John D. Ceretto can hardly wait to get to Albany and start his new job.
Ceretto, a Democrat who turned Republican four years ago, is now a Niagara County legislator-turned-assemblyman. He took his oath of office Saturday in Como Restaurant, Niagara Falls.
"It's like when I got married. I'm on a honeymoon," said Ceretto, who has been basking in congratulations and good wishes from constituents and colleagues alike since he defeated Democratic incumbent Francine DelMonte and Democratic primary winner John G. Accardo in the Nov. 2 election.
"After the honeymoon, you go home and you have a regular job," Ceretto pointed out. "I'm enjoying the honeymoon while it lasts, and it's fun."
During a recent interview, Ceretto vowed, "I'll try to impact people's lives in a positive way."
He pulled out a letter he received from a fifth-grader, Brianna Petrus of 97th Street in the Falls. The letter said in part, "Everyone feels you are the man to fight the crooks in Albany and will not forget this area. We jumped up and down in front of the TV when you won. Kind of crazy, huh?"
Ceretto ended up addressing Brianna's class last month at Geraldine J. Mann Elementary School.
"I talked a little bit about me and my dream, doing what I'm about to do as an assemblyperson, and then I asked the children about their dreams," Ceretto said. "It was fun."
Ceretto already has given his first commencement speech. Mark Onesi, a county Industrial Development Agency board member and dean at ITT Technical Institute in Getzville, asked him to speak at a graduation ceremony there last month.
"In America, all dreams are possible," Ceretto said.
One of his dreams is that Albany might become less partisan.
"I truly don't think it's about Democrats and Republicans, it's about serving the people, no matter what party you are," Ceretto said. "I really do believe that."
Ceretto started to move toward the GOP while he was a Lewiston town councilman. In 2005, he accepted the Republican endorsement in a County Legislature race against Michael A. Johnson, another Democratic town councilman. Ceretto won and the following year changed his party affiliation.
"If you talk to my mother-in-law, who's a Republican, she says to me, 'John, you never were a Democrat, you always were conservative, you just didn't realize it.' If you talk to someone else on the Democrat side, they might say, 'You have those Democrat values.' "
He commented, "People elect me for me, not because of my party affiliation."
Ceretto holds out conservative hopes for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who talked during the campaign about controlling spending and capping property taxes in the face of New York's massive structural budget deficit.
"I've met Andrew Cuomo in my past, when I was a Democrat," Ceretto said.
He claims to have made Cuomo cry by mentioning his grandmother at a fundraiser. Ceretto said Cuomo, who was secretary of housing and urban development in the Bill Clinton administration at the time, became tearful, said he missed his family and corresponded with Ceretto for a time.
"I'm encouraged by what Andrew Cuomo is saying. I hear a Democrat governor that, if he does what he's saying and what I'm reading, I will support him. You know why? Because it's the right thing for the people of this district and New York State," Ceretto said.
He added, "We have to stop raising taxes in New York State. It's anti-business. The jobs and the businesses are leaving here because we're too high-taxed."
>Sees a continuity
In terms of practical politics, Ceretto said he just left a County Legislature that has usually cut or frozen taxes in recent years and one that has been at odds with the New York Power Authority, demanding more assistance to the host county for the Niagara Power Project, its most lucrative power plant.
"I see a continuity of what I've done in the past and what I'm about to do in Albany," he said.
He said he will push for more low-cost power to create jobs in Niagara County and for a county representative on the Power Authority's board of trustees.
"That NYPA is a golden goose," Ceretto said.
Ceretto remains concerned about the possibility that the redistricting process might make things even worse in a district that already has a solid Democratic enrollment edge and gave him only 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
"I'm putting my family at risk," he said. "I am quitting a job [at Niagara Falls State Park] -- I could have gone on leave for a year, but what's the sense? -- and I believe I can make that difference. I'm gambling so much. I've got three children in college, and this is for two years."
But he said he has come to terms with the chance that he might be a short-timer.
"No longer am I afraid to follow my dreams and do what I think I have to do," he said. "I'm not afraid of life, and I'm not afraid of losing, and I'm not afraid of taking this position on. I embrace it."
An Assembly seat pays $79,500 a year, plus 50 cents a mile for driving back and forth from Albany and $161 a day for living expenses or hotel bills when in the state capital. There may be extra money if he becomes the "ranking minority member" on some committee, but Ceretto said he hasn't yet received his committee assignments.
>Recalls early work
It is an upgrade from what he made in the Tulip Corp. recycling bin factory in Niagara Falls. He earned $15 an hour there, and at first made only $10 an hour when he left Tulip to join State Parks as an educator in the gorge displays.
"I worked 20 years in a factory. There were times when I felt hopeless because I wasn't living my dreams," Ceretto said. "But I knew I was taking care of my family."
Ceretto had a problem in the week before Christmas securing DelMonte's district office on Pine Avenue for his use. He thought the deal was set, but the landlord tried to cancel the lease with the state and rented the property to Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport.
However, state attorneys informed the owner, Skip DiCamillo, that there was a holdover clause in the lease and Ceretto's claim to the space couldn't be ignored. So Ceretto will have the same local phone number and mailing address DelMonte had: 282-6062, and 1700 Pine Ave., Suite 102, Niagara Falls, N.Y. 14301.
In Albany, as of last week, Ceretto didn't know where his office would be. He said the Assembly's majority Democrats get first choice of the available office space if they want to move, and among Republicans, the opportunity to pick among the leftovers is arranged by seniority, of which Ceretto has none.
But he does have a chief of staff, Michele Altman, who has been one of County Attorney Claude A. Joerg's legal secretaries for the past year and a half. A Niagara Falls resident, Altman has been active in the Niagara Rises group, Ceretto said.
Other hiring has been crimped because Ceretto has been given an allocation of only $85,000 for payroll staff salaries, and that money must account for workers both in his district office and in Albany.
The GOP Assembly office gave him a list of available Albany workers to consider for roles in the capital, but Ceretto said he expects to have a lot of part-timers and might have to rely on interns for a lot of the work.
He did buy a new vehicle, a Chevrolet Equinox, which is on his dime, not the state's. That was because he drove a 16-year-old car to Albany for his orientation meeting, and the oil light kept coming on.
"So I'm there and I keep thinking about the car. Is the car going to get me to my hotel room?" he related.
One of Ceretto's next decisions is whether to get an Assembly license plate or maintain his highway anonymity. "There are pros and cons," he said.
At the Republican orientation session, Minority Leader Brian Kolb had some advice for the freshmen.
"It's better for us to be courteous to [Speaker] Sheldon Silver and anybody we approach. You get more from being courteous or respectful to someone than bullying," Ceretto said. "I totally agree with [Kolb]. He impressed me. At one of the caucuses, when he went before the staff, he had tears come out of his eyes because he was overwhelmed that they supported him."
Ceretto said he was overwhelmed to see a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt in the State Capitol and to think that he will soon sit in the chambers once occupied by some of New York's most famous.
"I'm a history buff. Elected officials were my heroes," he said.
At the same time, he expressed his convictions in terms not often heard from politicians.
"The principles of John Ceretto," he said, "are: one, to discover God; two, to find something very special in me; and three, to give it to as many people as I can. And that's not a Democratic or Republican principle, that's about helping and serving people."
"My dream is to help others," he added, "and the more I give of myself, the more rewards I get within myself."