The distinction between Republicans and Democrats has been blurred in the Niagara County Legislature, where the phenomenon of political cross-dressing has evolved into an art form.
It also became a winning strategy for the Republicans in 2003, as it left them with a stranglehold on the Legislature, even though only nine of 19 legislators are actual Republicans. Thanks to three registered Democrats and a Conservative who ran as endorsed Republicans and won, the GOP has an effective 13-6 majority.
There's more of the same this year, as district after district see Democratic primaries where one of the candidates has the GOP line to fall back on in November. The Democrats are trying the same strategy by endorsing a Republican in Lockport's 16th District, giving him a chance to win in November even if he loses the GOP primary.
Seven legislative primaries lead the way in what will be a busy primary day on Tuesday. The Republican line for mayor of North Tonawanda is up for grabs, as are lines in four town supervisor races, three Democratic lines in the Niagara Falls City Council and lines in several other city and town competitions.
The breakdown in the County Legislature can be found below. A story on primaries in Lockport, Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda can be found on Page NC7; a story on town races is on Page NC5.
> 1st District
Despite the indistinct party lines, the County Legislature is still the bare-knuckle headquarters for the county's most relentless partisanship, and some of the candidates in Tuesday's primaries are entering into the spirit of it all.
"I truly am a Democrat. My opponent's a registered Democrat but really a Republican," said Thomas J. Scozzafava, who's running against Jason J. Murgia, a Democrat who aligns with the Republican caucus, in the 1st District.
Murgia has the GOP's line for November. He was appointed to the Legislature in January after Steven A. D'Anna resigned from this seat in western Niagara Falls.
"I'm a fresh new face with a proven track record already," said Murgia, 33, owner of the Orchard Grill.
"(Legislator) Rebecca Cuddahee and myself got funding for the Trott Access Center," he said, referring to $50,000 earmarked for Niagara County Community College to keep vocational programs in Niagara Falls that NCCC was planning to move to Summit Park Mall in Wheatfield.
Scozzafava, 52, front desk manager of the Travelodge, said he's found Murgia isn't well known. He said he wants to prevent the county from selling Mount View Health Facility, the county-owned nursing home in Lockport. "We've got to do whatever it takes to keep that thing open," Scozzafava said.
Murgia is counted among the supporters of the sale.
> 3rd District
In the 3rd District, candidate and former Niagara Falls Councilman James C. Stewart booms, "I'm an honest man."
Stewart, 70, continued about his opponents, "The one's being investigated for fraud and the other's been passing herself off for two years as a Democrat, but she votes with the Republicans."
The one-term incumbent, Rebecca E. Cuddahee, is one of the Democrats who almost always votes with the Republicans and has the GOP line in November.
The other candidate, Paul A. Mattuccilli III, was accused by the Board of Elections of using a false home address on his nominating petitions. The district attorney's office was looking into it last week.
Mattuccilli said he gave investigators a letter from his local postmaster testifying to a foul-up in his mail delivery that made it look like he doesn't live in the district. "It was an honest mistake," he said.
Mattuccilli, 44, said he works for the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission as a traffic inspector. He proved he can throw haymakers, too.
"Ms. Cuddahee's bought and paid for by Mr. Maziarz," he charged, referring to State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, the county's GOP kingpin. "She proved her lack of loyalty to the voters of the district by caucusing with the rural Republicans. The only thing she didn't do is reaffiliate. Mr. Stewart is being pushed onto the district by (2nd District Legislator) Renae Kimble. I have no allegiance to anybody," he said.
Cuddahee called Mattuccilli's statement "disgusting." She said, "I have never spoken to George Maziarz on a county-related issue. George Maziarz has never asked me to do anything."
Cuddahee, 34, is studying for a doctorate in anthropology at the University at Buffalo. She said, "I've worked really hard over the past year and a half to do a good job for (the district). Keeping programs at Trott is something I'm proud of. I think being a voice to keep (the Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime) program funded was important."
> 4th District
In the 4th District, incumbent Democrat Dennis F. Virtuoso, who is running for his eighth term, is being challenged by City Forester Joseph S. Urso, a Republican who entered the race too late to file nominations for the Republican line. He's depending on a write-in effort to secure that line, while he and Virtuoso are competing in a Conservative primary for that line.
Virtuoso, the minority leader of the Legislature, said his central Niagara Falls constituents "know I'm a fighter for Niagara Falls and I'm a good legislator. The same people who are supporting (Urso) are the same people who are trying to take the casino money away from the city."
Urso, 52, was a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent for 22 years and served on county environmental management committees. "It's time for a change," he said. "The county is nonresponsive to the real needs of the City of Niagara Falls. I haven't seen any firm contributions from any of (the city's legislators)." He said if the county ever receives any casino money, it should be directed to projects in Niagara Falls.
> 6th District
In the 6th District, which covers the Town of Niagara and part of Wheatfield, incumbent Danny W. Sklarski, a Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans, has two primaries. He faces Robert S. LaBarbera on the Democratic line and Donald G. Hobel on the Conservative line. Sklarski has the Republican line for November.
Sklarski, 57, an auditor at the local state parks office, said he voted against the county's increase in the sales tax to 8 percent and pushed successfully for the county to resume participating in tax-free clothing weeks. He also created a task force to make recommendations on improving programs for senior citizens.
"I remain consistently looking out for my voters," he said. "I think I've been an extremely strong advocate of the senior citizens." He also got Factory Outlet Boulevard repaved by applying county tobacco money, a move that won him two civic awards.
LaBarbera, a fraternal insurance agent for local Knights of Columbus members, said his target is the multiparty majority caucus "that makes all the decisions in the county based on politics. I think it's the closest thing to a dictatorship we've seen in Niagara County."
LaBarbera jabbed at Sklarski: "I'm not a career politician. I don't have a political job to protect. I don't believe in people using their Democratic enrollment to get elected in a Democratic district."
He said he would vote to keep Mount View and "deal in good faith with county unions."
Hobel, a registered Conservative well-known as a frequent critic of the county Industrial Development Agency at Legislature meetings and on local call-in shows, said he's running "to encourage the Legislature to be more open. That's my theme, open government."
He added, "The Conservative Party organization is very lax in encouraging registered Conservatives to run for office. . . . Any individual that's spread out over several lines, who are they? What's their allegiance?"
> 9th District
In the 9th District, incumbent William M. Davignon, a chemist at the North Tonawanda wastewater treatment plant, wants a race that ends on Election Day. His first two terms resulted from court decisions awarding him one-vote victories. During his first term, Davignon headed the committee that hired the county's first manager.
"We did hire (Gregory D.) Lewis and a new management team. We're slowly turning the ship around. We're on the right course," said Davignon, 40. "We showed the fiscal restraint to get us to a positive fund balance."
His opponent, Joseph A. Vacanti Jr., has the Republican line in November, and Davignon charged Vacanti will vote with the GOP if elected. "I tell people, 'Please vote for a guy who's been a Democrat all his life,' " Davignon said.
Vacanti, 45, said he was a Democrat for 19 years until switching to the GOP in 2003 to show his support for the Iraq War. "But my parents got me back to the grassroots of the Democratic Party," he said. He reaffiliated as a Democrat last year.
"Just because I'm friends with some Republicans, which I was before this race, doesn't mean I'm a Republican in Democrat's clothing," said Vacanti, a detective with the Kenmore Police Department. He said he'd vote to sell Mount View if it were proved the nursing home is a money loser; Davignon has been one of the leading voices for keeping Mount View.
> 12th District
In the 12th District, Lee Simonson is stepping down after 32 years as Lewiston's man in Lockport, and three members of the Town Board are fighting to succeed him.
In the Republican primary, it's John D. Ceretto against Daniel F. Kilmer. In the Democratic race, Ceretto takes on Michael A. Johnson. Ceretto is the endorsed Republican candidate, even though he's a registered Democrat.
"I cannot be bullied by political leaders," said Ceretto, a former United Auto Workers local president at Prestolite Corp. who, four years ago while going through what he called "male menopause," became an interpreter in the state parks at Niagara Falls. He said, "The Republicans have said all they want from me is an open mind. I can do that."
Ceretto, 53, said his record in 10 years on the Town Board demonstrates skills he can bring to the County Legislature. "In Lewiston, we've kept our taxes down," he said. "I believe Lewiston can do better if Niagara Falls succeeds."
Kilmer said, "I'm telling (voters) I'm the only real Republican in the race. Republicans in Lewiston know there's a shell game being played here. I've always had a campaign slogan: 'No promises, just a promise to work hard.' "
Kilmer, 41, owns the Yankee Doodle tourism brochure company. He said he wants to sell Mount View if it can't be made profitable and would eliminate not just benefits for part-time attorneys but the attorneys themselves. "For those amounts, we could hire six or seven staff attorneys," he said.
Johnson, a real estate agent, said he's disappointed in Ceretto aligning himself with the Republicans. "John and I have been close. We ran together in all those campaigns. He never approached the Democrats (for the Legislature endorsement). He's on every other line. There's no doubt about it, George (Maziarz) has picked John to go forward," Johnson said.
Johnson, 53, said he wants to see municipalities and the county make cost-sharing agreements. "With my experience from the town, working on 10 budgets, I could help with my fiscal management skills in the county," he said. Johnson supports keeping Mount View.
> 16th District
In the 16th District, this is where the Democrats are trying to turn the tables on the Republicans. They've endorsed longtime Lockport Board of Education member W. Keith McNall, a registered Republican, and he is challenging one-term GOP incumbent Glenn S. Aronow.
"I think over the last 20 months, we've brought some stability to Niagara County government, and not just stability, but responsibility," said Aronow. "We stopped the patronage. Instead of appointing department heads, we hired qualified people who have no political connection."
Aronow, 40, owns Greenbox Media, a printing, advertising and Web design firm. He said he would vote to sell Mount View if the new owners keep it open and don't move the patients.
McNall pointed to 16 years of school board experience with budgets and union contracts. "I'm good at bringing people together," he said. He said he's in favor of trying to save Mount View.
McNall, 59, said he hasn't promised to become a Democrat or to caucus with that party.
"There's been no deals made with the Democrats. I know my opponent thinks there have been, but I'm telling you there haven't been," he said.