As we look forward to 2016, the election calendar dictates that it will be a big year in politics — especially for Western New York.
It’s a presidential election year, so expect turnout to be high in the general election for all down ticket races. New York’s presidential primary will be held in April, and competition could be fierce in both parties. The Republican establishment will be spending heavily to defeat Donald Trump and openly discusses the possibility of a brokered convention to stop him. Meanwhile Democrats are almost certainly headed for a long and brutal primary battle that could easily result in a Bernie Sanders win.
United States Senate
Charles Schumer has been a Senator for over 16 years (1999-2016); in the House of Representatives for 18 years (1981-19990; and in the State Assembly for 6 years (1975-1981). He is expected to assume the office of Senate Majority Leader in the event that Democrats take control of the Senate. That influence could be powerful for New York State, but whether or not it would ever trickle down to benefiting Western New York is another question entirely.
While the junior Senator Kirsten Gillibrand doesn’t have an election this year, she is often mentioned as the prime contender for the Vice Presidential slot on a Bernie Sanders ticket. If they win, in that hypothetical scenario, who would Governor Hochul appoint to fill the vacancy?
House of Representatives
Representative Brian Higgins has been in the Congress for nearly 12 years and sits on the Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees in a year when the presidential contest is likely to be consumed by national security issues. Higgins is the Ranking Member on the Counter Terrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee, and takes his orders from Representative Eliot Engl, a Democrat from the affluent Riverdale section of the Bronx. Both men are closely aligned with the defense contracting industry and seen as being bankrolled by the military industrial complex. The federal primary will be held in June — not in September when state primaries are held — because party bosses want to suppress turnout to disadvantage challengers. Higgins will have a primary and Republicans haven’t yet named a challenger.
Governor of New York
Governor Andrew Cuomo doesn’t have an election this year, but it is widely rumored to be the subject of an investigation by United States Attorney Preet Bharara. The US Attorney is expected to continue his aggressive pursuit of public corruption, and the state’s political establishment is on the edge of its proverbial seat in anticipation of an expected indictment in early January. That scenario would elevate Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul to the Governorship, giving Western New York unprecedented influence in Albany.
Western New York will be a central battleground for control of the almost evenly divided body. Primaries will be held in September and are expected to be loud, costly affairs.
- Marc Panepinto’s 60th district will have a pricy primary that he is very likely to lose to former Senator Alfred T. Coppola. The seat is also at the top of Republican priority lists, and the party has become accustomed to spending heavily on the district. Republican challenger Kevin Stocker has been campaigning door to door for months while Chris Jacobs continues to consider the contest.
- Tim Kennedy’s 63rd district is likely to have a robust primary from Betty Jean Grant, an independent voice who is widely respected for her integrity. The newly elected town supervisor of Cheektowaga, Diane Benczkowski has the political world anticipating whether or not she will enter the race as well.
- Rob Ortt’s 62nd district will have a well funded Democrat challenger in the general election. Rumor has it that the teachers unions are targeting the seat as a top priority in their bid to help the Democrats take the Senate. Democrats haven’t yet identified a candidate.
- Cathy Young’s 57th district will have a primary challenger from the right, if Carl Paladino keeps his word on a pronouncement made last year. She betrayed her regional caucus of Republicans early last year when she supported a Long Island successor to the disgraced former majority leader Dean Skelos.
Usually Assembly races don’t attract the local excitement or the campaign contributions from New York City that often come with Senate contests. The Democrats have long controlled a huge majority in the Assembly which is unlikely to change unless something bold and dramatic happens; like non-partisan redistricting, term limits, and real campaign finance limits.
- Angela Wozniak’s 143rd district was going to be a competitive one before sexual misconduct allegations surfaced from her staffer, Elias Farah, a well known Republican operative. Farah alleges that the 29 year old Assemblywoman was demanding sexual favors from him and that, when he finally began to refuse, she fired him. Wozniak is the political protege of Erie County Chairman Nick Langworthy, who is known to have provided his girlfriend a well paid patronage position at the Erie County Water Authority. It’s not clear whether or not Wozniak will face GOP a primary challenger, but many are raising questions about the culture inside the local Republican Party.
- Sean Ryan’s 149th district was gerrymandered to protect the still junior member in the last redistricting process. The district encompasses areas previously held by Republicans Jack Quinn and Kevin Smardz, but Ryan’s more likely vulnerability is a moderate primary challenger. No word on whether or not or registered Independent Lynne Dixon, a county legislator, is seen as a very strong potential contender for the seat.
- Crystal Peoples-Stokes’ 143rd district could be one of the area’s most energetic primaries. The Eastside has been a bastion for renewed political activism in the last year. Peoples-Stokes has been criticized in recent years for failing to advance a policy and investment agenda for the Black community at a time when the community lacks a State Senator.
- John Ceretto’s 145th district is likely to be competitive after the former Republican switched parties to join the Democratic caucus, presumably for spending perks that come with being in the majority. Both Democrats and Republicans are likely to promote challengers for the seat.
- Robin Schimminger’s 140th district hasn’t had a competitive race in years, and the incumbent has served in the State Assembly since 1977, and before that in the county legislature since 1973. In a high turnout year among a Tonawanda constituency friendly to Donald Trump, whose appeal to infrequent voters could swing down-ticket races like this one. Popular Riverside Councilman Joe Golombek has neither confirmed or denied rumors that he is considering the race.
Board of Education
In May, the school board’s governing majority will face district elections. Of the six seats up for reelection, three are held by the majority bloc and three are held by the minority bloc. The teachers unions are expected to spend $200,000 on the low turnout races, much of it targeting a few thousand voters. National organizations supporting education reform could dump as much or more than that $200,000 into the election. These races tend to spend heavily on direct mail.
Joe Mascia is seeking reelection to the Board of Commissioners in May, in what is likely to become the highest profile Commissioners’ election in anyone’s memory. Mascia is likely to call attention to public corruption and mismanagement in the authority, controlled by the administration of Mayor Bryon Brown.