After months of behind-the-scenes wrangling, a lineup of six candidates for three State Supreme Court openings began taking shape Thursday after Republicans settled on their three choices.
GOP delegates from the eight counties of the Eighth Judicial District chose incumbent State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang, Niagara County Judge Amy Jo Fricano and former U.S. Attorney Salvatore R. Martoche during their judicial nominating convention in the Statler Towers.
Democrats will meet Monday evening and are expected to select attorney Gerald J. Whalen, City Judge E. Jeannette Ogden and Amherst Town Justice Mark G. Farrell.
The Independence Party met Wednesday night and nominated Whalen, Martoche and Farrell, according to Chairman John B. Horan. Conservatives also will meet on Monday, when Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo will recommend Wolfgang, Martoche and one other candidate still to be determined.
The choices mark the first time in the last seven years that at least one slot for Supreme Court was not predetermined by a cross-endorsement process that gives bipartisan backing to a candidate. It is rare that a sitting judge such as Wolfgang is not afforded bipartisan backing, and that has proved a sore point with Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis.
But he and Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon could not agree on how to grant cross-endorsements in their 1999 discussions.
"I am steadfast in my position that a sitting judge like Judge Wolfgang deserves to be cross-endorsed," Davis said. "But it didn't happen because the Democratic Party turned its back on a sitting judge, and I think that's wrong."
But Pigeon said he was not about to bestow Democratic backing on Wolfgang without receiving something in return.
"There are no giveaways, and he knows that," Pigeon said, referring to Davis.
Formation of this year's judicial ticket has proven a fluid affair for months, with almost a dozen candidates expressing interest at one point or another. But in the last few days, a number of prominent possibilities -- such as former Erie County Democratic Chairman Vincent J. Sorrentino, attorney Peter M. Jasen and County Legislature Minority Leader Frederick J. Marshall -- all dropped out of the race.
On the other hand, Farrell has been actively pursuing the nomination through the unusual method of advertising long before the judicial nominating conventions. Farrell bought billboards, signs and radio commercials in August in an attempt to get his name before the public, even though he acknowledged that the selections remain mostly in the hands of party chairmen.
"Obviously, you've got to get the endorsement first," Farrell said recently. "But to run an eight-county campaign in five weeks is pushing it. I felt I had to be prepared to get a foothold."
On the other hand, Fricano has surfaced as a candidate only this week as Davis scrambled to fill his ticket. While others have worked the party circuits and raised funds for months, Fricano is just now beginning.
"She's starting behind, but she's got a burning desire to run," Davis said. "She'll be one tough campaigner."
Others such as Martoche have been actively raising funds for months with events starring PBS star Mark Russell and New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Martoche is expected to enter the fray with funds extending well into six figures -- a sum most observers think he and other Republicans will need to spread a message throughout a judicial district with a Democratic plurality of 100,000 voters.
The candidates will vie for jobs paying $136,700 annually over a 14-year term. The vacated slots stem from the expiration of Wolfgang's term plus those of incumbent Justices Rose D. LaMendola and Ann T. Mikoll.
Both major party chairmen, meanwhile, expressed satisfaction with the judicial tickets they have crafted. Davis said he was pleased to field two sitting judges, two female judges, and a judge from outside Erie County.
"It all gives good balance to our ticket," he said. "And this ticket meets my objective of enhancing votes for (GOP county executive candidate) Joel Giambra on Election Day."
Pigeon sounded similar sentiments.
"It's a great ticket, with people from the north suburbs, south suburbs and the city," he said. "It's a great mix with regard to talent, geography and every other measurement."