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Election season: Round 2 Primaries are over, but two battlegrounds remain -- plus North Tonawanda

The political community always looks forward to the next election as soon as the last one ends, and this year is no different in Niagara County.

The campaigns for North Tonawanda mayor, some County Legislature seats and Lewiston and Wheatfield supervisors appear to be the races that will draw the most attention and resources leading up to the Nov. 3 general election.

North Tonawanda Mayor Lawrence V. Soos, a Democrat, is facing what appears to be a strong challenge from Robert G. Ortt, the city clerk and treasurer who is regarded as a rising star in the Republican Party.

In Lewiston, one of the Democrats' rising stars, Supervisor Fred M. Newlin II, faces Highway Superintendent Steven L. Reiter, the Republican nominee for supervisor. Newlin knocked out Kathryn S. Lake Mazierski in the Democratic primary and may have grabbed the Independence line from her in a write-in effort.

As of last week, the Independence primary appeared to be tied, but the Niagara County Board of Elections won't rule until later this week on the validity of the write-ins and the absentee ballots in that race.

Wheatfield will have a new supervisor after Robert B. Cliffe defeated incumbent Timothy E. Demler in the GOP primary and on two minor lines. Democrat Sam Conti will now take on Cliffe in the general election.

Although there are contests in only nine of the 19 County Legislature districts, one of the incumbents already is on the ropes.

In Niagara Falls' 1st District, Legislator Jason J. Murgia, a registered Democrat who votes with the Republicans, was drubbed in the Democratic primary by Richard A. Marasco. Murgia has the GOP line for November, but the Democrats have a nearly 3-to-1 enrollment edge in the district.

Party leaders are showing interest in two contested seats where the incumbents aren't running, Niagara Falls' 5th District and North Tonawanda's 9th District.

But Job One for the Republicans appears to be trying to beat Soos.

"Certainly the North Tonawanda mayor's race is very important," said County Republican Chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek, a North Tonawanda resident and former city attorney.

Soos and county Democratic Chairman Daniel Rivera, also a North Tonawanda resident, predicted a negative campaign by the GOP.

"I'm an incumbent," Soos said. "I haven't screwed up. I kept tax rates down. They will invent things. We'll just counter with facts."

Wojtaszek vowed the GOP will run a very spirited campaign.

"Rob Ortt's a great candidate," he said. "Larry's done a terrible job as mayor. He's shown he has no interest in working with the other elected officials in town."

Ortt said, "Thus far I have been anything but negative. My opposition to Larry is anything but a personal opposition." Anything that has his name on it, he said, will be issue-focused and above board.

"I've been around a long time," Soos said. "I think a lot of people like me. A lot of Republicans backed me, and I think I've shown in the last four years they picked the right guy. . .

"I have nothing against the candidate who's running against me," he added, "but he has no government experience in terms of running the city."

Ortt, 30, has been city treasurer since April 2007, when he was appointed by the Common Council to fill a vacancy. He was elected unopposed that November. He added city clerk to his duties early this year after the voters approved a proposition combining the posts.

He missed nine months of work in 2008, but Ortt had a good reason. A first lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion of the 101st Cavalry Regiment of the Army National Guard, he was fighting in Afghanistan.

"Nobody said I was too inexperienced to serve my country overseas. I wasn't too inexperienced to win the Bronze Star. I think that's an equally important job as running the City of North Tonawanda," Ortt said. "Leading men in life-and-death situations, other things when you come back look very petty, and I see a lot of pettiness in City Hall between the mayor and the Council."
If two candidates for supervisor in Wheatfield stick to their word, expect a friendlier contest in the general election than the Republican infighting voters saw in the primary.

Cliffe, the Republican, will face Conti, a Democrat, in a race that will determine who will replace Demler.

Demler lost the Republican ballot line -- and his office by year's end -- in a nasty primary that focused more on personal and political accusations than issues.

Conti, 42, of Nicole Drive, is the chairman of the Democratic Committee and has twice sought a seat on the Town Board. He has worked as an operating engineer for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for more than 22 years. He also served 11 years as president of CSEA Local 104.

Conti said he spent the primary going door to door and spreading his message while the two Republican candidates duked it out.

He decided to run because he didn't like the way town government has been operating.

"At this level of government, you're here mainly for the people," Conti said. "Your party shouldn't matter."

Democrats in the town have an enrollment edge, but that hasn't produced results in recent elections.

About 40 percent of the town's registered voters are Democrats, compared with about 36 percent registered Republicans. But residents registered on minor party lines or who have no party affiliation represent another 22 percent of the voting population.

Most of the town's elected leaders are Republican, and the town chose John McCain over Barack Obama in the last presidential election.

Conti said he's working both as the town Democratic chairman and as its supervisor candidate to get his message out.

"Historically, the turnout is low for Democrats in the majority of the elections, for whatever reason," Conti said.

James D. Heuer, chairman of Wheatfield's Republican Committee, said the minor party and independent voters have helped give the Republicans an edge in the past.

"They're the ones that help ultimately win elections," Heuer said.

Heuer predicted residents will see a different tone to the general election than the bitter Republican primary that ended Tuesday with Demler's defeat.
"I expect both candidates to run a clean, not nasty campaign, Heuer said. "I know Bob Cliffe did not like this last campaign because of the way it went back and forth, and he didn't want any part of that."

Town GOP leaders mounted a campaign against Demler in the final two months of the primary after revoking their endorsement of the supervisor and recruiting Cliffe, a town justice, to run.

Cliffe, an operations manager at an engineering firm, resigned his position as a justice to run for supervisor.

Conti and Cliffe said they plan to focus on the issues.

"I do not believe in mudslinging whatsoever," Conti said.

Cliffe called the tone of the primary election "horrible."

Conti's priorities are to increase transparency in government, to apply fiscally conservative principles to town spending and to work with state leaders to create an air cargo hub at Niagara Falls International Airport as a way to create more jobs.

Cliffe, 59, of Ward Road, has said his priorities are to maintain a zero town tax, to oppose new flood maps created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the town and to set up committees to work on issues like economic development, housing growth and drainage.

The bitter Cliffe-Demler GOP primary left bruises, raising the question of whether Demler's supporters will vote for Cliffe in November, turn to Conti or sit this race out.

"That's definitely a target of opportunity," Rivera said. "This is one of those things where there was a lot of hurt feelings. It got personal right from the get-go. I don't think Wheatfield is used to that tone. I don't see a lot of healing there."

In Lewiston, Reiter was a bystander as the county GOP organization backed Mazierski in her primary against Newlin.

Rivera charged that the Republicans intended all along to shift their resources to Reiter if Mazierski struck out.

"Henry Wojtaszek's been running a negative campaign using the name Kathryn Mazierski," Newlin said.

He predicted that if Mazierski stays on the Independence line, "They'll send out negative mailings under her name and do my opponent's dirty work for him. . . . I expect a dirty campaign, but Tuesday's results show that kind of campaign turns Lewiston people off."

Wojtaszek said Reiter will have a lot of support.

"The party will help him as much as Steve wants us to help him," the GOP chairman said.

"I'm the endorsed Republican candidate, so naturally I would expect some support. But I'm an independent person and I'm a Lewiston person," Reiter said. "I think I have the local Republican group's support. I don't know about the county, but I suppose they'll come around."

Reiter said he intends to go after Newlin on the 37 percent pay raise he received for this year. "He took care of himself when a lot of people are hurting," Reiter charged.

Newlin said when the value of health insurance is included, Reiter earns $80,000 a year as a town worker in total compensation to his own $40,000.

"He's eligible to retire at 60 percent of his $70,000 salary as highway superintendent, plus the $40,000 in compensation he'd get for supervisor if he won," Newlin said. "Mr. Reiter wouldn't be any bargain for the taxpayers."
Turning to the County Legislature, Rivera wondered whether the Republicans will invest a lot of money trying to save Murgia's seat. He predicted that with the heavy Democratic enrollment edge in the 1st District, Wojtaszek will shift his attention elsewhere.

Wojtaszek said only, "We'll be meeting with Jason to discuss the race."

He showed interest in Vincent M. Sandonato, the 23-year-old legal assistant who won the GOP primary in the 5th District. With 24-year incumbent Democrat Sean J. O'Connor stepping down, Wojtaszek thinks Sandonato has a good chance to beat Democratic nominee Nicholas A. Melson, despite a 2-to-1 Democratic enrollment edge.

"Vince Sandonato is one of the hardest workers I've seen," Wojtaszek said.

Rivera thinks North Tonawanda's 9th District could bring a gain for the Democrats. Andrea L. McNulty, a Democrat who voted with the GOP, resigned this month, leaving the seat open.

"We're cautiously optimistic," the county Democratic chairman said. "We stand a good chance, especially with the McNulty seat being open. Our candidate [Christopher M. Perna] is a real Democrat."

The Republicans are running former Aldermen Phillip R. "Russ" Rizzo, a former Democrat who now is a member of the Independence Party.

"Russ Rizzo is very well known," Wojtaszek said. "He was elected four times [as an alderman] in that very district."

News Niagara Reporter Denise Jewell Gee contributed to this report.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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