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Independence Party chief not shy about making waves

When county legislators overwhelmingly supported Anthony L. Orsini for a compensated position on the Western Region Off-Track Betting board, they may have created a major new patronage czar out of a minor party chairman.

With Erie County and the City of Buffalo both under control boards, Orsini says few job opportunities exist for his Independence Party.

"This will be beneficial to the Independence Party, because Tony Orsini isn't going to get jobs from the Democrats or the Republicans," he said. "As a director of OTB, I might be able to open doors for people in our party."

Orsini's near-unanimous approval March 16 demonstrates the power of the often crucial minor party, as well his new close alliance with the Legislature's ruling Democrats.

Eleven legislators who had run with Independence backing last November and three others lined up to back his appointment.

Even though three Republican legislators also approved the appointment, Erie County GOP Chairman Robert E. Davis saw it as another example of a Democratic-Independence relationship that he calls "very frustrating."

Only rarely in recent elections, he said, has Orsini's Independence Party backed a Republican candidate. "Candidates who want to run want to know if there's a level playing field when they seek Independence Party support," he said. "Based on the last couple of years, the answer is no."

Orsini, 66, is a former barber and restaurant owner who has become a magnet for controversy during the four years he has run the local Independence Party. The Buffalo News found he once sold advertising in what candidates thought was an official Independence Party magazine that was actually a private venture.

In 2004, Orsini invited State Supreme Court candidates to a $500-a-person event for his personal political action committee, days before the party's judicial nominating convention. That committee continues to pay for much of Orsini's expenses, including almost $4,200 in meetings and meals for the last half of 2005, almost $3,600 in gasoline purchases and $1,400 in payments for secretarial services performed by his wife for the party. (No records of the party's 2005 expenses are available because he has not filed a campaign finance report, despite a Jan. 15 deadline).

Orsini sharply disputes any notion that he favors Democrats or that perks heading his way stem from his fondness for Democrats. Others see it differently.

"Why are we putting a political leader on OTB when what we need there is a business person?" asked Sandra Geise Rosenswie, an Independence Party official and frequent Orsini critic. "This is all being orchestrated out of Democratic Headquarters."

Every legislator except Democrat Cynthia Locklear of West Seneca (who employs Rosenswie in her office) voted for Orsini. Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, a Democrat, said she discussed the appointment with Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan after Orsini asked for it. She dismissed any suggestion that Orsini's close relationship with the Democrats earned him the job.

"He's a citizen of Erie County. Why wouldn't he be qualified?" she said. "How do you exclude somebody?"

Lenihan said he gladly recommended Orsini's appointment to a board that traditionally features political members. He quipped it was "great" that Orsini has supported many Democrats recently but added he believed he would make a good board member, too.

Though Marinelli claimed at the time of his appointment that Orsini would not be compensated on the OTB board, he will be.

OTB officials say he can earn up to $4,000 per year for attending meetings, plus expenses such as mileage or meals. He also receives a full health insurance package.

His wife, Judy, until recently worked part time in the local office of Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, the second most powerful Democrat in the Assembly.

Orsini said he is qualified for the post because of his long association with the horse racing industry, working for many years as a breeder, trainer and harness driver at tracks all over New York. "So I went to the chairwoman of the Legislature and said I'd like to be considered for the position," he said.

He also said his replacement of attorney Gregory L. Davis, who he said was aligned with former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon and County Executive Joel A. Giambra, would make it appear that a "stake was driven into their hearts for political reasons."

"And maybe it should be," he said.

Orsini notes that Lenihan is paid $26,000 a year by Democrats to administer his party, while Davis earned about $50,000 for several years until he gave up the stipend last year.

"I live on $20,000 a year in Social Security," Orsini said. "I couldn't afford to be chairman of a political party unless my friends subsidized me."

He insisted his expenses are legitimate and said past accounts in The News of his expenses only intensified his support.

"Go ahead," he said. "Make a hero of me."

Recently, Orsini has backed Lenihan's candidates in several high-profile races: Byron W. Brown for Buffalo mayor, Marc A. Coppola to succeed Brown in the State Senate and Brian M. Higgins to succeed Jack F. Quinn Jr. in Congress.

In last year's County Legislature campaigns, the Independence Party backed only two Republicans -- Barry A. Weinstein of Amherst and John Mills of Orchard Park.

But Orsini defends his choices as his right, noting a close examination of his four-year record will show support for many Republicans as well as Democrats, especially on the town level. He said his goal remains making the Independence Party strong enough to rely on neither major party, but he added that the beating taken by Republicans at the polls last November confirmed his instincts.

"The Republicans are not much of a party right now," he said. "And I really don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican as long as you're willing to work in the community."

Orsini faces a move by some Independence Party members to remove him as chairman, but he predicted he will have no difficulty winning re-election again this fall. He said he expects to lead the party for many more years, adding he is seriously contemplating running as the Independence candidate for county executive in 2007.

"I'm a good businessman," he said, "and I'd run it like a business because it is a business."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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