Just about everyone watching the Republican primary between Christopher L. Jacobs and Kevin T. Stocker senses that “something is up” in the 60th Senate District.
From mailings to radio to talk on the street, all signs point toward a more than competitive race between two very different breeds of Republican.
Albany Republicans are dropping major dollars to support Jacobs, the Erie County clerk whom they pressured to run after Democrat Marc C. Panepinto declined a second term. Their mailings and radio ads denounce Stocker, a maverick with no use for the GOP’s hierarchy or Albany power brokers either.
And Stocker has spent the last year eschewing mainline politicians to ring doorbells throughout the city-suburban district, trying to capitalize on the grass roots support that propelled his primary victory over incumbent Republican Mark J. Grisanti in 2014. He is mostly paying for his own campaign, even though opponents say his campaign finance reports fail to comply with requirements.
All of this could play a major role in determining the Senate’s majority come January.
Jacobs, 49, is a tough opponent. He is backed by the organization and resources of the Erie County Republican Party and has committed $200,000 of his own money to the race so far. And significantly, Jacobs has won two overwhelming victories in a row for clerk in Democratic Erie County.
In the eyes of GOP leaders, “crossover appeal” appears large in November. Jacobs seems confident after a primary campaign based on his record and a commitment to ethical reform in Albany.
“It’s important to re-establish citizen trust in our government,” he said, pointing to the dozens of legislators and top state leaders facing corruption charges in recent years.
As a result, Jacobs proposes familiar ideas like term limits to ward off “losing perspective” by government officials. He said he also is committed to structural change in the Senate that would strip leadership of its all-controlling power and instead involve the rank-and-file members.
That leads to his proposal for a “reform caucus” that would take in like-minded legislators from both parties, downstate and upstate. He thinks enough lawmakers are committed to the idea to make an impact.
“It’s like arms negotiations. One side won’t do it unless the other side does,” he said. “People are pretty fed up with reading these same stories in the papers. That’s why we had a record low turnout last year.”
Jacobs is no stranger to politics and the community. His grandfather, the late Thomas Ryan, was Erie County sheriff. Other members of his family founded and still run Delaware North Cos.
For years, he has been a driving force behind the BISON Fund that sponsors scholarships to private schools for needy students. He served several terms on the Buffalo Board of Education, ran unsuccessfully for County Legislature and State Senate, and was New York secretary of state under former Gov. George E. Pataki.
He was even tapped as running mate with William Weld (the former Massachusetts governor and current Libertarian candidate for vice president) when he launched a campaign for New York governor in 2006. He also remains a force on the downtown scene as a major developer.
“I want to draw on my private-sector experience,” he said. “That’s something I want to take with me.”
None of that registers much with Stocker, 52, a Kenmore attorney who did not seek the backing of party leaders and revels in his disdain for “corrupt party bosses.” In fact, he will not even commit to organizing with other Republican senators should he be elected.
“This seat could control the government, so it puts me in a very powerful position,” he said. “Instead of getting in line like a duck, maybe I can determine the agenda.
“We’ll see,” he added about his caucus plans. “I’ve never been to Albany.”
Like Jacobs, Stocker is pushing ethics reform more than any other issue. He offers an eight-point plan that includes term limits, restricting campaign contributions from special interest groups, recall of elected officials and even creating a new Moreland Commission to address continuing corruption.
Stocker comes close to donning the “perennial candidate” label, opening campaign accounts or running for Tonawanda town justice, the Assembly, and Senate six times since 2007 and never succeeding in November. But he also points to his 58 to 42 percent victory over Grisanti in the 2014 GOP primary for Senate as evidence of his ability to resonate with the GOP base. He later lost the three-way general election against both Grisanti, on a minor party line, and Panepinto.
Even though 60th District Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 35,000 voters, Stocker believes his strong showing in the 2014 general election will appeal to all parties this November too.
As Tuesday’s primary approaches, Stocker cites the spate of mailings and radio ads sponsored by the Republican Senate Campaign Committee in Albany criticizing his Bar Association admonishments and campaign finances (which he continues to blame on software problems) as proof that he is competitive again this year.
“You can tell from the amount of money they’re spending,” he said. “It tells me I’m leading in the polls and all their lies are designed to knock me down.”
Now the question remains whether the same dynamic that produced a primary win and competitive general election in 2014 will prevail again this year. Little criticism is aimed at Jacobs’ tenure as county clerk as compared to Grisanti in 2014, who got stung over controversial votes for same sex marriage and the SAFE Act.
It is also conceivable that a three-way general election that resulted from Stocker’s primary victory could repeat in 2016 should he win on Tuesday, since Jacobs would survive on three minor party lines – Conservative, Independence and Reform.
And the general election dynamic will be further guided by the results of Tuesday’s Democratic primary between Amber A. Small and Alfred T. Coppola. One or perhaps both (Small has the Working Families and Women’s Equality lines) will appear on the November ballot.