There are 920,754 registered voters in the eight counties of Western New York, and on Monday evening, 118 judicial convention delegates selected this year’s nominees for State Supreme Court.
But in essence, two men decided the election months ago.
That’s when Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner and his Republican counterpart – Nicholas A. Langworthy – agreed to “cross-endorse” Democrat Frank A. Sedita III and Republican Emilio Colaiacovo. Now the pair is assured of election in November following the unanimous votes in Monday’s Republican convention and near unanimous at the Democratic conclave.
The Conservative Party also endorsed the pair Monday, while the Independence and Working Families parties were expected to follow suit.
That’s the way it works in Western New York’s elections for State Supreme Court, when Erie County’s Democratic and Republican chairmen often agree on bipartisan backing for each other’s candidates months ahead of the conventions. In fact, with Monday’s cross-endorsements of Sedita and Colaiacovo, more than half (25 of 49) of Supreme Court nominations since 1995 have been determined by previous agreements of the two chairmen – and with no competition before the voters.
The judicial nominating conventions result from the election by party voters on Primary Day for delegates who almost always follow the “recommendations” of the Erie County chairmen. Now Sedita and Colaiacovo are headed to the state’s top trial bench with 14-year terms at $174,000 annually.
The proceedings were marked by speeches, plaudits and judicial decorum, though Democrats denied access to a Buffalo News reporter to their convention in party headquarters. That followed an opinion rendered earlier in the day by the executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government indicating the public nature of the proceedings. Robert J. Freeman said Monday such conventions are considered public under state election law and have always been open.
Democrats would not even provide any information on the vote totals, issuing only a Zellner statement lauding the candidates and indicating they would not provide any further details. But sources indicated several votes were cast for City Judge James A.W. McLeod in a protest against the manner in which the nominations were previously arranged.
Sedita declined to comment as he hurriedly left after the hourlong convention.
“I’ve got to get to the Republicans,” he said.
But the GOP session at the new Marriott HarborCenter was open to reporters, and provided a more public glimpse into the previously private proceedings. Colaiacovo, accompanied by his wife and two small children, was introduced by Langworthy, a close friend. Seconding speeches came from top party insiders – former Erie County Chairman James P. Domagalski and former Niagara County Chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek, and even Langworthy’s wife – Erin Baker Langworthy.
Domagalski praised Colaiacovo as “intelligent, articulate and aggressive, but also measured.”
“What we do here is so important for the 8th Judicial District because the people we present to the voters must meet a standard of excellence not only to lawyers who appear in their courtrooms but to the people who appear in that courtroom too,” Domagalski said.
The GOP then considered Democrat Sedita, with Langworthy pointing to his previous cross-endorsement for district attorney and the candidate’s “conservative” nature.
“He has his detractors, no doubt. Those detractors did not want a cross-endorsement because they did not consider him malleable enough on plea bargains,” Langworthy said, adding he never hesitated to back the district attorney’s ascension to the bench.
Judicial nominating conventions also offer a fairly accurate reflection of the state of the two Erie County political organizations. In Monday’s GOP affair, for example, all delegates dutifully followed their leaders’ wishes, resulting in unanimous approval for Sedita and Colaiacovo. Democrats experienced the boomlet of support for McLeod against party leaders’ wishes, but followed the plan by overwhelming numbers.
Indeed, no other candidates even actively sought the nomination this year because of the overall perception that Sedita and Colaiacovo were chosen before the process even began. Colaiacovo is the only candidate known to even stage a fundraiser this year.
“Everyone presumed it,” said Erie County Conservative Party Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo, “to the advantage of Emilio and Frank.”
Monday’s outcome mirrors previous conventions over the past 15 years. In recent memory, however, a contentious Democratic convention erupted only in 2000. That’s when a bitter struggle for the chairmanship between then-Erie County leader G. Steven Pigeon and David J. Swarts spilled into the judicial race, resulting in a Democratic slate mostly supporting Swarts.
Now Sedita, 54, and Colaiacovo, 39, will go through the motions of a campaign following their official nominations on Monday. Both received only “qualified” ratings for their candidacies from the Erie County Bar Association – the lowest favorable rating possible
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