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Democrats hope to begin climb back into Niagara County Legislature picture

LOCKPORT – For a decade, the Republican Party has controlled the Niagara County Legislature with an ever-increasing majority, despite the fact that the county contains more Democrats than Republicans.

The Democrats, under second-time Chairman Nicholas J. Forster, have vowed to cut into the GOP’s 12-3 edge with some wins in the Nov. 5 election.

But the Republicans are aiming to add to their majority. County GOP Chairman Scott P. Kiedrowski said there is “a very distinct possibility” the Republicans will boost their majority to 13-2 by holding all the seats they have and picking up one Democratic seat in Niagara Falls.

Forster didn’t give a number, but he said, “We’re in contention in all the contested races.”

“The Legislature races have become very competitive this year,” Kiedrowski said.

Both chairmen agreed the Republicans are running on their record, although they differ as to whether it’s a good one.

Kiedrowski said the GOP majority has reduced the size of county government by cuts in its workforce and also has reduced property tax rates. “The majority caucus has governed on a 'promises made, promises kept’ basis,” he said.

Forster said the tax rate figure doesn’t tell the story. He said: “The supermajority has done nothing but increase taxes. The voting public won’t fall for their ploys anymore. They understand we’re the second-highest taxed county in the nation thanks to the supermajority of [State Sen.] George Maziarz and his minions.”

The Tax Foundation rates Niagara County second in the state in total property taxes as a percentage of home value. That includes school and town or city tax bills, not just county taxes.

“You have to ask the voters in the towns and villages and ask them how much tax reduction they’ve had in the last 10 years of the Republican majority,” Forster said.

“I get a very positive feeling talking to the voters in the towns that these folks are pleased with the representation they have and the direction the county is heading,” Kiedrow-ski said.

While the Democrats seem to be concentrating much of their effort against Republican Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, the GOP’s primary target appears to be Democratic incumbent Jason A. Zona of Niagara Falls.

Here is a closer look at the spotlight races:

5th District

Zona, a Niagara Falls fire captain, is taking on former Legislator Giulio G. Colangelo, an Independence Party member endorsed by the GOP.

The battle in the district, which covers the Town of Niagara and a chunk of Niagara Falls, has been so heated, both sides called the police.

Before the primary, the Democrats accused Legislature Clerk Mary Jo Tamburlin, a Republican operative, of filing fraudulent nominating petitions on behalf of Colangelo.

After the primary, the Republicans struck back, accusing Zona and one of his chief supporters, attorney Johnny G. Destino, of fraudulently obtaining an absentee vote for Zona in the Conservative Party primary.

Prosecutors decided to wave off both allegations without filing charges.

Zona, running for his second term, and his fellow Democrats took credit for reducing a proposed 3.7 percent tax levy increase for 2013 to 1.89 percent, by proposing a $900,000 increase in projected sales tax receipts. The Republicans adopted that idea.

“During my first term, I have proven I will stand up to the powers that have dominated county government for far too long,” he said. “I was able to sponsor and pass welfare reform measures, and IDA reform, stopped a proposed 4 percent property tax hike, halted no-bid contracts, and was involved with Niagara Falls neighborhood revitalization efforts.”

Colangelo, who served six weeks in the Legislature in 2011, filling a vacancy, is a business teacher and boys’ lacrosse coach at Niagara Falls High School. He is a former head coach of the boys’ basketball team there.

He said he believes Updegrove is “sincere” in his tax cut proposal for 2014, but Colangelo doesn’t want to interfere with the county’s decade-old policy of hanging onto a surplus equal to 6 percent of the previous year’s spending total.

He said he supports a tax cut “as long as they respect the 6 percent threshold. Anything beyond that becomes risky.”

Zona said, “In my race the past six months, I have run strictly on my record, while my opponent and his handlers never once engaged me on any issues involving my record as a legislator. They chose to go the route of mudslinging and negative attacks, which are used far too often when you have no platform or record to run on. It’s disappointing.”

Colangelo said, “I am willing to work with all legislators. I am going to use what I know and learn what I don’t know.”

12th District

Updegrove, an attorney with a Buffalo law firm, is running for his sixth term.

The district has parts of the City and Town of Lockport.

Updegrove, who has served as majority leader since 2007, is being challenged by Democrat Anthony P. Molinaro, a member of the Lockport Board of Education.

Updegrove injected fiscal policy into the race Oct. 17 when he proposed using some of the county’s surplus funds for a tax cut next year.

Molinaro criticized it as a shortsighted financial move that was intended to produce a political impact.

“We’ve implemented responsible budget practices,” Updegrove said. “Since 2004, Moody’s (Investors Service) has upgraded our bond rating four times.”

Although he is promoting a tax cut by using the surplus, Updegrove said, “The most opportune way to reduce the tax burden on the residents is to expand the commercial tax base.”

He contended Republican policies have done that, with more than 100 IDA projects in the last decade producing $1.3 billion in capital investment in the county.

Molinaro was the highest vote-getter in the 2011 Lockport School Board election. He is a building trades teacher for the Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

The other contests are:

1st District (Lewiston and Porter): Legislature Vice Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville, takes on Lewiston Democrat Christopher Ferrante, president of United Steel Workers Local 9434-1.

2nd District (Wheatfield and Lewiston): Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield, who is endorsed by the Republicans, is opposed by Sean M. O’Laughlin of Wheatfield, a Unifrax employee and nephew of former Niagara Falls Mayor Michael O’Laughlin.

3rd District (Niagara Falls): GOP incumbent Cheree J. Copelin faces Democrat Mark J. Grozio, a member of the city Planning Board and assistant business manager of Local 237, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

4th District (Niagara Falls): Democratic incumbent Owen T. Steed faces Candace J. Corsaro, a Democrat turned Republican, and Saladin Q. Allah, running on three minor lines.

6th District (Niagara Falls): Dennis F. Virtuoso, longtime leader of the Democratic minority, takes on GOP challenger David J. Zajac, a recent Erie Community College graduate whose family operates a well-known Niagara Falls funeral home.

7th District (Wheatfield): Kathryn L. Lance, a GOP incumbent going for her second term, is being opposed by Michael E. NeMoyer, a banking machine service technician.

8th District (North Tonawanda): Common Council Chairman Richard L. Andres Jr. is the Republican candidate against Gregg R. Schnitzer, a past unsuccessful candidate for city clerk and legislator who was once secretary to Mayor Lawrence V. Soos.

10th District (Wilson, Cambria and Lewiston): GOP incumbent David E. Godfrey of Wilson is opposed by Christopher M. Srock of Wilson, a Democrat who has run unsuccessfully for state senator, town councilman and the Wilson Board of Education.

11th District (City and Town of Lockport and Pendleton): Incumbent Anthony J. Nemi, a member of the Independence Party who caucuses with the Republicans, is being opposed by David J. Naus of Pendleton, president of Local 237, IBEW.

15th District (Royalton, Hartland and Lockport): Republican incumbent Michael A. Hill of Hartland takes on Joshua D. Walker of Royalton, the son and grandson of past chairmen of the county Conservative Party. He’s a Conservative running with Democratic support.

The Republicans have two unopposed incumbents: W. Keith McNall of Lockport in the 13th District and John Syracuse of Newfane in the 14th District.

Also, Randy R. Bradt of North Tonawanda is unopposed in the 9th District, where the GOP chose him to replace Paul B. Wojtaszek after the latter ran for State Supreme Court. Bradt is a certified financial professional with more than 20 years of experience in accounting, tax preparation and financial planning.