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Few races remain in downsized Legislature Leaders, rural representatives unchallenged as campaigns focus on districts around cities

Only six of the 15 newly drawn districts for the downsized Niagara County Legislature will have competitive elections Nov. 8.

Taking a free ride to re-election are Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield; Vice Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville; Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport; and Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls.

Also unopposed are Legislators Anthony J. Nemi, I-Lockport; David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson; John Syracuse, R-Newfane; and Michael A. Hill, R-Hartland.

In addition, Democrat Owen T. Steed is regarded as a sure winner in Niagara Falls' 4th District.

One of the candidates Steed defeated in the Democratic primary, Kristian L. Green, is on the Conservative line, but Green said he is not campaigning.

Here's a capsule look at the six competitive races:

> 3rd District

In this LaSalle district, it's an all-LaSalle Prep contest, as Republican Cheree J. Copelin faces Democrat John P. Briglio.

Copelin is a social studies teacher at LaSalle Prep. Briglio is the school's dean of students.

Briglio changed his affiliation from Republican to Democrat earlier this year, but it won't take effect until the day after the election.

Briglio said, "Numbers-wise, Democrats have a 2-1 advantage, and I'm on the Democratic ballot, and people identify with my message, which is 'LaSalle deserves better.' "

He said he opposes health insurance for legislators, and he would like to see more public comment at meetings.

Copelin was appointed to the Legislature in June to replace Vincent M. Sandonato, a Republican who resigned.

"My focus is economic development in the area, private-sector jobs that pay a livable wage," Copelin said.

She said she will push for job creation through more Industrial Development Agency aid and more low-cost power from the New York Power Authority.

> 5th District

It's a rematch of the Democratic primary, in which Niagara Falls Fire Department Capt. Jason A. Zona defeated Legislator Brittany I. Catchpole of the Town of Niagara, 768-519.

This district combines the Town of Niagara with Niagara Falls' DeVeaux neighborhood and the area north of Hyde Park.

In the primary, the city portions of the district went for Zona, 611-279. Catchpole carried the town, 240-157.

Catchpole, an 18-year-old Niagara University freshman who was appointed to the Legislature after the April resignation of Danny W. Sklarski, is a registered Democrat running on the Republican line.

"What I'm working on right now is getting the Town of Niagara out to vote," Catchpole said. "They've had local representation for the last 40 years. I'm hoping they want to keep that from being replaced by someone from the city."

She said she recognizes that the lack of contests for town offices may hold turnout down, while in the city, there are races for mayor and City Council.

"I was disappointed with the turnout in the Town of Niagara, too," Zona said. "They're going to have more voters in the general election."

Said Zona, a first-time candidate, "I'm not connected with any groups. I'm an independent voice. I can do what's best for the city."

"We have so much potential we haven't utilized yet," Catchpole said. "We don't need the same people we've had for 30 years."

> 7th District

This district covers most of Wheatfield and the Gratwick section of North Tonawanda.

The candidates are both from Wheatfield. Republican Kathryn L. Palka-Lance, a reading teacher at Buffalo School 43 in Lovejoy, faces Democrat Gerald J. McCormick, a retired General Motors worker who was president of his United Auto Workers local for six years at the Tonawanda Powertrain plant.

McCormick ran unsuccessfully against Ross three times. "This is a good chance," he said.

He called Palka-Lance "unknown" and said he has deeper roots in the community than his opponent.

Palka-Lance said she was born in North Tonawanda and has lived in Wheatfield for 12 years.

She said, "I'm getting a lot of positive feedback from my neighbors. I think they share the same concerns I do -- there aren't any jobs around here."

Palka-Lance said she'd improve that by cutting taxes and spending. "Government doesn't have to take care of everything," she said.

"I think the transparency in government is not there," said McCormick.

He used the county's difficulty in awarding a contract for a new emergency radio system as an example -- an important one to his fellow volunteer firefighters at Adams Fire Company.

"All they need is a chip. It would cost something, but not the kind of money they're talking about," McCormick said.

> 8th District

This North Tonawanda district offers a rematch of 2009, with GOP incumbent Peter E. Smolinski running for his sixth term against Democrat Katie J. Rich.

Rich called Smolinski, a retired assistant city fire chief, "a career politician" and said Niagara County patronage jobs need to be abolished.

"If a career politician is making $15,000 a year, then I'm a career politician," said Smolinski.

He said the county tax rate has fallen five of the past six years, with the only increase in North Tonawanda being 12 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation last year.

"We're not done yet. We're still streamlining. We have studies going on on that right now," Smolinski said. "I have so much experience with it now. After 10 years [in office], I can accomplish a lot more."

"Our county is not getting any better," said Rich, a stay-at-home mother with a 14-month-old daughter. "We have to change the legislators that are in there. Our elected officials always make false promises. They get elected, and they don't do what they said."

She said the county needs to cut taxes and reform the IDA so the jobs promised by the companies it aids actually are delivered.

> 9th District

In another North Tonawanda contest, incumbent Paul B. Wojtaszek, a Republican who works as a law clerk to a State Supreme Court justice, faces Democrat Janet B. Zehr, a retired middle school science teacher.

Zehr said, "Mr. Wojtaszek has done very well for himself and the people he represents, but the middle class and the people I represent need a voice. They run the Legislature as their own private fiefdom."

"I led the charge in a lot of important areas in Niagara County over the last four years," said Wojtaszek, who is seeking his third term.

He said with his knowledge of the criminal-justice system, he was able to win state funding for a welfare fraud investigator, pass a countywide sex offender buffer zone law and work on driving down the price of the emergency radio project.

Also, he sponsored a law that made texting while driving a primary offense while the state lagged on the issue.

"I try to take the lead on issues that I have experience in," Wojtaszek said.

Zehr called for pursuing more "green jobs" and funding for after-school programs and "helping out families any way I could."

> 13th District

This district covers most of the City of Lockport, and it offers a rematch of the Republican primary between incumbent W. Keith McNall and current 4th Ward Alderman Andrew D. Chapman.

McNall won the GOP primary, 462-395, but Chapman is the Democratic nominee.

Chapman said he has no plans to change his affiliation, but he thinks Democratic voters will rally to him because McNall ran as a Democrat after losing a GOP Legislature primary in 2005.

"I did then what he's doing now. I don't believe it has hurt my relationship with the Democrats, because I continue to get endorsed every time I run by the Working Families Party," McNall said.

Chapman continues to insist, as he did in the primary, that McNall's campaign literature exaggerates the level of tax reduction and county work force cuts accomplished since he took office. McNall bases his figures on the countywide average rate; Chapman prefers to use the Lockport rate, which has fallen far less.

Running for his third full term, McNall said, "I support initiatives to keep taxes low and reduce the cost of government, but if you were to ask what the three most important issues in Niagara County area, I would say jobs, jobs, jobs."

Chapman said if he wins, he won't caucus. "It's not about the party," he said. "I'm scaring people because I'm not beholden to anyone."

He said he will push for Legislature term limits and "anything to reduce spending and taxes."

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com