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Ranzenhofer announces retirement plans; angling begins to replace him in state Senate

ALBANY – The exodus of Senate Republicans continues.

And the race is on to replace the latest one to announce plans to walk away.

State Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, an Amherst Republican, said Friday he will not seek re-election to the Senate 61st, a sprawling district that runs from the suburbs of Buffalo into Rochester.

“I’ve been in politics for over 30 years. I’ve got family spread out all over the place. I want to spend more time with my family," Ranzenhofer told The Buffalo News Friday afternoon.

Ranzenhofer joins a steady string of Senate Republicans – ousted from their majority status in the 2018 elections – to either leave or announce they will not seek re-election next year.

Ranzenhofer, 65, said he will serve out the remainder of his term through 2020. He said the GOP’s loss of control of the Senate did not factor into his decision. “I served in the (Erie) County Legislature for 20 years in the minority. I served in the minority when I first came in (to the Senate) and the last year in the Senate. That had no factor for me,’’ he said.

The Republican lawmaker, first elected to the Senate in 2008, said he also had no worries about winning re-election if he were to run again in 2020.

“I wasn’t going to do this until I dropped dead. It’s time to give some consideration to priorities like my family," he said.

Senate Democrats poked fun at the GOP, which has seen three Senate Republicans announce they were not seeking re-election next year.

“They have no members, no money and out-of-touch views, which is not a winning formula. The new game in Albany is to play 'guess what members will abandon ship next,' " said Mike Murphy, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats.

Word had hardly broken via The News on Friday when potential successors began emerging. For the Republicans, Erie County Chairman Karl J. Simmeth Jr. appeared to zero in on County Legislator Edward A. Rath III of Amherst, calling him the “favorite.”

“He is 100%, full speed ahead on this as of right now,” Simmeth said. “I would have to give him serious consideration."

Rath said he has always aspired to the seat held by his mother – former Sen. Mary Lou Rath – who represented the 60th and then 61st Districts from 1993 to 2008. He announced his candidacy on Friday and sent requests for support to Republican and Conservative leaders in Erie, Genesee and Monroe counties.

“I believe I have the background and legislative experience that transfers very well from the county to state level,” he said. “This will be a critical year when it comes to experience, background, and a legislative track record for voters to assess.”

Other names entering the Republican discussion include former Assemblyman Raymond W. Walter. Though he lost his Assembly seat to Democrat Karen McMahon in 2018, Walter said the addition of friendlier Republican turf in Clarence and Genesee County would bode well for any attempted return to the Capitol.

“As someone who represented 60% of the district at one time or another it would be silly not to take a look at it,” he said.

Another Republican name is Erin K. Baker, a political consultant who unsuccessfully ran for Amherst Town Board in 2017. The wife of state Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, she also heads fundraising for the Erie County GOP. She did not return a call seeking comment.

The district was drawn by Senate Republicans in the last reapportionment process in 2012 to spread Democrats wide and far. There are more Democrats than Republicans – 71,000 to 63,000 – in the 61st, however, according to the latest enrollment statistics in November. It also contains 39,000 voters who belong to no party.

Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said the burst of Democratic activity in Amherst could “energize” an area that has trended toward his party in recent years. “We think it’s a district that’s very competitive,” he said.

He said he spoke Friday with Kim Smith of Monroe County, and mentioned Amherst Council Members Shawn Lavin and Jackie Berger as other possibilities. But Joan Elizabeth Seamans, who ran against Ranzenhofer for the seat in 2018 and lost by only 8 points, said she is in the race.

“We’re on third base and prepared to take it home,” she said, pointing to improved Democratic results in her 2018 race over every previous election. Other margins of defeat included 19 and 30 points in previous races, she said.

“In 10 years, no one came so close,” she said.

A former Williamsville trustee, she owns Short Street Photography and is a former president of the Williamsville Business Association.

Last Friday, Senator George Amedore, an Albany-area Republican, said he won’t run again. On Thursday, it was Senator Betty Little, a longtime North Country Republican representative. On Friday, it was Ranzenhofer’s turn.

Those departures came after Syracuse-area Republican Robert Antonacci was recently elected a judge and is set to leave his Senate seat before the end of the month.

Earlier this year, Buffalo Senator Chris Jacobs, another Republican, said he would not seek re-election so he could focus on a congressional run for the seat held by ex-U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, who pleaded guilty earlier this year in an insider trading case. Sen. Rob Ortt, a North Tonawanda Republican, also is vying for that 27th congressional district seat, though he has not specifically said he will leave the Senate if he doesn’t get the GOP nomination next year.

Democrats hold 40 seats in the 63-member chamber.

Republicans were eager Friday to praise Ranzenhofer upon his retirement announcement.

Walter called him a “friend and mentor” and said he "did it right throughout his whole career.”

Jacobs said he has especially enjoyed watching Ranzenhofer during his time in Albany.

“He’s a very impressive person,” Jacobs said. “Every time he stood to speak in the Republican conference, he really added value to the discussion.”

There was speculation months ago about Senate GOP departures, and that Capital chatter has only intensified in the past week or so with the sudden round of retirement announcements.

Senate Republicans portrayed a chin-up attitude Friday. “We expect a full slate of candidates who will stand with taxpayers against the radical agenda being implemented by Democrats in Albany,’’ said Scott Reif, a Senate GOP spokesman. “Instead of more and higher taxes, multi-billion dollar budget deficits, and a focus on helping criminals and illegal immigrants over middle-class families, we offer New Yorkers a fresh start."

After the Senate flipped to Democratic control following the 2018 elections, the departures by Republican incumbents began in February when Catharine Young of Olean resigned; her seat was filled last month by Republican Chautauqua County Executive George M. Borrello, who won the heavily Republican district in a special election.

A year ago, there were rumblings that lawmakers like Ranzenhofer would be leaving because a new ban on outside income was to be imposed on the Legislature in return for a big pay raise they were given by an outside panel. A state judge this summer rejected the outside income ban.

Ranzenhofer is a partner in Friedman & Ranzenhofer, an Akron law firm. Earlier this year, in his state ethics filing, Ranzenhofer reported making between $250,000 and $350,000 with the firm. He added – on top of his legislative salary of $110,000 – another $20,000 to $50,000 in rental income on a building he partly owns.

“It would have been a factor, but it was thrown out by a couple of courts,’’ Ranzenhofer said Friday of the now-scuttled outside income ban.

Ranzenhofer said he has concerns about the direction both houses of the Legislature, now dominated by New York City-based Democrats, is taking after a year in which a rush of left-leaning legislation was okayed. But, he added, "in our state majority rules and I certainly accept that ... serving in the Senate."

The senator said he first considered not running for re-election in 2018, but chose to run a year ago in order to serve one last term in Albany. "It's a bittersweet decision for me,'' he said Friday in announcing his retirement next year.

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