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How exactly does one get to be a State Supreme Court justice at age 39, and how important is it, really?

One answer: Fairly important, if you believe that those who oversee the break-up of society's most crucial institution -- families -- should not only have experience, but also youthful vigor, tenacity and maybe even passion for the work.

According to observers, Siwek's win can be attributed to a wide variety of factors, including a childhood spent in a Polish deli in Black Rock, unabashed collegial support -- and a rather strange election.

Her deep empathy, says her mother, comes from having grown up watching her aunts, uncles and parents work overtime to support a family member who was severely disabled at birth. Most worked labor union jobs, and the rest, including a very young Donna, toiled at the family store, Siwek's Deli (now Vondy's) on Hertel Avenue.

"Don't let this Nardin, St. Lawrence, UB Law thing blind you," says Carol Siwek, referencing her daughter's impressive education. "We had very little money. We lived in a flat behind an empty store front. It was Donna's grandmother, Jean Siwek, who insisted she go to Nardin. She's the one who raised the money. She'd say, 'You come to this country, you get an education no matter what it takes.' "

Donna Siwek took that to heart.

After graduating from the University at Buffalo Law School, she put in six years of private practice with the firm of Farrell and Quakenbush. In 1993, she became a mother for the first time (her son Connor is now 7 and her daughter Emma is 5), and six months later the law clerk of State Supreme Court Justice David J. Mahoney, who described Siwek as having a mind and personality that copes unusually well with "often very frustrating work."

"She wrote a lot of my decisions and we rarely got reversals at the Appellate level. Except," he added, grinning "when I inserted myself into the process. She's a very straightforward person. She has a very clear legal mind."

And a clear political one, too, for when Republicans began suggesting to Siwek a few years later that her experience, contacts, and energy would make her a natural judge candidate, Siwek's answer was a gracious but firm "no."

"She wasn't ready. And no one was going to move her from that," reflects Mahoney.

Unless it was Eugene F. Piggott Jr., chief judge of the Fourth Department Appellate Division.

As Siwek tells it, Pigott, a long-time family friend, told her early last year that there were four State Supreme Court judge seats opening up that fall. "You could run, and you could win," he told her.

"You don't say no to Judge Pigott," she said, half joking. But she nearly did.

If she ran, she would violate that most basic of bromides: in a presidential-election year when the White House is not held by your party, don't run for any office; you'll get creamed.

She was young, petite and had a broad, flat-A "squeaky Buffalo voice," the combination of which, she observes dryly, "doesn't inspire a lot of confidence when you're running a judicial race."

On the other hand, she had name recognition from the local political races her parents ran in, including her mother's successful run for the state Assembly in 1980, her failed run for mayor in 1985 and her father Donald's two failed bids for a Common Council seat in the early 1970s.

She knew politics. She knew the law. And she knew her own gender and generation.

"This was Hillary's year," says Siwek. "She was running, so I knew the soccer and hockey moms would be out. Heck, I'm one of them."

Fast-forward to Election Night: Siwek didn't simply win, she got the second-highest vote tally among the seven candidates and carried Erie County, no small feat considering it has 135,000 more Democrats than Republicans.

What did Siwek do right?

Almost everything, said county GOP chairman Bob Davis.

"She got out campaigning across all eight counties before anyone else," Davis said. "She had a great ballot position. And let's not take her background from her: she had a solid resume and the support of the young legal community.

"Anyone who wants to run for State Supreme Court should take a page out of Donna's campaign manual," Davis added.

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