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Choosing up sides in the 60th State Senate District

Democrats were slated to gather in their Larkinville lair Saturday to endorse Marc Panepinto’s re-election to the 60th District Senate seat he has held for going on two years.

And though Amber Small – executive director of the Parkside Community Association – has won her share of supporters during her brief candidacy, the party nod was probably sealed on Monday when the powerful New York State United Teachers union announced its support once again for Panepinto.

NYSUT Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta said backing for Panepinto will result in “hundreds of volunteers to phone bank, hand out literature and work on campaigns, as well as financial support to help defray the cost of running for office.”

Says it all. If NYSUT repeats its 2014 level of support for Democrat Panepinto – when it dropped more than $1.1 million on his effort – the incumbent will represent a formidable force. And Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner seems to recognize reality.

“We’ve heard from the Senate leadership and statewide unions for Marc,” he said. “The teachers will be all in, and are committed to make sure he is successful.”

Nevertheless, nothing is certain about the Panepinto seat. Republican Chris Jacobs, the county clerk, is expected to soon announce his candidacy. He will prove a worthy opponent, especially after scoring impressive numbers while unsuccessfully seeking the seat in a 2006 special election. And he has rolled to landslide victories in his two runs for county clerk.

But also last week, Small began laying the groundwork for her expected primary challenge to Panepinto. She issued a press release indicating she “scoffs” at Panepinto’s efforts to snare the Conservative endorsement, which he bases on his hefty 68 percent rating on the party’s core issues.

“The Conservative Party is anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-environment, and anti-reasonable gun safety laws,” Small said. “I will never sacrifice my progressive beliefs to curry political favor and campaign contributions.”

The bet here is that Jacobs will ultimately win the Conservative endorsement that could prove crucial in the November general election. But it also appears that Small will appeal to the Democratic left in the September primary as she “scoffs” at Panepinto’s mere courting of Conservative leaders.

“I’m a progressive Democrat with progressive Democratic values and that’s something the voters need to know,” she said late last week.

Small’s move is part of the recent trend of Erie County Democrats to eschew the “C” that for so long appeared alongside the “D” on their labels. Sen. Tim Kennedy, who enjoyed Conservative backing in the County Legislature and his first Senate run in 2010, rejected the minor party’s support in 2012. The party also dropped Brian Higgins, who enjoyed Conservative backing throughout his Common Council and Assembly career, when he ran for Congress in 2004. Life went on for Higgins, who called the Conservatives a “party in decline” when also spurned in 2006 over his abortion views.

Now, after notables like Paul Tokasz, Dennis Gorski and Dick Keane carved out long Assembly careers with Conservative backing, only Democratic Assemblymen Robin Schimminger and Mickey Kearns run on the party line (as does Mayor Byron Brown).

Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph Lorigo thinks nobody should scoff at his party’s line. He notes that placeholder candidate Tim Gallagher snared almost 6,800 votes in the 2014 60th Senate election without any real effort. Add the almost 25,000 gained that year by Republican Kevin Stocker, the almost 23,000 of Republican Mark Grisanti on the Independence line, and he says Panepinto won with about 34 percent of the vote.

The circumstances of 2016 will prove different for the 60th District. But Small is about to test the theory that going “all in Democratic” will work this time around, in what could prove the most hotly contested Senate seat in New York State.