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Choices clear, implications serious Control of State Senate could hinge on contest between Mesi and Ranzenhofer

There's no shortage of big, important political races this fall, but it's hard to imagine a local contest where the choices are as clear and the implications as serious.

Voters in the largely suburban and rural, and mostly Republican, 61st State Senate District may very well decide the power structure of New York State politics.

In doing so, they will choose between a veteran Republican lawmaker with staunchly conservative credentials and a Democratic newcomer with ties to some of his party's most liberal allies.

The battle between Republican Michael H. Ranzenhofer and Democrat Joe Mesi is not unlike the heavyweight bouts Mesi fought in as a professional boxer.

The stakes are high, and the contrasts in styles and ideology make it a fight well worth watching.

"There's a clear choice," said Colleen DiPirro, president of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce. "You have a quiet, thoughtful behind-the-scenes policy maker who knows the system. And you have an energetic young guy who will be dedicated and persevere and wants change, but who will face challenges working through the system."

Clear choices. Big-time implications. And a race most say is too close to call.

In a normal year, a year when the economy isn't tanking and the Republican in the White House isn't unpopular, Mike Ranzenhofer probably would be the favorite.

As a 20-year veteran of the Erie County Legislature, he seemed like a natural choice to succeed State Sen. Mary Lou Rath and preserve the GOP's hold on the seat.

After all, it's been more than 35 years since a Democrat, John LaFalce, represented the district.

One problem. This year's Democrat just happens to be one of the region's most celebrated sports personalities, a former world-class boxer once referred to as Buffalo's "third sports franchise."

Almost everyone in Western New York knows the name Joe Mesi, but how many know Mike Ranzenhofer? Even after 20 years in politics.

>'Mary Lou's' choice

He's a lawyer, husband and father of two kids. And on this Main Street tour of Williamsville businesses, he's the choice of "Mary Lou."

"I love Mary Lou," said Paul J. Blarr as Ranzenhofer left his store, Amherst Diamond Exchange. "If he's good enough for Mary Lou, he's good enough for me."

On this day, as he goes door to door in Williamsville, Ranzenhofer is quick to tout his endorsement by Rath, a popular and influential politician in these parts.

He also likes to talk about New York's taxes and spending and how the two drive away jobs that would otherwise keep our sons and daughters here at home.

"That's what motivates me," Ranzenhofer tells Kathy McManigle, a real estate agent and Democrat now voting for him. "We just don't have the opportunities here."

He's not shy about promoting his plan for solving the state's $12.5 billion budget deficit even though Mesi and others call it irresponsible.

With one big caveat -- state aid to local school districts -- he wants to cut state spending by 15 percent across the board. He also wants to cut income taxes by 10 percent for people earning less than $200,000 and double the STAR property tax exemption.

In a year when every politician is promising reform, Ranzenhofer does it by taking on the Taylor Law covering public employees. He wants to "relax" it by making it more friendly to government employers.

The Republican also supports a constitutional convention to dramatically overhaul state government.

"We're second from the bottom when it comes to tax burden," said Ranzenhofer. "We can't continue to operate the same way."

Ranzenhofer is quick to criticize Mesi, who favors a reduction in state jobs through attrition, not layoffs, and who wants to spare education, public safety and health care from the budget ax.

"He wants to nibble around the edges," Ranzenhofer said. "He doesn't want one state bureaucrat to lose his job."

As he goes door to door, the Republican always talks about the need to create jobs, often seizing on the contrasts between himself and Mesi.

On this day, he's criticizing Mesi's proposal to cut back New York's capital spending by suggesting it would hurt the University at Buffalo's massive expansion, a plan known as UB 2020.

Mesi, of course, counters by claiming Ranzenhofer's across-the-board budget cuts would cause even more harm to UB, viewed by many as a major economic engine.

As a Republican, Ranzenhofer knows his party's statewide status and clout may hinge on his winning Tuesday. The GOP holds a slim one-seat majority in the Senate.

"This election," he said, "will decide whether we continue to have a two-party system in New York State."

In the eyes of Democrats, who better than an enormously popular boxer to wage and win that fight?

>Unmistakable charisma

When Joe Mesi entered the race, he became the immediate favorite to win the Democratic primary, which he did handily, and the one Democrat many thought capable of winning the normally Republican Senate seat.

He may be, after all, the one politician who doesn't need a name tag, an asset clearly on display as he went door to door in a working-class section of Tonawanda last week.

"My husband and I remember him as a fighter," said Joanne LaPorte of Edgewood Avenue. "He knows what its like to struggle, and that's why I like him.

When a friend suggested she really liked Mesi because he's good looking, LaPorte balked at first.

"He's young, and we need some young blood in Albany," she said, "and yes, I think he's cute, too."

Mesi's charisma on the campaign trail is unmistakable. He has a natural way of communicating with voters of all ages, men and women.

"He came from a working-class family," said Carmen Scordo, a Democrat and former airline employee whose pension is frozen. "A guy in his position could say the heck with all this and just live off his fame. But not him."

Everywhere he goes, Mesi stresses his reputation as a fighter with the passion to change Albany. Dig a little deeper, and you soon discover the contrast in personalities is not the only difference between him and Ranzenhofer.

On the primary issue of the day -- how to deal with the state's growing budget crisis -- he and his Republican opponent are miles apart.

Mesi, who counts organized labor, the Working Families Party and Buffalo Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano among his strongest allies, wants to cut, but not across the board.

"It's irresponsible," he said of Ranzenhofer's plan. "He's going to cut jobs in senior homes, hospitals and after-school programs."

Mesi thinks billions can be saved through Medicaid reform, but he's dead set against cuts in local education aid, public safety and other types of health care.

>$2 million election

Unlike Ranzenhofer, who sees the Taylor Law as a costly burden on state and local governments, Mesi likes the state law just as it is.

On the stump, the former heavyweight boxer often talks about the need to cut taxes by adopting the circuit breaker bill passed by Assembly Democrats this year. The bill would lower people's property taxes by setting a ceiling on how much of a household's income can go to taxes.

On this cold day in late October, he also tells voters it is time for New York State to play a role in cutting gas prices. His solution is to adopt a windfall profits tax on oil companies and use the proceeds to lower the state gas tax.

And gas is not the only thing going up in price. So is running for the State Senate.

By the time Mesi and Ranzenhofer are done, they could easily spend a combined $2 million on the election.

Voters will decide whose money was better spent.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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