As next year’s State Senate elections approach in the distance, the fog is clearing to reveal a political landscape that will make Western New York a central battleground for control of the chamber. Typically five or six seat are competitive statewide, and attract large sums of special interest money from outside the districts. In Western New York, at least four Senate races are expected to be competitive — in either the primary election, the general election, or both.
57th district: Cathy Young
The Southern Tier district encompasses Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, and Allegheny counties. It is one of the most conservative districts in the state. It is considerably older, more rural, and less educated than most districts.
After Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos was indicted on federal corruption charges earlier this year, he was pushed out of the leadership post. The battle for the leadership position quickly formed between upstate senators and downstate senators, with the Republican caucus narrowly divided.
Catherine Young voted for against the upstate bloc to back the new majority leader from Long Island, John Flannagan, over John DeFrancisco, of Syracuse. The upstate bloc lost by less than a handful of votes, with Young and two others defecting.
After Young’s vote, Carl Paladino said that he would recruit a primary challenger. In her district, any Republican would be vulnerable to challenge from the right. Because of the Republican enrollment advantage and the conservative bent of the district, Paladino should be discerning in his recruitment of candidate — because the winner of the primary could easily hold the district for a decade or two.
The candidate should be charismatic, accomplished, articulate, ambitious — and dedicated to the objective of taking over the Republican establishment and becoming the next Senate majority leader.
60th district: Marc Panepinto
Marc Panepinto is widely considered the most vulnerable incumbent in the state. As a candidate, Panepinto has been unable to shake criticisms relating to an election fraud conviction in 2001. His first term has been marked with an ethics scandal in which Panepinto personally lobbied for changes to insurance law that would have benefited his law firm.
Panepinto narrowly won his primary and won the general election with only 31.5% of the vote. Observers say that his term has been lackluster, and his confrontational posture with Cuomo has angered some Democrats. His close relationships with the teachers’ union is distasteful to a fraction of Democrats.
Former State Senator Al Coppola is expected to challenge Panepinto. Operatives throw around the names of other Democrats — speculatively — including Delaware district councilman Joel Feroletto; school board member Jay McCarthy; and county legislator Peter Savage.
One the Republican side, the attorney Kevin Stocker is already actively campaigning. He defeated Grisanti two years ago in a primary landslide. Other Republicans are rumored to be actively considering the race, including county legislator Kevin Hardwick, county clerk Chris Jacobs, and Hamburg supervisor Steven Walters.
61st district: Mike Ranzenhofer
Mike Ranzenhofer has been able to fend off well funded Democratic challengers before — like Joe Mesi and Marc Coppola. The district includes the Democrat-heavy towns of Amherst and Brighton, which are buoyed by Republican towns in between. It’s a difficult challenge to wage, because it requires a presence in two disparate media markets and political communities. Still, if downstate Democrats want to retake the Senate, they will be digging deep to identify competitive districts. A conservative Democrat could make the race interesting.
62nd district: Rob Ortt
Rob Ortt is a freshman Senator and heir apparent to the political machine still led by former Senator George Maziarz. He defeated a Niagara Falls Democrat with an impressive margin and well done television commercial. Democrats may field a candidate, but the more the interesting contest would be inside the Republican primary — if there is one. The Niagara County GOP has been warring in recent election cycles, and this could be exactly the battle they are looking to have.
63rd district: Tim Kennedy
Tim Kennedy nearly lost once before — coming only a few hundred votes from a surprise defeat by county legislator Betty Jean Grant, despite outspending her by $400,000. She is a beloved figure in the black community and regularly referred to as “the only honest politician.”
The district includes the Eastside, Cheektowaga, South Buffalo, Lackawanna, and parts of the Westside. There are three powerful ethnic political machines in the district: the Irish community in South Buffalo, the Polish community in Cheektowaga, and the Black community in Buffalo.
Political operatives speculate that Town Supervisor Diane Benczkowski may run for the Senate seat, in a nod to Grant. Both are aligned with party headquarters and longtime political foes of Kennedy, who defected to the GOP caucus while in the county legislature.