NORTH TONAWANDA -- Democrats think Lawrence V. Soos' election as mayor is a harbinger of things to come for their party in 2006.
Republicans say it's just a fluke and their organization -- which even its members no longer hesitate to call a machine -- continues to dominate local politics.
Niagara County Republican Chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek said the Republican organization holds 11 of the 13 elected offices in North Tonawanda, losing only the mayor's spot, along with a 2nd Ward alderman seat by a mere nine votes.
But Democrats, who haven't had much good news in Niagara County politics in the past few years, say Soos and the North Tonawanda Democrats, led by City Chairman Daniel Rivera, showed them how to win.
"I think it's a turning point," said Cindy G. Lenhart, the county Democratic chairwoman.
"There are chinks in the armor," said Rivera. "They can be beaten if you play it right."
Outgoing Mayor David J. Burgio, a Republican who ran afoul of the machine, was pleased by Soos' victory over Michael P. Carney, who had defeated Burgio and Arthur G. Pappas in a three-way GOP primary.
Burgio and Pappas helped by endorsing Soos in the days before the election, even though Burgio was still on the ballot on a minor line.
Scenting blood in the water, Burgio said he's considering climbing the highest mountain in local politics -- challenging State Sen. George D. Maziarz, the county GOP power broker, in 2006.
A Burgio candidacy would be well-funded -- Burgio is said to be the richest man in North Tonawanda -- and could give Maziarz two doses of opposition.
Burgio would be able to enter the GOP primary against Maziarz and also could seek the Democratic endorsement. Democrats, who have never fielded a strong challenger since Maziarz' first election in 1995, might jump at the chance.
But Maziarz is sitting on a gigantic war chest -- $649,145, according to his last financial report in July -- and holds a district that includes all or part of three counties, including many areas where Burgio is unknown.
Asked if he's talked to the Democrats, Burgio said, "Not yet. I might. I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet."
"I would love to sit down and talk to him," Lenhart said. "If there's a Democrat who wants to [run against Maziarz], I couldn't, but would I leave the door open? Absolutely."
Maziarz, for his part, claimed not to be interested in the maneuvering against him. "I'm just too busy trying to save Delphi to worry about the election for next year," he said in an interview.
Soos, who voted Burgio's way most of the time as alderman at large, said he'd favor a Burgio effort for state senator. "I'd like to see him do something. Dave's my age . I don't know if he'd want to go back and forth to Albany. I know it would burn me out, but Dave's an energetic guy. If he wanted to do it, I'd back him 100 percent," Soos said.
"Whoever would have thought Dave Burgio would become a sugar daddy for the North Tonawanda Democratic Party?" sniped Wojtaszek.
>Comment drives wedge
Meanwhile, the business of government will have to go on. Can Soos, who will probably be looking for state aid for city government, work with Maziarz?
"Oh, absolutely," Maziarz said. "I've gotten a lot of money for North Tonawanda. We look at projects, not people."
"No," said Carney, who lost to Soos by about 300 votes.
"[Soos] has already driven a wedge between the two of them with the comment he made after the election that he beat the machine," Carney said.
"I don't know," Soos said. "I'm going to offer the olive branch."
But Soos said he's looking forward to what happens after the 2006 election. He anticipates help for North Tonawanda from a Democratic governor and two Democratic U.S. senators, taking it for granted that Eliot L. Spitzer will win the governor's seat and that Hillary Rodham Clinton will be re-elected to the Senate to continue to work with Charles E. Schumer. Soos said he has talked with all of them.
"They're going to want to give money to a Democratic mayor. They're really excited about my election and Niagara County. They think we're going to start destroying the Republican power base," Soos said.
>GOP turned on its own
Four years ago, just as it did this year, the GOP organization turned against an incumbent mayor of its own party, when it backed Burgio against Mary C. Kabasakalian. Burgio won the Republican primary and the general election, but before long he was at odds with the party hierarchy.
Burgio thinks the trouble began even during his successful campaign. He said Richard Winter, a close friend and former aide to Maziarz, approached him with an offer.
"Rick Winter wanted to run my campaign in exchange for 10 percent of whatever I made over a four-year term," Burgio said. That would have been $20,000, since the winner of the 2001 election was to be the first mayor to be paid a full-time salary of $50,000 a year. Before that, the mayor was paid $12,000 a year.
Burgio said, "I didn't want to pay somebody to run my campaign when there were knowledgeable people out there who would do it for nothing," Burgio said.
Winter -- owner of Winter Jewelry in Buffalo and the Niagara County representative on the Western Region Off-Track Betting board of directors -- denied this ever happened. "Absolutely untrue," he said. "It's an absurd accusation. . . . It's one of the craziest things I've ever heard. If this were true, why would I continue working on his campaign? Remind him how I backed my car up his driveway so he could load 50 of his campaign signs into my trunk for my family and friends."
Burgio said he remembers that, but he stuck to his story about Winter trying to manage his campaign for $20,000.
Asked why he thought such a request would be made of him, Burgio answered, "Probably because I had a business once. Everybody perceives me as well-off. . . . I'm comfortable."
But his relations with the Common Council and the GOP organization soon became uncomfortable, although Carney, who was hired as Burgio's administrative assistant in 2002, denies the latter.
"I don't necessarily think he was on the outs with the Republican organization," Carney said. "People around town weren't happy with him. It was more his people skills and his ability to get along with people."
Burgio worked in increasing discomfort with Carney until mid-2003, when he cut the administrative assistant post out of the budget and moved Carney temporarily to the city's Economic Development Department. In January 2004, Carney became clerk of the County Legislature after his second consecutive one-vote defeat by William M. Davignon for 9th District legislator.
"Henry Wojtaszek suggested Mike Carney was the person who would get me through my inexperience in politics," said Burgio, who had not run for office before 2001.
>Friendship was problem
The administrative assistant was envisioned in the then-new City Charter as a nuts-and-bolts post, while the mayor was supposed to take a big-picture role.
Things didn't work out.
"It wasn't very good," Carney said. "Part of the problem was I've been a lifelong friend of Henry Wojtaszek. That put [Burgio] on the defensive with the Republican Party. . . . I thought I'd be a perfect fit to help someone who'd be out selling the city, cutting ribbons and making people positive about North Tonawanda again. That's not his style, evidently. Or maybe he didn't trust me. Maybe he saw me as a potential opponent."
By late 2004, Carney was readying a mayoral bid, but first he insisted that the Republican Party take a poll to see what people thought of Burgio.
"If he had a great chance of being re-elected, Mike Carney wouldn't have spent time and money running for mayor," Carney said.
Wojtaszek wouldn't disclose the precise results of the poll, but he and Carney agreed it showed Burgio with a low approval rating.
Carney declared his candidacy in January, and the county GOP committee gave him $1,150 on March 15.
It's against the law for a party committee to contribute to a candidate in a primary, but Lee Daghlian, spokesman for the state Board of Elections, said courts have ruled that a primary does not officially exist until more than one candidate files nominating petitions for an office. That occurs in July, so before then, party contributions are legal, he said.
Pappas, the Board of Education president, and Burgio soon declared their candidacies, and the race was on. Carney won the primary after a tough campaign in which hard-hitting direct mail pieces were featured.
"Anything I said in things I sent out before the primary was nothing but the truth," Carney insisted. "Because I'm telling the truth, that's negative? I was telling people exactly what was happening. In the four years Mayor Burgio and Larry Soos have been there, spending's gone up 20 percent. When you spend more, you have to tax more."
City figures show a 12 percent increase in the tax levy and a 9.7 percent increase in the tax rate in 2005 alone.
But the tone of the primary campaign turned off some Republicans.
"Some people were really angry about what they did to Dave and Art," Soos said. "What they said was they were ashamed they were Republicans. I had a couple of gentlemen come up to me and say that they had never voted Democratic in their lives, but they were going to vote for me."
The Democrats, who had no primary, were watching carefully and trying to anticipate the type of tactics Soos would face in the fall.
"We saw [Carney's] track record, two Davignon races and the Republican primary," Rivera said. "They had a history of going negative, boilerplating their message."
Rivera said the Democrats stockpiled materials to respond to the expected Carney attacks while trying to frame the issues in the most favorable light for Soos.
Rivera said that when Carney fired off a direct mail ad accusing Soos of having no plan for North Tonawanda, the Democrats were ready.
"The first day they did that, our mail piece hit with a plan from Larry Soos," Rivera said. "We anticipated they'd be very negative at the end. We had a rebuttal piece. We were either going to have egg on our faces or we'd be right on the money. We were right on the money."
Rivera said the Republicans' last-minute attack was on the issue of property revaluation. In 2000, when Carney was an alderman, the Common Council approved a program of reassessing property values, which has proven unpopular, especially with older residents.
"Carney tried to raise reval as an issue. When he was a councilman, he voted for the reassessment and then turned around and took a campaign contribution from the company that got the reassessment contract. It wasn't the biggest contribution, but it showed up on his financials. When we brought that out, it went to his credibility," Rivera said.
"I guess it was semi-accurate, but that's politics," said Wojtaszek, who noted that GAR Associates, the assessing consultant, gave donations to Soos and Burgio, too.
>Comparison to Giambra
But Wojtaszek said other Democratic ads were false. He pointed especially to one direct mail piece that featured photos of Carney and Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra, the most politically toxic figure in area politics.
"What do Mike Carney and Joel Giambra have in common?" the flyer asked. "Neither found a tax dollar they did not like to spend!"
"Mike Carney's never met Joel Giambra, never even seen him," Wojtaszek said. He tried to draw a distinction between "critical campaigning," which he said is favored by the GOP and features attacks on the opponent's public record, and "negative campaign-ing," which he defined as false attacks. He said the Giambra piece was an example of the latter.
Carney said the Democrats were accusing him of being responsible for higher taxes by voting for reassessment. "Those were the lies," he said.
Meanwhile, Burgio still had his supporters and he was holding his fire for the right moment. On Oct. 26, 13 days before the election, he and Pappas called a news conference and endorsed Soos. Burgio urged his supporters not to vote for him on his independent line but to pull the Soos lever. It worked.
Out of 9,070 votes on the machines, only 224 were for Burgio, as Soos beat Carney by 266 votes. As of last week, the official totals, including paper ballots, still had not been certified by the Niagara County Board of Elections.
Burgio said he and supporters worked to defuse people from voting for him]. "I had a great team working for me who got on the phone and made the calls."
He denied his endorsement of Soos was a revenge move against Carney.
"Not at all," Burgio said. "I've sat in government with Larry Soos over the last four years. I've had his backing right along. There was no reason not to stick with him."
"It took a lot of guts to do what Dave did, and Art, too," Soos said.
"I think it had something to do with the outcome," Carney said. "There are Republican voters out there who support Mayor Burgio."
None of the candidates had filed their final financial disclosure forms as of last week, although they were due Dec. 5. Rivera said he estimates the Democrats spent about $10,000 on the Soos campaign. Wojtaszek said the Republican Party spent about $7,000 on Carney, plus another $1,000 from a GOP-affiliated political action committee.
Carney's financial disclosure forms show he spent $9,946 before the primary, while Burgio spent $13,520. Soos had spent $1,489 by the end of September, but newer information was not available.
Carney said he is still bitter about what he sees as a lack of support from some North Tonawanda Republicans.
"I think there's a question of loyalty," he said. "I think there should be a commitment to candidates. "If he's on my team, I will be there to back him up. I've taught my children that."