Sandra Lee Wirth, a realtor who was so angered by an increase in the real estate transfer tax that she ran for office and won seats in both the Erie County Legislature and State Assembly, died Saturday in her Elma home after a two-year struggle with cancer. She was 60.
Mrs. Wirth, a Republican and past president of the Greater Buffalo Association of Realtors, won a reputation in government for fighting against both the perks in office and the way the Assembly governs itself.
"She had a reputation as being a fighter for her constituents and the taxpayers," said Robert E. Davis, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party. "Our community will miss Sandra Lee Wirth and the effort she put forth."
She had been ill since shortly before her husband of 43 years, Harold W. Jr., died in July 2004. She took some time off from her Assembly duties, but came back despite her illness.
Born Sandra Lee Liberatore in West Seneca, she liked to tell the story of how her grandparents sent her parents, who were then dating, out to buy some ice cream one night. They eloped instead.
Mrs. Wirth was president of the local realtors group in 1991 when Erie County voted to increase the transfer tax that property owners pay when they buy real estate.
She ran for the County Legislature seat representing West Seneca, and won in a surprise, narrow victory over the incumbent, G. Steven Pigeon, who later went on to become chairman of the county Democratic party.
During her two terms in the County Legislature, she paid for her own parking and office space and returned the money saved to the county treasury. She continued to run her realty business, Metro Sandra Lee Wirth, while in office.
In 1994, she found herself in a race against Pigeon again, this time to succeed longtime State Legislator Vincent G. Graber; she beat Pigeon again. She has been elected every two years since, representing the 142nd District after her 148th District seat was eliminated by redistricting.
"Incumbent Sandra Lee Wirth may be a tad eccentric -- in conversation, she refers to herself as Sandra Lee," the Buffalo News editorial board wrote in endorsing her in 2004, "but she is as angry as a hive of hornets about the way the Assembly is run."
Mrs. Wirth railed against the powerlessness that minority Republicans have in the Democratic-controlled Assembly. She was the ranking minority member on the Real Property Taxation Committee.
But Davis said her minority party status didn't keep her quiet on issues that meant something to her.
"She really stood tall in fighting for the STAR program, which lowers property taxes for senior citizens," Davis said Saturday, while in Memphis, Tenn., on party business. "That was her character, she was a fighter, she was feisty."
She is survived by a son, H. William III of West Seneca; a brother, Ralph J. Liberatore Sr. of Absecon, N.J.; and a grandson.
Prayers will be offered at 8:30 a.m. Thursday in Hoy Funeral Home, 3855 Seneca St., West Seneca, followed by a Mass of Christian Burial at 9 a.m. in 14 Holy Helpers Church, 1345 Indian Church Road, Gardenville. Burial will be in Mount Calvary Cemetery, Cheektowaga.
-- Michael Beebe