A generational clash is shaking up Democrats in the primary for the 60th Senate District, where a rookie candidate is challenging a crafty veteran sporting one of Buffalo’s best known political names.
The lineup features Amber A. Small, 30, executive director of the Parkside Community Association, against Alfred T. Coppola, 74, a former Common Council member who once briefly held the Senate seat after a special election in 2000.
Compared to the expensive and nasty Republican primary between Kevin T. Stocker and Christopher L. Jacobs, the Democrats are so far waging a quiet and fairly genteel affair.
But the contest is nevertheless generating widespread interest as political observers speculate whether Small will motivate younger voters and women, or if Coppola still wields the same appeal that carried him through a string of victories as Delaware Council member.
Small is backed by the Erie County Democratic Party, and that could prove crucial as the organization is expected to churn out as many of its loyal party members as possible in what looms as a low turnout primary.
Coppola re-entered politics after several failures, following his last election victory in 2000. That is when he won election to the Senate seat for less than a year before losing to Byron W. Brown in the general election. He comes close to earning a “perennial candidate” label, running campaigns at various times for Council, Buffalo comptroller, Assembly and Senate. He also ran for the Senate seat being vacated by Buffalo Democrat Marc C. Panepinto in 2012 and 2014.
But his near miss against Panepinto in the Democratic primary of 2014 – by about 300 votes – sparks genuine attention in 2016.
“I don’t owe anything to any power broker,” Coppola said while explaining his strong effort. “That’s why I can go out there with a clear conscience.”
Coppola he earned a reputation as a constituent-oriented Council member, personally helping voters in his district challenge property assessments. He also was known as an environmental champion, helped uncover 2,000 “phantom” street lights that eventually saved $2 million in utility bills, and has never left the community scene. His wife died about three years ago, and the native West Sider now lives in a restored Delaware Avenue home.
“I still have the perseverance and honesty to ask questions,” he said, “and I’ll do it again when I go back to Albany.”
Coppola relies on family and friends to resurrect and plant his ubiquitous campaign signs. He answers his own phone without any press spokesman, and is largely self-financing his latest effort. He can point to few endorsements.
He says he is backed by the people who know him, and says his main issue now is “education, education, education.” Improving Buffalo public schools is the only way to reverse the population decline by luring young families back to the city, he said, and he looks to Albany for the money to do that.
Though Coppola sought the Democratic endorsement earlier this year, he now emphasizes his independence from the party or any of its leaders. His opponent’s backing from County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and Brown means she will be beholden, he said.
Still, the candidate leaves no question about his own loyalties should he report to the Senate in January. He will organize with Senate Democrats, he said, and not the Independent Democratic Caucus that has attracted some Democrats in the past to form a majority with the GOP.
Amber Small represents all that is opposite Coppola and takes every opportunity to emphasize the differences.
Like Coppola, she avoids personal attacks or any serious mudslinging. But she does not hesitate to compare herself to an opponent whose name regularly appears on local ballots.
“People are tired of the same old political candidates and empty promises, really tired,” she said. “And I’m not your typical politician who comes to your door.”
Still, she faces a tough challenge against Coppola because of his long career and name recognition. She must introduce herself on voters’ doorsteps, while many knows Coppola.
“When I’m out there, they recognize the name,” she said of Coppola, “but they make no connection with him as a former Council member. They recognize the signs because they see them every year.”
She also says that as a former intern in City Hall and current director of the Parkside group, she has not needed elective office to make her mark.
“I’m already doing things for this community,” she said. “This is a way to do more.”
As a result, Small echoes other legislative candidates on the campaign trail this year as she demands major overhauls in state ethics rules. She calls the conviction of Albany’s top legislative leaders an “embarrassment” and the reason why so many voters are disgusted with the process.
She calls for limits on outside income, suggesting senators and members of the Assembly should serve full time. Requirements for disclosure of outside income should be more stringently enforced, she said, and contribution loopholes offered to limited liability partnerships should be eliminated.
Small also wants to create a special municipal bond fund to help towns and villages undertake major projects like pollution abatement. Dirty water in Scajaquada Creek of fouled beaches along Lake Erie, for example, might be addressed if smaller municipalities could use such a state-sponsored mechanism to borrow money for water treatment facilities.
A Fredonia native who settled in Parkside with her husband after graduating from the University at Buffalo, Small enters the campaign with far more endorsements than her opponent. Various women’s groups are backing the former community engagement coordinator for Planned Parenthood, including national organizations like EMILY’s List.
She has raised a decent amount of money, about $125,000 according to campaign finance reports filed with the state Board of Elections.
Small also says she will caucus with regular Democrats if elected.