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Potential challengers to Panepinto weigh race

Less than two years after Marc C. Panepinto won election to the State Senate in one of the most raucous and expensive campaigns in all of New York, several potential candidates are lining up for a repeat performance this fall.

At least six Democrats and Republicans are making the rounds as potential challengers to the Democratic senator from Buffalo.

The New York State United Teachers union spent more than $1 million supporting Panepinto in 2014, and this year’s effort may draw even more money and campaign activity for the 60th District, a potentially pivotal seat in determining which party controls the Senate in 2017.

Though reapportionment significantly reshaped the district in recent years, Democrats can still rely on an enrollment advantage of 84,494 to 49,746 in a presidential election year, when turnout is expected to be high. That could explain the reticence of the GOP’s top potential candidate – Erie County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs. Despite encouragement from Albany Republicans, he remains undecided about running, and most Republicans believe he will pass.

“The year makes it even more challenging,” Jacobs said. “But I do feel strongly that it’s critical for Western New York to keep at least one branch of government in Republican hands. (The Senate) is the only branch that keeps an advantage on our side.”

Kenmore lawyer Kevin T. Stocker has been knocking on doors for months, preparing for a possible second Republican candidacy, while Assistant District Attorney James R. Gardner also is talking with GOP leaders.

Former State Sen. Alfred T. Coppola, a longtime Democratic member of the Common Council from the Delaware District who briefly held the Senate seat in 2000, is also exploring a candidacy. He waged a surprisingly effective campaign against Panepinto in 2014, coming within 613 votes of winning the Democratic primary. But this year, he says, he wants Republican support, too (which he has gained in the past). Sources say that scenario is unlikely.

Panepinto is seeking a second term in Albany but may face opposition from his own party. Hamburg Councilman Michael P. Quinn Jr., who also is the town Democratic chairman, has been discussing the race with political leaders.

Also, Amber A. Small, of Buffalo, executive director of the Parkside Community Association, is also weighing a Democratic primary race. She has attended an Albany function of the Independent Democratic Caucus that shares power with Senate Republicans, and has expressed her interest to Albany Democrats.

Small worked in City Hall on the executive staff of Mayor Byron W. Brown and previously for Planned Parenthood. She also was a candidate for the County Legislature in 2014, a seat won by Democrat Peter J. Savage III. “I’m not able to get a million-dollar donation from someone,” she said, referring to Panepinto’s union support. “I will run on who I am and what I can do, not on what someone else may or may not do.”

County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner faces a tough choice in bestowing the party endorsement after Panepinto initially maintained tenuous relations with party headquarters. The incumbent also gained an Albany reputation as a critic of Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who is a frequent target of Panepinto’s NYSUT allies.

But observers also point to a recent thaw in Panepinto’s relations with both Zellner and Cuomo.

“Marc is an incumbent who has been involved in this organization for a long time,” Zellner said, “but I want to make sure there is a path to victory, and make sure he continues to support this organization and this party.”

Panepinto supported union leader Mark A. Manna in 2014 against Zellner for the party chairmanship. The senator also employs David B. Pfaff, a longtime associate of former County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon, who is still viewed as an opponent by the new team of party leaders closely aligned with County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

“Marc supported Mark Manna, and that was a disappointment,” Zellner said. “A lot of people are still concerned about that.”

But the senator made it clear this week that he will enthusiastically support Zellner’s re-election as chairman this fall, joining Timothy M. Kennedy, of Buffalo, as another state senator previously on the outs with headquarters now considered part of the team.

Zellner originally overlooked Panepinto for the post in 2014, favoring instead Hamburg Trustee Laura P. Hackathorn. She withdrew when it became apparent that influential party constituencies such as the teachers union were strongly pushing Panepinto, who eventually beat Republican incumbent Mark J. Grisanti.

Other Republicans are also lining up. Stocker, who beat Grisanti in the 2014 GOP primary and made a strong showing in the three-way general election, has been campaigning door-to-door for weeks. He lists $127,000 in his campaign finance reports, though questions mark his January submission to the state Board of Elections.

For example, Stocker failed to itemize $820 worth of gasoline purchases for Oct. 21, failed to list the recipient of $4,700 in polling expenses, and did not list to whom he paid $400 in unitemized expenses listed as “assistants” in December.

Gardner said he would bring a fresh perspective to the race with a “mandate of cleaning up Albany.”

“It’s shocking to me as someone in law enforcement,” he said, adding that the need to leave the District Attorney’s Office will eventually influence his decision. He also said he would not shy away from facing Stocker in a GOP primary. Gardner appears ready to once again remind voters of Panepinto’s conviction on misdemeanor election law violations in 2001. “The choice between a career prosecutor, or a career political insider like Marc Panepinto, who has been convicted of a crime and continues to use political connections to line his pockets, is a clear one,” Gardner said. “I am pretty confident I know what their answer will be.”

The Conservative Party may also play a key role. County Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo said he has discussed the race with Democrats and Republicans alike, and has not ruled out endorsing Panepinto despite the Senate’s Democratic edge and the dearth of Conservative-backed Democrats in the State Legislature. Only Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, has the party’s backing.

Lorigo pointed to ratings assigned to all legislators by the state party, citing a 76, out of 80, for two Republican-Conservative senators, Patrick M. Gallivan, of Elma, and Michael H. Ranzenhofer, of Amherst, and a 72 for Assemblywoman Angela M. Wozniak, of Cheektowaga, a registered Conservative. Panepinto, by comparison, is at 68, Lorigo said.

“Sixty-eight is not so crazy to me,” Lorigo said, noting Panepinto’s support of gun rights as a positive, and his backing of an increase in the minimum wage and abortion rights as negatives.

Lorigo did not rule out endorsing Panepinto, however, pointing out that the senator even brought him a tray of Italian cookies at the weekly breakfast the chairman sponsors at Daisies Cafe in Lackawanna.