NIAGARA FALLS – Mayor Paul A. Dyster may not be up for re-election this November, but if you ask Republicans, he’s playing a big role in this year’s City Council race in which six candidates are vying for three seats.
Republicans say if the three Democratic candidates – incumbents Kristen M. Grandinetti and Charles A. Walker and newcomer Andrew P. Touma – win in the Nov. 5 general election, they’d give the mayor something he doesn’t have now – three backers on the five-member Council.
But talk to city Democrats, and they insist that the three candidates on the Democratic line are “independent thinkers” and that the race is not about political parties or negativity.
Enter Dyster’s foes.
Samuel F. Fruscione, the third incumbent up for re-election, is appearing with Republican challenger Russell F. Vesci on a billboard endorsed by Democratic Councilman Robert A. Anderson Jr., who is known as a Fruscione ally.
And then there’s Republican Vincent M. Sandonato, who’s characterizing himself as an independent candidate in his campaign.
But Sandonato does have some connections, one so big it’s paying for his whole campaign.
His campaign, from lawn signs to mailers, is being funded entirely by the state Republican Committee.
Patricia J. Castillo, chairwoman of the Niagara Falls Republican Committee, said she sees the race as a contest that displays three approaches by candidates.
According to Castillo, there are the Democratic candidates, Grandinetti, Walker and Touma, who would form a “strong Dyster Council.”
Then there’s Vesci, who has aligned himself with Fruscione and the existing three-member majority, Castillo said, which is regularly at odds with Dyster.
Sandonato is the independent candidate who shares some of the same ideas as Vesci, she said, but who does not feel the need to present himself as an antagonist.
“I think there’s something out there for everyone,” said Castillo, who is Sandonato’s aunt.
Alicia M. Laible, city Democratic chairwoman, said she preferred to remain positive when asked about the race.
She said each of the Democratic candidates brings something unique to the race – whether its Grandinetti’s advocacy for women, labor and development, Walker’s “calming voice of reason” or Touma’s hard work as a community leader.
One of the ways in which the Democrats are different, Laible said, is how they handle a situation in which they disagree with the mayor. Such disputes will be handled by going to the table and talking about the best ideas for a solution, she said.
“They’re not just saying ‘No’ to something because it is the mayor,” Laible said.
No ‘rubber stamps’
Grandinetti, Walker and Touma won spots on the Democratic line in the four-way primary in September.
While Dyster hasn’t officially endorsed any of the three, the mayor said he has attended their functions. He called them “the three strongest candidates.”
Grandinetti, Walker and Touma each said having the mayor’s support is nice, but it doesn’t mean they are a “rubber stamp” for what he wants to see happen in the city.
Touma, dean of students at LaSalle Preparatory School, said that while he’s grateful that Dyster believes in his ideas and vision, he will respectfully disagree with the mayor on some things.
“I’m going to be objective, and I’m going to be independent in my thinking,” he said.
Grandinetti, a prekindergarten teacher in the city, said Dyster’s strengths are his intelligence, honesty and ability to look at the big picture. But she added that she’s had serious disagreements behind the scenes with Dyster, including about staffing issues.
“We have many heated discussions, but we do it behind closed doors,” she said.
Walker, manager of community outreach at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, said he believes that while some Council members have made it a habit to reject ideas just because they were the mayor’s, he will support projects no matter where they come from if they are “what’s best for the city.”
“The mayor understands that he has no rubber stamp in me,” Walker said.
Sharing similar beliefs
Fruscione and Vesci are pictured together on campaign billboards on Pine Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard. Both said there’s nothing more to take from the advertisement except that Anderson, a member of the three-person Council majority with Fruscione, supports them and that Fruscione and Vesci share similar beliefs about the need for prudent uses of taxpayers’ money.
Fruscione, who recently re-entered the race after indicating following his primary night loss he would not actively campaign, said the idea for the billboard came from Anderson, whom he described as a friend.
Fruscione is in his first year as dean of students at Abate Elementary School, where he has taught third and fifth grades for more than 20 years. He is running on the Conservative and Independence lines and is the only one of seven candidates on the ballot without a major party line.
Vesci, who works for the Niagara Falls Water Board as a sewage plant maintenance worker, said he has “done his homework” on what Fruscione is about and believes Fruscione was “asking the right questions” and “looking out for taxpayers” earlier this year with the Hamister Group’s proposed development project on Rainbow Boulevard.
As for Sandonato, a former staffer for State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, he said he decided not to pursue his own fundraising because he entered the race later than his opponents, and he was “never going to disassociate” himself from his Republican ties.
In a city where Democrats hold a huge edge in voter enrollment – of roughly 26,000 registered voters, about 16,000 are Democrats – Sandonato said he expected to be portrayed by opponents as a “bad Republican” anyway.
“Do I really need to go out and ask everyday people for their money,” he said, “rather than just talking to them and hoping that their views align with my views?”
Sandonato, a former Niagara County legislator who’s in law school, said he’s still going door to door but is also focusing on finding solutions to the city’s problems rather than raising funds.
Because Sandonato’s campaign expenses are being paid for by the state Republicans, it is not clear how much has been spent, based on reports filed with the State Board of Elections.
Sandonato was added to the GOP’s slate of candidates in July after Timothy Hutchins, who appeared on the party’s nominating petitions, dropped out of the race.
Robert J. Elder, who was running on the Republican line, dropped out of the race earlier this month but remains on the ballot.
In addition to the Democratic line, Touma and Grandinetti will be on the Working Families line.
Sandonato and Vesci, in addition to the GOP line, will be on the Independence and Conservative lines. Sandonato also has the Green Party and Working Families lines.
A candidates forum will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Earl W. Brydges Public Library, 1425 Main St.