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Panepinto’s departure turns November race for 60th District into open affair

ALBANY – The race for the State Senate’s 60th District was already going to be in play. On Tuesday, following the surprising will-not-run-again announcement by Buffalo Democratic Sen. Marc Panepinto, it suddenly became completely freewheeling.

The ability by Democrats to hold onto the Western New York seat, or the Republicans to take it back, could play a sizable role in the broader question of which party after the November elections controls the State Senate – and therefore has a seat at the table with the governor and Assembly in Albany.

Republicans were quick to say the departure of Panepinto from the fall elections will make their task easier than having to face an incumbent, though several said that they would have enjoyed running against the Democrat if other reasons than he gave for his decision on Tuesday become public.

Democrats, not surprisingly, had a different take: Panepinto was already having problems within his own local party and his exit clears the way for a true consensus-type candidate to take on the Republicans this fall.

“We’re sure we can keep the seat,” said Senate Democratic Conference leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

From the head of the Democratic Party came silence. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who did not endorse Panepinto in 2014 when his opponents included former Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Republican with close ties to the Democratic governor, declined to comment on the Panepinto announcement.

The head of the Senate Republican campaign committee, Sen. Catharine Young of Olean, acknowledged the importance of the GOP taking the seat. “We expect to have a top-notch, A1, excellent candidate who will win,” she said. Asked if that person is Erie County Clerk Christopher Jacobs, who has been flirting with a run for months, she said, “We’ll be looking to make a decision soon.”

After a decade of high-profile crimes, corruption, sexual misdeeds and convictions, little seems to take Albany by surprise anymore. Still, no one interviewed on the Democratic or Republican side expected Panepinto to head home Tuesday in the midst of a legislative session and announce he would not seek re-election.

Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic leader, said Panepinto only told her of his decision Tuesday morning.

“It’s unbelievable,” said another Democrat shortly after word spread about Panepinto’s decision.

Few were caught off guard more than the New York State United Teachers union, which helped propel Panepinto to office with money, campaign foot soldiers and advertisements in his 2014 campaign. With potential opponents to Panepinto already circling the waters, NYSUT recently came out with an endorsement for the senator that was extraordinarily early by anyone’s measurement for a fall campaign.

“This obviously caught us by surprise,” said Carl Korn, a NYSUT spokesman.

“We’re certainly saddened by the news Sen. Panepinto will not seek re-election. He was a champion for public education and working families in Western New York. Western New York needs a senator who will speak with the same intensity about what our public schools and colleges need and what’s good for working-class New Yorkers,” he said.

Who will that champion be now?

NYSUT said it wants to see who emerges in the weeks and months ahead.

Whether the statewide NYSUT knows yet if it wants to see the Democrats take over the Senate, one of its largest locals expressed concern that Panepinto’s departure is bad for the union.

“It’s a very important seat for a lot of reasons. It’s a possibility the Senate could go Democrat, and now that makes it even more difficult for that to happen. We’re shocked,” said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Two years ago, the Senate’s 60th was the state’s most expensive legislative contest, with all sides pumping more than $3 million into what ended up being a four-way race. Panepinto won, but with just 34 percent of the vote in a district that has a 17-point Democratic enrollment edge among registered voters.

On Tuesday, Democrats were talking unity candidate.

“We will be working very closely with the county organization, county executive and allies in the region and I’m confident we can find a great candidate,” said Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who heads the Senate Democratic campaign committee.

“This was always going to be a competitive seat. It was the one competitive seat we had on defense whether it was Marc Panepinto or another candidate, so none of that has changed. On the other hand, there are 15 Republican districts with Democratic enrollment edges that we’ll continue to aggressively pursue. The math on the board has not changed,” Gianaris said.

Most Republicans in Albany did little talking publicly, letting the Panepinto story play out on its own. Among those declining to comment was Ed Cox, the state GOP chairman.

The math with the Senate, as always, is tricky.

The Republicans are in charge now, but November, especially in a presidential election year, could change things. Currently, there are 30 Republicans, with one Democrat from Brooklyn who conferences with the GOP. There are five Democrats who broke away from the mainline conference and have an alliance with the GOP. The main Democratic conference has 26 members. There is one vacancy – the seat held by former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who was convicted in December on corruption charges. That seat is being filled in a special election in April, which a Siena College poll Tuesday said is deadlocked between the GOP and Democratic candidates.

As stories about Panepinto’s decision made the rounds, Democrats quickly lined up behind the case that the Buffalo Democrat will not be missed.

“It’s not a bad thing for the conference,” said one Democrat of Panepinto’s “tumultuous” 15 months in office following a tough and bitter 2014 race. “The guns were blazing at him already. It’s the No. 1 race in the state for Republicans. The Democrats out in Western New York were split over him and he was walking into a minefield, if not a firing squad.

“Anyone who comes in without the negatives that were weighing Marc Panepinto down is definitely going to benefit the Democratic conference,” the source said.