Benedict-Wojtaszek battle for Niagara County judge may be split decision

Benedict-Wojtaszek battle for Niagara County judge may be split decision

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Niagara County Courthouse 2019

The Niagara County Courthouse. (Thomas J. Prohaska/Buffalo News)

After a campaign of remarkable nastiness by the standards of judicial races, Michael E. Benedict and Caroline A. Wojtaszek appear set to continue their battle all the way to Nov. 3.

The votes tallied as of 11 p.m. in Tuesday's primary for Niagara County judge showed Wojtaszek leading the Republican primary narrowly and the Democratic primary comfortably. Both candidates are registered Democrats.

The figures posted by the Niagara County Board of Elections showed Wojtaszek, the county district attorney, and Benedict, a county court law clerk, each leading in three minor parties.

But those numbers included only votes that were cast in person Tuesday or during the early voting period that began June 13.

The in-person vote totals available at 11 p.m. included 96% of the districts.

But nearly 11,000 absentee ballots, which won't be counted until at least next week, likely will hold the key to final victory. As of Tuesday, there were more than 6,700 Democratic absentee votes and more than 3,400 on the GOP side. And late arrivals will count as long as they were postmarked by Monday.

Meanwhile, acting Sheriff Michael J. Filicetti posted a roughly 2-to-1 lead over Brian D. Grear in the Democratic primary for sheriff.

If that lead holds up, Filicetti, a Lewiston Republican, will have a heavy advantage in November, holding both major party lines while Grear is confined to the Working Families Party line.

There was some mud slung in the sheriff's race. Grear's supporters accused Filicetti's son of being in a hit-and-run accident which his father purportedly covered up, but bodycam video seemed to disprove the allegations of a cover-up or of the son's involvement in the crash.

In a dry run for the November race for DA, Republican Brian D. Seaman of Youngstown had about 60% of Tuesday's vote in the Independence Party primary against John D. Ceretto II of Lewiston, an Independence Party member endorsed by the Democrats.

But it was the judge race that produced a campaign of vituperation that made hash of the normal ethical standards of judicial campaigns, where controversy is avoided and mudslinging is taboo.

From the left, Wojtaszek was ridiculed as a "fake Democrat" in a flyer mailed out by the county Democratic Committee.

From the right, she was attacked as an "ultraliberal" by State Sen. George D. Maziarz, the longtime GOP boss of the county who used the hefty campaign treasury left over from his Albany days to pour on the scorn in a mailing to GOP and Conservative voters.

Maziarz used to be a close ally of Caroline's husband Henry Wojtaszek, but now they're enemies since Henry Wojtaszek testified against Maziarz before a grand jury probing election law violations. Both men ended up pleading guilty to misdemeanors.

Some voters also received a letter signed by a Niagara Falls man who was convicted of violating the SAFE Act state gun control law during Caroline Wojtaszek's time as DA.

Wojtaszek mailed voters a letter from County Clerk Joseph A. Jastrzemski, a Republican and a SAFE Act foe, defending her position on the law.

Someone struck back with an election eve letter to gun rights supporters, purportedly from two gun control groups, saying they had endorsed Wojtaszek. She said the groups do not exist.

Meanwhile, the Niagara County Independence Party spent money on robocalls attacking Benedict for hiring Christian W. Peck, the former county public information officer, to work on the campaign.

Peck, who lost his county job after publicly attacking the party leadership in a fight over the county chairmanship, posted some personal Facebook observations on the Black Lives Matter movement that caused the robocallers to label him a racist while attempting to discourage Democrats from voting for Benedict because he hired Peck.

Benedict was also attacked in a GOP flyer for having the defense attorney in a murder case he was working on for County Judge Sara Sheldon help raise campaign cash for him. "Michael Benedict sold out his ethics," the flyer taunted.

Retired County Judge Charles J. Hannigan told a Buffalo News reporter last week he found the tone of the race "disgusting." He said defense attorneys always donate to judicial campaigns and no one finds that unethical.

Hannigan, who changed parties from Republican to Democrat last year, said he reacted to the attack ads by giving Benedict a campaign contribution, even though he doesn't know Benedict.

If Tuesday's apparent results hold up, Niagara County voters can look forward to more of the same this fall.

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