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Legislators in political squeeze play ; Redistricting of Legislature is complicated by downsizing

Some Niagara County legislators will have to decide this year whether to exit gracefully or fight for their political lives.

Plenty of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering can be expected as the County Legislature considers a new set of district boundaries, to be drawn by a five-member commission appointed last week. Its first meeting is set for Thursday.

In the last redistricting nine years ago, every incumbent was protected, but that can't be the case this time because the size of the Legislature is shrinking, effective after this November's election.

"There's 19 members now, and there's only going to be 15 after redistricting. Someone is going to lose out," said Michael J. Norris, chairman of the county Republican Party.

And some of the losers are likely to be members of the 15-member Republican-led majority caucus.

That's because the four Democratic incumbents all are in the City of Niagara Falls.

The fact that all the Democratic districts form a contiguous cluster means it's geographically impossible to protect all the Republicans and their adherents.

Although the majority caucus is often called a Republican group, it actually contains a Conservative, two members of the Independence Party and a registered Democrat along with 11 Republicans. However, all of them ran on the GOP line in the 2009 election.

The Conservative Party member is Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, who said he's willing to retire if it would make the redistricting easier in his hometown of Wheatfield.

That town is one of the few large enough to be legally divided between more than one district, and Ross, 77, only represents part of the town. The rest of Wheatfield is represented by Danny W. Sklarski, a Town of Niagara Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans.

"Some of us are going to have to walk away if the redistricting lines don't work in our favor," Ross said. "It happened to me when I lost 80 percent of my district [in the 1993 redistricting]. If it happened to me again, and they had a younger legislator [for the district], I'd be willing to walk away."

Ross said he thinks it's better to protect younger lawmakers than veterans. "When it's younger legislators who are going to be around for a while, you're losing a valuable asset [if they are forced out]," he said.

>Many want to stay

None of the other Legislature graybeards seem to be planning to follow Ross' lead.

Phillip R. "Russ" Rizzo, 77, and Peter E. Smolinski, 72, both of North Tonawanda, said they want to run for re-election. Lewiston's Richard F. Soluri, 79, said last month he would wait to see what happened with redistricting before deciding.

As for Legislature Vice Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster of Ransomville, he declared, "I don't have any plans to retire until I'm 80." That's 10 years away.

The situation of Legislator Gerald K. Farnham, 66, also complicates the redistricting picture.

Farnham, a Republican, sold his house on Hinman Road in the Town of Lockport to LaFarge, North America, the stone quarrying company, in 2006. LaFarge wanted Farnham's property and those of several of his neighbors to expand the quarry.

He said he has been allowed to live there rent-free until August 2011. Farnham has bought property on Saunders Settlement Road in Cambria and intends to move there eventually.

"I would like to stay in the Legislature," Farnham said, "but I'll be running in that district, wherever that district is."

Cambria is not currently in Farnham's district. It's part of a district now represented by David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson. Most of Farnham's district is in Pendleton, although it was united with a slice of the Town of Lockport that includes Farnham's house. That was legal because Lockport has enough population to be legally divided. Cambria does not.

"It is a concern," Farnham said. "I hope with Chairman Norris we can resolve it before it gets that far."

Farnham said he can stay on Hinman Road past August. "I can still live here. They're going to rent out the house anyway. I would say it would take four or five years to complete the [quarry] permitting on the south side of Hinman Road," he said.

But living conditions on Hinman Road aren't what they once were because of LaFarge's work. "Right now they are actually stripping [land] 300 feet from my house," Farnham said.

With the reduction in the size of the Legislature, which was approved in a 2009 referendum, the average population of a district will increase.

Although the results of the 2010 census in each municipality won't be known until February or March, the political community has been using the Census Bureau's most recent estimates to provide theoretical redistricting outcomes.

The total population estimate for the county as of July 2009 was 214,537, which produces an average population of 14,303 for each of 15 districts.

Those figures will change somewhat when the official census data comes in, but the concept remains the same.

>Redistricting rules

There are two important redistricting rules set by state law. Population in all districts must be within 5 percent of the average, and no municipality can be divided between multiple districts unless its population is more than 10 percent above the average.

That means the only towns that can legally be divided are Lockport, Lewiston and Wheatfield. The three cities of Lockport, Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda also can be divided.

In the last redistricting, the process ran into a problem with Newfane. It was too small to be divided, but when combined with any of the neighboring towns, it created a district that was too populous.

The Legislature decided to slice off Newfane west of Coomer Road and combine that into the 14th District with the towns of Wilson and Cambria. Then represented by Democrat Kyle R. Andrews, the district now belongs to Godfrey.

Legislator John Syracuse, R-Newfane, represents a district that covers most of Newfane and all of Somerset. Syracuse said last week he'd at least like to have all of Newfane.

But if the Census Bureau estimates are correct, Newfane and Somerset together are likely to be too small for a legal district, with the average expected to be in the 14,000 to 15,000 range.

If one adds Hartland, the population probably becomes too large to be legal. In addition, the Republicans would prefer not to pit Syracuse against Legislator Michael E. Hill, R-Hartland, whose current district covers Hartland and Royalton.

A district comprising Royalton, Hartland and Somerset would be legal, but that would mean Syracuse's hometown of Newfane might have to be combined with Wilson, where the Republicans already have Godfrey.

If a piece of the Town of Lockport were added to Newfane, Syracuse might come into conflict with Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, who represents most of the Town of Lockport.

If an effort is made to keep Syracuse and Godfrey apart by connecting Porter to Wilson, Godfrey's turf would conflict with that of Burmaster, whose district now includes all of Porter and part of Lewiston.

As Norris said, someone is going to lose out.

Another problem could arise in North Tonawanda. If the population estimate is correct, North Tonawanda, which now has three seats, all held by majority members, might lose one.

Any effort to protect all three incumbents would involve stapling part of the surrounding Town of Wheatfield to North Tonawanda. That's where Ross' decision to step down might facilitate a solution.

There are other issues, too. Legislator Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls, won a lawsuit during the 1993 redistricting and forced the county to draw a "majority-minority district" with a preponderance of African-American voters. She represents that district, now called the 2nd District.

If there's any attempt made to discontinue it, "They know I've got a lawsuit coming," vowed Kimble, the only black legislator.

Niagara Falls' population loss isn't as severe as some might have thought. The estimates released last summer showed a drop of about 4,000 since 2000. If the 51,295 figure is close, Niagara Falls has enough people for about three-and-a-half districts.

Legislature Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso of the Falls said he thinks the real drop will be only about 2,000. As for the potential impact of redistricting on him, Virtuoso said, "I'm not concerned about it personally."

>GOP in charge

Except for potential court action, the Democrats are largely defenseless in redistricting, however, as they have only one seat on the five-member commission and only four votes of the 19 in the Legislature that must approve the commission's work.

Lawsuits were a standard feature of Niagara County redistricting until 2002, when an incumbent protection plan deprived all members of the incentive to sue.

The 2002 compromise plan was a quiet end to a raucous process.

Lawmakers decided not to redistrict in 2001 because they were offering a proposed new county charter to the voters in a referendum that year. The charter would have shrunk the size of the Legislature while also creating an elected county executive position.

The voters rejected the charter in November 2001, and in that same election, they turned out a Republican-majority and elected one that was Democratic by a 10-9 margin.

The lame-duck Republicans passed a redistricting plan in December 2001 that the Democrats said was stacked in the GOP's favor. As soon as they took control in January 2002, the Democrats repealed the Republican plan.

The Republicans threatened to sue, and the upshot was a deal: a bipartisan special committee of legislators that worked out a compromise redistricting plan, although most of the work actually was done by then-County Attorney Morton H. Abramowitz, a Democrat.

Every incumbent at the time was left in his or her own district, not having to challenge a colleague. That wasn't the case in the 1993 redistricting, where Ross, then a Democrat, found himself running against fellow Legislator Arthur F. Kroening.

Kroening, a Republican, won and Ross was out of the Legislature for six years. He came back with a win in 1999 over Charles J. Naughton, who now is the sole Democrat on the redistricting committee.

Norris disavowed any intention for the GOP organization to influence the commission's work.

"From my perspective, we should respect the process, let the commission make the decision and then evaluate it," he said.

"I think they have a daunting task ahead of them to sort this all out and put it together," Burmaster said.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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