Mark J. Grisanti could not have picked a better venue a few days ago to register outrage over a new campaign mailer that accused him of ignoring victims of domestic violence.
The Republican state senator had just presented a proclamation at the University at Buffalo Law School, honoring a program that provides court assistance to victims of domestic violence, when he displayed the glossy flier sponsored by the political action committee of the New York State United Teachers union. It showed a woman’s bruised face and claimed that Grisanti had failed to “protect her from her abuser.”
“This message is false,” the Buffalo senator said. “And to have these attack ads against me during Domestic Violence Month is despicable.”
That’s pretty much how the three-way race for Grisanti’s 60th District seat has gone this election season. As the two-term incumbent wages an uphill effort to retain his seat on the Independence Party line following his defeat in the Republican primary, a nasty campaign of personal attacks has erupted. Much of it stems from outside groups such as NYSUT and the Senate Republican Conference.
As much as $2 million is likely to be spent on the campaign before the votes are counted Tuesday, in a race that pits Grisanti against Republican primary winner Kevin T. Stocker and Democrat Marc C. Panepinto. So much is being spent because control of the Senate – the GOP’s last bastion of power in New York State – hangs in the balance.
Insiders say that the district’s Democratic enrollment advantage should make Panepinto the favorite but that anything could happen.
To Grisanti, the challenge of winning improbable elections represents nothing new. He eked out a razor-thin victory over Democratic incumbent Antoine M. Thompson in 2010 in a district with a 5-to-1 Democratic enrollment advantage. Since then, he has barely hung on even when reapportionment reduced his disadvantage to “only” about 35,000 voters.
Now, following votes favoring same-sex marriage and tougher gun control, Grisanti is walking a fine line between city Democrats and suburban Republicans as he fights for his political life – all from a minor-party line far down on the ballot.
“A lot of people don’t like the way I voted on social issues. That’s fine,” he said. “But I think you have to look at the entire package and how I’ve represented this district.”
There is no question, however, that “social issues” have caused him difficulties. The Conservative Party refused to renominate him in 2012 following his 2011 vote for same-sex marriage, driving him to the Independence line he now calls home. And most observers believe that his 2013 vote for the SAFE Act gun-control law fueled Stocker’s attack from the right that resulted in a decisive defeat in the GOP primary.
Grisanti’s main message in this campaign, however, is his majority party membership and support for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the Buffalo waterfront, Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park, and the Olmsted Parks system. He also supports the administration’s economic-development programs such as the Buffalo Billion and Start-Up NY, though he believes that lower taxes and a looser regulatory framework are needed, too.
“If this seat is lost and goes to the very liberal, downstate Democrats, we will have increased taxes, more regulation and more fees,” he said. “I hope Western New York wakes up and realizes there is a very, very clear possibility of that happening.”
In an Oct. 23 televised debate with Panepinto and Stocker as well as in all his public pronouncements, Grisanti emphasizes that only he has promised not to organize with the regular Democratic caucus. He points out that his opposition to the possibility of late-term abortion under the “10th point” of the Women’s Equality Act now before the Senate (and pushed by Democrats) might disqualify him even in the eyes of the Independent Democratic Conference that last year shared majority power with the GOP.
“I will caucus with whoever gives me the better opportunity to represent my district in a majority fashion,” Grisanti said. “I don’t want to go to Albany and be in the minority.”
Enter the most contentious aspect of the campaign – the Women’s Equality Act. Panepinto has hammered away at Grisanti as opposing abortion rights, mainly because the senator opposes the 10th point that he says expands such rights in New York. But Grisanti says he maintains a basic pro-choice position, and voted in favor of all other aspects of the women’s rights bill (including strengthening measures against domestic violence).
He said he fears that a liberal interpretation of measures in the act that he says would allow late-term abortions if not only the “life” but the “health” of the mother were threatened. He maintains that even most pro-choice voters do not favor allowing abortion up to the time of birth.
“I believe it is an expansion of abortion, and I will not support it,” he said.
Grisanti, 50, has encountered other controversies during his four-year tenure in Albany. He found himself in the middle of a 2012 Seneca Niagara Casino brawl that drew intense scrutiny he would rather have avoided. He contended that he was merely drawn into the fray when casino patrons began attacking his wife.
He also drew the ire of West Side constituents when he represented the residents of a drug “stash house” that was long the object of neighborhood complaints. Grisanti, a criminal-defense attorney, said the defendants enjoy the right to representation by a lawyer.
But while NYSUT approaches the $900,000 mark in anti-Grisanti efforts, the New York League of Conservation Voters is providing $423,000 for Grisanti ads. And Senate Republican Leader Dean G. Skelos’ conference has spent significantly on ads calling attention to Panepinto’s 2001 conviction of a misdemeanor election law violation (and that also falsely accuses the Democrat of forgery).
The 60th District has changed in recent years from its base on Buffalo’s West Side. It now encompasses the North and Delaware districts, as well as parts of Niagara and Ellicott. It also includes Grand Island, Kenmore, the town and city of Tonawanda, the town and village of Hamburg, Evans, Brant, Derby, Angola and the town and village of Orchard Park.
Grisanti knows he faces a huge challenge in educating voters on how to find his name on the Independence line – the fifth one – on the ballot. As a result, he is now aiming all his efforts toward phone calls and fliers that provide detailed instructions.
“We win,” he said, “if we make sure people understand I’m still in the race and on the Independence line.”