. Meanwhile, Abbott can likely count on strong union support.

Nick Forster’s tenure as Democratic chairman hinges on the outcome of these elections. Should McCaffrey, VandeMark and the GOP team in Lockport succeed despite the strong undertow there, expect voices in the Democratic Party to begin openly questioning whether Forster can—or should—continue.  Meanwhile, should Carney and the NT GOP organization flub the electoral equivalent of a sure thing in November, expect Forster to spend a lot of time insisting that victory in the other two cities was his plan all along.






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