Just about everyone watching the hot contest between County Executive Gorski and Republican challenger Joel A. Giambra had this one figured: sooner or later, it would get ugly.
As Gorski fills the airwaves with a new spate of negative ads questioning Giambra's performance and even his character, it appears the observers were right -- sooner rather than later.
The stewing emotions between the two camps boiled over Tuesday as Giambra called on local television stations to pull the Gorski ads he called "outright lies."
The Buffalo comptroller charged Gorski's newest ad distorts the facts of a sexual harassment case involving an employee of his office, and labeled as an "ethnic slur" a mailing sent to voters in Tuesday's Independence Party primary comparing a child covered with spilled spaghetti to Giambra's "mess."
"I was prepared for the distortions that come with every campaign," Giambra said Tuesday. "I was not prepared for the bald-faced lies."
The county executive, however, offers "no apologies whatsoever" for what he has promised all along -- a close and tough examination of Giambra's record. He said an ad that is critical of Giambra's response to the sexual harassment situation is valid and denied Giambra's claims that he had distorted the facts.
"That's a reflection of the character of my opponent and a reflection of his time spent as Buffalo city comptroller," Gorski said. "That's a fair campaign issue. These are factual statements."
So far, Gorski's rough-and-tumble approach, stemming from the realization he faces a tough fight for re-election, appears to adhere to a carefully prepared script. The idea is to create a lasting impression in the minds of voters -- especially suburban voters -- who come away from the ads with new questions about a city-based challenger with whom they are still basically unfamiliar.
Hence, ads questioning Giambra's watchdog abilities while City Hall employee David May embezzled about $200,000 from the clerk's office; another set in a graveyard wondering why city benefits were paid to dead people; and now the sexual harassment commercial.
All, Giambra says, distort the facts.
The ads are part of a time-honored political tradition that often proves successful -- however distasteful such ads may be.
"Negative ads tend to work when the response is complicated, just like in this (sexual harassment) case," said Hank Scheinkopf, a veteran political consultant based in Manhattan. "It's impossible to encapsulate this situation in 30 seconds, so it's very hard to respond to. This was tailor-made for a negative ad."
He said negative ads flourish in American politics for the same reason that violent movies succeed -- voters want to watch the "battle."
"You might pay a price, but you hope that the impact is so strong that it outweighs the bad part," Scheinkopf said of the ads produced by Saul Shorr of Philadelphia. "When they're scripted and produced well and difficult to respond to, they work. They fail when the opposition comes up with an easy response."
Indeed, Giambra scrambled Tuesday to produce reams of paperwork to defend himself against the newest Gorski ads, which center on the case of Joseph P. Pendolino, a comptroller's employee accused of sexually harassing a co-worker in 1992. The employee eventually collected $30,000 from the City of Buffalo after filing a federal lawsuit, but Giambra maintains only because the city had no written guidelines regarding sexual harassment.
That, he says, was the crux of the decision against the city, and not that he allowed the situation to flourish, as the ad implies. He displayed letters he wrote soon after the complaints were filed indicating he sought Pendolino's dismissal, but was stymied by union rules, Civil Service regulations and Law Department advisories.
He also said the ad was inaccurate in at least three claims: that Pendolino was a "senior official" (he was a Civil Service employee); that he was suspended with pay (he was suspended without pay, while Gorskie maintains that court records prove otherwise), and in its failure to mention Pendolino eventually resigned when he allegedly violated probation and harassed the co-worker again.
But Gorski pointed to Magistrate Judge Carol E. Heckman's criticisms of the city in her decision, including the conclusion that: "Pendolino's conduct was so manifest as to imply constructive acquiescence of senior policy-making officials."
The county executive said that reflected on Giambra, explaining all claims in his ads are based on "statistical, empirical data."
"To put the woman in this last ad in the situation he did -- one that no mother, wife or daughter should be placed in -- that's outrageous," he said. "It's not only bad judgment, it's egregious conduct."
But that was not all that prompted the volley between the GOP and Democratic camps Tuesday. Giambra was incensed over a flier mailed to Independence voters, who will choose between him and Gorski in their minor party primary on Tuesday. The flier shows Giambra's "mess" as a child covered with spilled spaghetti -- a depiction the comptroller said clearly carries an anti-Italian message.
"There's no question where he's going," said Giambra, pointing to the ad's frequent mention of Italian-American names linked to alleged misdeeds in City Hall. "It's obvious he's trying to divide the community ethnically. Members of every ethnic group in this town should be as insulted as am I and my family."
He said he will abide by the pledge he made at the beginning of his campaign to conduct a positive effort.
"I may get my head handed to me, or the voters are going to appreciate the fact that we will not let this campaign degenerate," he said.
Gorski, a Democrat, said he is only responding to Giambra's own negative campaigning, claiming his Republican opponent distorts his record of job creation and cites editorials about Gorski's tax-reduction plans from The Buffalo News that cited erroneous facts, and were then corrected in later editions.
He also labeled as "outrageous" Giambra's claims that the spaghetti flier carries an anti-Italian bias.
"It's a cute picture, and a reflection of the mess he brings to this race," Gorski said.