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Schoeneman challenges Lorigo's power in Erie County Legislature race

Joseph C. Lorigo was unopposed two years ago when he ran for re-election to the Erie County Legislature.

His Democratic opponent this year thinks that was a function of the power of the Conservative Party chairman, who happens to be Lorigo's father, Ralph.

"He was likely to go unchallenged again had I not sat up and challenged him," said Michelle Schoeneman, 45, a part-time literacy teacher at Springville-Griffith Institute.

She said many people told her it would be tough to beat Lorigo, and she doesn't think that point of view is very democratic.

"He does have money, he does have power, that's a fact," said Schoeneman.

Lorigo, a 35-year-old attorney who has risen to majority leader in the Legislature, said Schoeneman's campaign from "day one" has been a personal attack on him, while he has talked about his accomplishments.

"Hard work and education got my family and me where we are today," he said. "They attack me personally because they know my record is so strong."

Lorigo raised about $54,000 and spent about $31,000 on his campaign this year, and he had about $126,000 still on hand as of Friday. Schoeneman raised nearly $58,000 and spent about $13,000, leaving her with about $41,500 on hand.

Lorigo, a Conservative, was first elected to the Legislature in 2011, beating the incumbent, and he has been re-elected twice in District 10, which includes West Seneca, Elma, Marilla, Aurora, Wales, Colden and Holland.

He said he devotes a lot of time to his legislature job, and is proud to provide checks and balances in county government. He has drawn the ire of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz over how to finance expansion of Erie County Medical Center’s emergency department, and criticism from Poloncarz and Schoeneman for voting against extending the 1.75 percent additional Erie County sales tax.

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Lorigo said the timing of the measure was suspect, and thinks it was a set-up to make legislators look bad if they voted to extend it, which is usually a routine yes vote. And now Schoeneman criticizes him for voting against it.

"That kind of a vote is irresponsible. What if enough people had voted against the extension and it wasn’t extended?" she said. "That, to me, was a very risky game to play."

Lynne Dixon, I-Hamburg, and Ted Morton, R-Cheektowaga, also voted against extending the sales tax.

Lorigo said the measure was not in danger of failing and he wanted to send the administration a message about being more careful with spending.

"The whole thing was suspect. I didn’t want to make a huge deal out of it," he said.

Lorigo maintains he looks at each issue individually and has worked with the administration on other issues, including the opioid crisis and hiring more highway workers in 2015, which was opposed by the majority caucus.

"Out of 11 legislators, there's one person that really looks at the agenda, asks his own questions," Lorigo said.

Schoeneman said she doesn't fault Lorigo for his efforts and votes to lower taxes, but she said "people need more relief than that." She said she would work with county and town officials to lessen the tax burden.

She said the skills gap that exists among workers and the new jobs that will come to Erie County is a key issue, and she would work for more job training.

While she helped form a group opposed to Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, that raised money for anti-Collins billboards, she said she is not a career politician, but a middle class teacher and mother who became disheartened over what has occurred in local and national politics. Since she is a part-time teacher, she said, she has time to do both jobs if elected.

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