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Cash a key factor in upcoming state legislative races

Money, the saying goes, cannot buy happiness. But can it buy a seat in the New York State Legislature?

It’s a question that gets tested every couple of years by candidates running for state Assembly and Senate seats.

With campaign spending for just one Buffalo incumbent reaching as much as $1.4 million the last time around, money remains a big factor as the local Assembly and Senate races ratchet up this political season.

Already, one local senator facing a primary challenge has raised and spent over $400,000 to help beat back a Democratic challenger, while another incumbent has spent almost $200,000 in the early leg of a campaign that might cost him well over $1 million for a second time.

Not all candidates, however, are big spenders. In fact, in the 2012 race, Democratic challenger Betty Jean Grant lost to incumbent state Sen. Tim Kennedy by fewer than than 200 votes – even though he outspent her 17-1.

There are, in fact, several high-profile races locally where the big spenders did not prevail.

Mark Grisanti, for instance, won a Senate race four years ago when he was outspent by Antoine Thompson.

But that is an exception, said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/New York.

“You can spend money badly. You may have negatives no amount of advertising can overcome. Your opponent may have a stronger message, be more in touch with the voters,” she said. “But they are the exceptions. Mostly, it’s the candidates with the most money who win.”

Candidates are required to file campaign financial disclosure reports with the state Board of Elections, and the most recent filings from mid-July 2013 to mid-July 2014 tell an interesting story, especially in five local Assembly and Senate primary races affecting Erie County and Niagara County.

Kennedy vs. Grant / 63rd Senate District (parts of Buffalo, Lackawanna, Cheektowaga)

Democratic incumbent Tim Kennedy: Starting balance: $267,521 Raised in past year: $450,550 Spent in past year: $416,314 Cash in hand: $301,756

Democratic challenger Betty Jean Grant:

Starting balance: $15.02 Raised in past year: $12,534 Spent in past year: $2,298

Cash in hand: $10,251

If history repeats itself, this will be a close race, and one in which party backing and ethnic politics – as well as money – play a big role.

Tim Kennedy, an Irish-American from South Buffalo, barely squeaked by when Betty Jean Grant, an African-American from the city’s East Side, challenged him two years ago – despite Kennedy’s spending more than $600,000 to Grant’s barely $35,000.

Rematch 2014 is also getting off to a lopsided start money-wise, although Grant, an Erie County legislator, is expected to raise more cash than in the past given that she has the Erie County Democratic Party’s endorsement this time.

Still, Kennedy is a prolific fund-raiser, and he’s off to an early start spending as well as raising funds.

With the power of incumbency, Kennedy’s money comes from Albany, New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as his home turf. His big-money donors include labor unions as well as local lawyers, bankers and businessmen.

He’s spending the money on what appears to be a traditional, high-priced, 21st-century campaign, using polling and consultants, as well as lots of mailings and advertising and Facebook and Twitter. Kennedy is also courting the black vote, which he’s more familiar with this time, having represented the East Side neighborhood for two years now, ever since the 2010 reapportionment.

As for Grant, she’s hoping to raise $50,000 this year, and says she’s ahead in fundraising from where she was at this point two years ago. As of mid-July, she raised about $12,500.

“Money can make you viable, but if you reach out to voters, you don’t need a million dollars. You don’t need a half-million,” said Grant. “What you need is the ability to connect to voters.”

Says Kennedy of the importance of campaign cash: “I think it’s an important component to every campaign, but the most important component is the door-to-door engagement with working men and women at their doorstep.”

Grisanti vs. Stocker / 60th Senate District (parts of Buffalo, Tonawanda, Hamburg, Orchard Park)

Republican incumbent Mark Grisanti: Starting balance: $80,595 Raised in past year: $260,851 Spent in past year: $194,773 Cash in hand: $146,713

Republican challenger Kevin Stocker Starting balance: $634 Raised in past year: $33,906 Spent in past year: $26,443 Cash in hand: $8,097

Given the Democratic plurality of his district, Buffalo Republican Mark Grisanti is considered one of the more vulnerable members of the state Senate. So expect this to again be a money bath before the November election, although not to the extent that it was in 2012, after Grisanti cast a controversial vote for gay marriage.

Already, Grisanti has spent almost $200,000 over the past year, including $35,000 on campaign consultants and polling; Another $8,000 was spent on ads even before the state GOP recently transferred $50,000 earmarked for more advertising into the Grisanti campaign.

And this is just the early stage of a primary campaign against a challenger, Kenmore attorney Kevin Stocker, who is his own biggest campaign donor. Of the $33,906 Stocker raised over the past year, $30,000 is a loan he made to himself.

In addition to the state GOP, Grisanti’s donors so far this year read like a who’s who in Buffalo – including Howard Zemsky, Jordan Levy and Louis P. Ciminelli. Grisanti’s campaign chest also reflects the power of incumbency, attracting contributions from Albany, Washington, and New York City, including $6,500 from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Grisanti’s primary spending isn’t keeping pace with 2012, when he raised about $450,000 and spent close to $300,000 during a comparable period – between mid July 2011 and mid-July 2012. And since this election is in an off year– there’s not presidential campaign to bring out voters – overall spending is expected to be lower.

Still, the bigger money in the 60th Senate district is expected to start flowing in during the final days of the primary, and into the general election, when party control of the seat is at stake.

In the 2012 race, for example, Grisanti’s total spending hit $1.4 million, with $1 million occurring from September through the general election. About $400,000 of Grisanti’s money in those months was supplied by the state GOP.

Grisanti’s spokesman said the candidate is not available to discuss campaign finances, but the spokesman said: “We’ll be well financed and have plenty of resources for this upcoming election cycle.”

Just what happens in the 60th District this year depends on who wins the Republican primary as well as who wins the Democratic primary, which pits Alfred T. Coppola, a former Buffalo councilman who served one term in the state Senate, against Marc C. Panepinto, a Buffalo attorney who has Democratic Party backing.

Panepinto has a head start with fundraising and spending. His campaign started with $35,000 then raised $135,451 – including $55,000 of his own money. Panepinto’s biggest single donation, $10,300, comes from the New York State teachers union. Panepinto spent $6,901 and had $163,876 in his account.

Coppola came into the race with $10,806. He’s since raised $80, spent $646 and had $10,240 in hand as of mid-July.

Peoples-Stokes vs. Thompson / 141st Assembly District (Buffalo)

Democratic incumbent Crystal Peoples-Stokes:

Starting Balance: $56,055 Raised in past year: $104,090 Spent in past year: $54,196 Cash in hand: $105,948

Democratic challenger Antoine Thompson:

Starting Balance: -$11,755 Raised in past year: $21,470 Spent in past year: $9,747

Cash in hand: -$83

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes isn’t known as a big spender, but then again, she went a decade without a serious opponent prior to Democrat Antoine Thompson’s surprise decision to challenge the Democratic lawmaker in the September primary election. Peoples-Stokes is now expected to ratchet up her campaigning a bit this year. Thompson’s campaign, meanwhile, is somewhat hampered by past debt.

Thompson’s campaign committee raised $21,460 and reported spending about $9,700 between mid-July 2013 and mid-July 2014, but was also still paying down an almost $12,000 debt left from Thompson’s unsuccessful 2010 state Senate race and subsequent spending, the financial disclosure reports show. By mid-July 2014, the debt was almost paid off, but his campaign war chest was depleted.

“I’ve been focusing on knocking on doors and talking with voters,” Thompson said. “Now I’ll transition to raising more money. I’ll make sure I have the resources necessary.”

Peoples-Stokes typically spent between $50,000 and $100,000 in recent election years, when she didn’t have a serious challenger. She’s raised about $100,000 over the past year, and spent just over $54,000 from her campaign war chest, which had $105,948 remaining as of mid-July.

As with other incumbents, Peoples-Stokes gets some money from Albany and New York City, however, a greater proportion of her campaign war chest seems to come from the Buffalo area than some of her Albany colleagues.

Peoples-Stokes did not respond to a call for comment.

The third candidate in the three-way primary, Veronica Hemphill-Nichols, just recently entered the race, and has not yet filed any financial disclosure statements.

In some primaries, war chests are much smaller

There are also primary challenges for Assembly District 143, covering Cheektowaga, Depew and Lancaster, for the seat left open by the resignation of Dennis Gabryszak, and for the District 62 Senate seat held by Sen. George Maziarz of Niagara County, who is not seeking re-election. GOP candidates Gia M. Arnold and Robert G. Ortt are running in the Republican primary for Maziarz’s seat.

As of mid-July, neither candidate was doing much fundraising or spending. Arnold had raised $6,655 and spent $3,469. He had $3,186 remaining.

Ortt had not raised or spent any money on his Senate campaign, although he has $21,355 in his mayor’s campaign account.

In the Assembly race, there is a Democratic primary between Mark Mazurek and Camille Brandon. Brandon raised $16,102 and spent $1,252, leaving $14,850. Mazurek raised $2,213 and spent $768, leaving $1,445.