Marc C. Panepinto walked into West Side Community Services smiling as dozens of youngsters with red balloons lined up in the hallway.
“Are we ready to march?” he asked before joining the children, parents and staff members in a brisk neighborhood walk that kicked off the center’s program against drug and alcohol abuse.
“This is what it’s all about,” Panepinto said. “We have to support programs like this – community grass roots.”
Later, during a short ceremony inside the Vermont Street center, Panepinto was the final speaker. “You’ve heard a lot about goals,” he told the young people. “You achieve goals by being drug- and alcohol-free.”
With that, the children got in line for pizza, and Panepinto began working the adults in the crowd, shaking as many hands as he could before leaving.
The Democratic candidate for State Senate was enjoying the moment. And it’s no wonder – it’s what Panepinto, 49, has wanted to do for years.
Ever since returning to Buffalo in 1997, becoming a lawyer and getting involved in local politics, the former labor and union organizer has aspired to run for public office.
He worked on some local campaigns with a newly formed Good Neighbor Progressive Democrats, became a Democratic committeeman and was part of what became an unsuccessful but still-noteworthy attempt to take on then-Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon.
But in 2001, Panepinto seemed to scuttle his own ambitions. He was convicted of election law fraud for signing off on nominating petitions that he hadn’t actually witnessed. It was a stupid mistake, he now says, done at a time when he was trying to balance a job, a young family and new home with his political obligations.
Panepinto knew that the conviction would be difficult to overcome politically and that he would have to put his political ambitions on the back burner.
So he did.
The attorney and Elmwood Village resident focused on his law career and his young family.
Then, in 2012, with a successful law practice, and a family that boasted three daughters at City Honors School, Panepinto believed that the public would be forgiving of what was then an 11-year-old transgression. He decided to take on Republican Mark J. Grisanti for the State Senate.
“I spent seven months getting ready,” Panepinto said. “I paid for a poll, built a campaign and began fundraising.”
But County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, Panepinto said, asked him to step aside. “I would prefer someone younger without your baggage,” Panepinto recalled the Democratic county executive telling him.
Hamburg attorney Michael L. Amodeo ran against Grisanti that year and lost.
Two years later, Panepinto said, County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner asked him about running for the Senate seat. “I’m too busy,” he said. But after speaking with others, and seeing polls showing Grisanti as vulnerable, and possibly even losing a GOP primary, Panepinto became more interested.
He spoke to his wife, Catherine R. Nugent-Panepinto, a State Supreme Court justice, and their three teenage daughters, and she contacted the judicial ethics committee to get a rundown on the rules that judges must follow when a spouse runs for elective office, Panepinto said.
His wife, he said, urged him to run. Their daughters did, too. In fact, their youngest daughter, he said, chided him for not continuing his 2012 campaign.
“The rule in our house is that if you start something, you follow through,” he said. If the rule applies to the children of the house, why not to him too, his daughter asked.
Panepinto said his daughters knew that the campaign could get messy and that their father would likely be attacked because of his 2001 conviction. They had seen it in the short time he was preparing to run in 2012.
“My wife and I raised them to be tough, independent women,” he said.
Panepinto’s picture has become a common sight in mailboxes as well as on television screens in recent weeks for anyone living in the 60th State Senate District, which runs from the City of Tonawanda through Buffalo, to Hamburg and Orchard Park.
There’s a flier promoting the candidate almost daily: Panepinto with his wife and three daughters. Panepinto with public school students. Panepinto with union workers. Panepinto with a group of professional women. And, oh, yes, Panepinto figuratively behind bars.
“It’s what I expected,” the candidate said.
He was referring to the attack ads coming from all directions, from his two opponents – lawyer Kevin T. Stocker, who beat Grisanti in the GOP primary, and Grisanti, who is running on the Independence Party line – and from the Republican State Committee.
“We can’t afford another criminal in Albany. We can’t afford Marc Panepinto,” says a campaign flier produced by the Republican State Committee featuring a smiling Panepinto behind bars. The ad was referring to Panepinto’s 2001 election law conviction.
Panepinto grew up in the Town of Tonawanda. He graduated from Kenmore East High school in 1984, then got an undergraduate degree from the University at Buffalo and a master’s in labor relations at the University of Illinois, where he trained at the school’s AFL-CIO Organizing Institute.
He worked summers as a union laborer with Local 210, where his father was a union steward.
While always intending to get a law degree, Panepinto first worked as a union organizer, traveling the country organizing low-wage earners, including poultry workers in Mississippi, nurses in Northern California and immigrant demolition workers in New York City.
When his wife became pregnant for the first time, Panepinto said, he returned to UB Law School, became a lawyer, and used his labor and organizing knowledge and skills in his law practice and political activities.
People and connections Panepinto made over those years help with his campaign, he said.
One of those people is Common Council Member David A. Rivera of the Niagara District, who was at West Side Community Services on the day WNY United Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse recently helped sponsor a drug- and alcohol-prevention program there. As the Council’s Niagara District member, Rivera helped pick a winner among the seven doors in the building that children in an after-school program decorated with anti-drug and -alcohol messages.
Rivera recalled turning to the Panepinto group of progressive Democrats in 2007, when he wanted to run for a Council seat. Rivera didn’t know Panepinto at the time. Yet Panepinto worked hard to raise money for Rivera, who was a police officer and not permitted to fundraise.
Rivera won the race.
“I remember what he did for me. Marc made a mistake, I know,” said Rivera, referring to the election law conviction. “But I hate to condemn someone for life over a mistake made once. Everyone deserves a second chance. Marc is a fighter. If you want someone in the trenches with you, it’s Marc.”
Panepinto’s campaign also immediately attracted support from labor and unions, including New York State United Teachers. Panepinto said one of his friends from his union organizing days, Michael K. Deely, now regional director of NYSUT’s Western New York office, encouraged him to run because of Panepinto’s strong support for public education. The statewide NYSUT organization has since become Panepinto’s biggest supporter.
In addition to $19,800 that NYSUT contributed to Panepinto’s campaign, the statewide union has spent about $1 million during the primary and general election campaigns on its own independent effort for Panepinto. Such independent expenditures are exempt from spending limits, and cannot be coordinated with the candidates’s own campaign.
Based on strong Democratic voter registration, Panepinto, is favored in the race. The district, with 185,749 registered voters, is 46 percent Democrat, 27 percent Republican and 17 percent unaffiliated. Independence Party enrollment is 5 percent, with other minor parties dividing the other 5 percent.
In a four-way race, though, anything can happen. In addition to Panepinto, Grisanti and Stocker, the other candidate is attorney Timothy D. Gallagher, on the Conservative line, although he is not running an active campaign.