Out in Cheektowaga and Lancaster, the mighty New York State United Teachers union appears to again be playing behind the scenes in a local election.
Glossy brochures are flooding mailboxes in the 143rd Assembly District, where NYSUT is backing endorsed Democrat Monica Wallace in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary. Some tell voters all about Wallace, a professor at the University at Buffalo Law School. Others aim squarely at opponent Kristy Mazurek, a Cheektowaga native and close associate of political operative Steve Pigeon.
Indeed, Pigeon looms as fair game this election season. The former Erie County Democratic chairman faces trial next spring on nine counts of bribery and extortion lodged by a special grand jury convened by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Mazurek is a long-time “Pigeonista” and looms as a key figure in the Pigeon investigation, and even helped him conclude the sale of his waterfront condo a few weeks ago.
As a result, the brochures point out that Mazurek is a “protege of scandal plagued Steve Pigeon.” It only makes sense that the relationship would become an issue in the election.
But today’s discussion focuses more on the extent of influence again wielded in a Western New York election by entities with close NYSUT connections. The brochures are sponsored by the Fund for Great Public Schools, which Board of Elections records indicate received a $4 million contribution from another entity called New Yorkers for a Brighter Future on Aug. 19. Both funds share the same Latham address with NYSUT.
Some perspective here. Recall that the union dropped a whopping $1.14 million on Buffalo Democrat Marc Panepinto in 2014, helping him eke out a victory in his four-way Senate primary.
Mazurek did not return a call seeking comment on the mailings, and campaign spokesman Dave Pfaff observed only that the brochures are “attack pieces trying to link her to Steve.” Maybe Pfaff offered nothing further because he earns $62,000 a year on the staff of NYSUT-anointed Panepinto.
Wallace, meanwhile, stressed she had no knowledge of the mailings, has had no contact with the sponsors, and learned of them only when they began arriving in the district. She has not disavowed them, but seems to recognize the effort as part and parcel of the system.
“Money in politics is the problem,” she acknowledged, pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision that allows independent committees such freewheeling expenditures.
One candidate for district attorney – Mark Sacha – is now making an issue of the mailings in his Assembly district. Sacha initiated the complaint against a similar fund with close ties to Pigeon (Western New York Progressive Caucus) and for which Mazurek served as treasurer. That complaint eventually led to Pigeon’s indictment.
No fan of Mazurek, Sacha still questions the mailings even if nobody has filed an official complaint.
“It appears to me that the same kind of conduct by Mazurek and G. Steven Pigeon that has been criticized is now being used against them,” he said. “None of the Wallace mailers have anything to do with public schools.”
Still, absent proof that the entities are coordinating with the Wallace campaign, all this remains fine and dandy. It’s allowed.
Now, the ferocity, intensity and frequency of the mailings indicate the Wallace-Mazurek contest may be close. Wallace has all the advantages of the Democratic endorsement, minor party lines, significant union backing and a healthy campaign fund.
But Mazurek sports an iconic Polish surname with a successful track record in a heavily Polish-American community. Her father – Henry – served as a county legislator. Her brother – Mark – won the last Assembly primary just two years ago against endorsed Democrat Camille Brandon.
Ethnic politics still wins in Western New York. So does politics fueled by big money from Albany.
That’s why this contest remains one to watch on Primary Night.