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A low-key race for Falls mayor Polls are in Dyster's favor, but Destino looks to lure away uncommitted Democrats

Mayor Paul A. Dyster and challenger Johnny G. Destino hail from different political parties, with different thoughts on city issues.

But they both agree the 2011 race for mayor isn't quite what they expected.

"It's a lot different being a candidate for office while you're also performing the duties of that office," Dyster said in a recent interview. "Being a mayor is a full-time job, and it never ends."

Destino called the campaign "different" from what he envisioned, with less party support and voters who have "unrealistic expectations."

"Everyone has their own little slice of interest, and that's all they're focused on," Destino said. "I try to get people to walk back and see the whole picture, but they can't, because they're basically fighting over the crumbs that are left."

What remains is what many still consider a monumental task -- lifting the city out of its economic doldrums while capitalizing on the 8 million tourists who visit the falls each year.

Dyster, 57, gained nearly 80 percent of the vote in 2007. The Democrat is confident his record will get him four more years in City Hall.

"It's pretty obvious something big is happening on the streets of Niagara Falls," Dyster said. "My basic campaign strategy is to make the [decision] on the record of the last four years."

Destino, 35, made waves in his first year on the Niagara Falls School Board when he questioned the appointment of the School Board attorney's daughter to a key post and asked the nine-member board to consider downsizing itself.

The Republican lawyer has said the city "doesn't have much longer if it doesn't turn around."

The race for the city's chief executive has not been as heated as the primary race between Dyster and former Councilman John G. Accardo, which featured a series of mailers, including one suggesting Dyster was anti-Italian.

Dyster had about $32,000 in his post-primary war chest. His largest donors have been unions and local companies with business before the city. He's spent more than $22,000 since the primary.

Destino has raised nearly $24,000 and has spent more than $15,000. His largest contributors have been Exclusive Beauty Supplies Inc. in Davie, Fla., and convicted felon John J. Gross Jr., a Falls plumbing contractor with a history of lawbreaking and corrupt activities.

At the same time Gross is awaiting sentencing on a felony guilty plea of tax evasion, his workers have been erecting large campaign signs for Destino, the candidate acknowledged. Gross' family has contributed to numerous candidates -- including Dyster -- over the years, though his only donation to this year's race is $4,969 to Destino's campaign.

That amount was more than $3,700 above the allowable individual contribution. Destino said his campaign has refunded the excess money to Gross.

"I think he really just doesn't like the mayor," Destino said last week. "If I was the type of person who could be bought off, I'd already be bought off by now. I just won't do it."

Democratic and Republican polls show Dyster's camp looks likely to make the former U.S. State Department adviser and beer store operator the city's first two-term mayor in two decades.

An internal Democratic poll shows Dyster with a significant lead, and a Republican source said recent GOP polls showed Dyster with a 14-point lead, with 22 percent undecided.

That has led Niagara County Republicans to spend most of their efforts on the City Council campaign of Glenn Choolokian and a County Legislature race, the Democratic source said.

City Republicans have contributed $100 to Destino's campaign, while state Board of Elections records show no direct contributions from county Republicans.

Niagara County Republican Chairman Michael J. Norris declined to comment on polling, but he said the county Republicans have provided "organizational support" to Destino.

Destino acknowledged that county and city Republicans haven't spent much money on his campaign, but he insisted that hasn't crippled it. He's encouraged by the number of undecided voters, who he believes will become "Destino Democrats" and cast their votes for him.

"I'm optimistic," Destino said. "I believe I'm going to win."

Destino, who moved back to the city a few years ago from Raleigh, N.C., has staked his campaign on attracting private investment through lowering taxes.

"It's just something that has to be done," he said. "We need more homeowners in the city. You haven't had anyone come in unless they're highly subsidized."

He said he also believes the city needs to "refocus resources" to allow development of retail stores, restaurants, hotels and family-oriented entertainment. That could be accomplished, Destino said, by spending less time and money on public projects like the $40 million Niagara Falls Intermodal Transportation Center, the proposed culinary institute and the restoration of LaSalle Waterfront Park.

"You can bring 10 million people here a year," Destino said. "There's still no place for them to spend their money."

Destino also believes the job descriptions of city workers are too broad and that the city should look to hire subcontractors and specialists for public improvements. At the same time, he said, potential developers are overwhelmed with bureaucracy and long for "one public face" to help with projects.

Dyster's campaign focuses on industrial job growth in the metal, paper and recycling industries, a sustained road-paving plan and the start of downtown development.

"I think that is happening, and you'll also see that happen to some of these other areas," Dyster said. "You can see a lot has changed already, but we're not yet done. I have this sense of sort of building on a foundation."

The mayor touts ongoing construction of the culinary institute, the demolition of the Wintergarden, rebuilding of Old Falls Street and the Hard Rock Cafe concert series as projects that have changed the look and feel of downtown.

He sees the development of other parts of the Rainbow Mall, the former balloon launch parcel, the Hotel Niagara, the former Fallside Hotel and the proposed Niagara Holiday Market as projects that could add life to the city during his second term.

"At the end of eight years in office, in order to fulfill voters' [wishes], you'd want to be able to say, 'Here's how the city was transformed,' " he said.

While Destino hopes Democrats who stayed home primary night will vote for him Nov. 8, both parties point to low voter turnout as a discouraging trend. This year's Democratic primary brought out about 1,500 fewer voters than in 2007 and 2,000 fewer than 2003, when Dyster first ran for mayor.

"That's a legitimate concern of all candidates," said Frank A. Soda, former Niagara County and Niagara Falls Democratic chairman. "How do we get that core voting group back into the machine, back interested in city government? The big fear is they've become disinterested."

email: cspecht@buffnews.com