Democracy and demagoguery

Ryan-Gaughan race a welcome departure from the pettiness that pervades local politics
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Kevin Gaughan is challenging Sean Ryan for the 149th Assembly seat.

Good.

I mean this as no disrespect towards Ryan.

Rather, he was essentially handed the seat last year when Sam Hoyt stepped down to head up Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s economic development and political operations for Western New York. There were no party primaries for the vacant seat and Ryan cruised over a weak Republican opponent in the September special election.

Sorry, but that’s not the way it’s supposed to work. Folks other than a handful of Democratic Party insiders ought to have a say in who holds elected office, especially when there’s an open seat involved.

Thanks to Gaughan, voters will have a choice. Also thanks to Gaughn, the primary campaign will focus on issues, real issues, something that is a bit of a rarity.

Gaughan is known for his advocacy of government downsizing and regionalism. As such, he’s been perhaps Western New York’s leading voice for government reform. He’s someone who can see for forest for the trees in terms of what ails the state and region and would bring a distinctive voice and agenda to the Assembly.

Whether he is electable, or even the better candidate, is another matter. He’s 0 -for -3 in previous runs, mostly recently for mayor in 2005, and is regarded by some as a gadfly. But Gaughan is smart, enjoys name recognition and has an issue that many voters can identify with.

Ryan was not a household name when he won election last fall, but he has generated a lot of press coverage during his first nine months in office. Hoyt-like, one could say.

He’s pushed for IDA reform, giving transit riders a voice on the NFTA board, and generally has taken positions that have underscored his progressive credentials. But not everyone, even in his progressive base, is happy with Ryan.

He voted in favor of the Assembly version of the state budget, which proscribed about a 15 percent cut in funding for Buffalo’s charter schools. Suffice the say the charter school crowd was not amused. Ryan defended the vote by predicting the cut would not survive budget negotiations, and he was correct: Buffalo charter schools were held harmless.

Some activists who have organized around the public health impacts of the Peace Bridge and plans to expand its plaza are unhappy with Ryan, as well. They say he’s back-pedaled on the issue since Cuomo called the Western New York delegation together a while back and told everyone to dummy up about the project because he intended to muscle it through. Ryan, among others, has not exactly been a profile in courage on the issue since then.

Still, the guy is no slouch, and his race with Gaughan represents a rare opportunity for voters to choose from two capable candidates. Often, not even one is on the ballot.

Moreover, the race will center on issues.

Which brings me to my second point.

Western New York is plagued by political pettiness and personal agendas that have nothing to do with governing. That appears to be especially true this campaign season. For this we can thank Carl Paladino and Steve Pigeon, who, along with Steve Casey, are the main perpetrators of “politics as a blood sport” that permeates the local scene.

Consider the particularly ugly campaign being mounted against Sen. Mark Grisanti. You knew it was coming after his decisive vote in favor of gay marriage, considering that homophobic bigotry is a staple of the right. Then there was the bar brawl at Casino Niagara and, of late, Grisanti’s support of Cuomo’s failed push to legalize small amounts of marijuana.

All this is red meat to Kevin Stocker, Grisanti’s opponent in the GOP primary. To be sure, Grisanti’s stance on key issues such as gay marriage and drug decriminalization are fair game, but Stocker is taking a page from Paladino, a supporter, to go nuclear.

In a press release two weeks ago, Stocker declared: “Senator Grisanti has decided to become a leader in the national drug movement.” He went on to warn that children who “emulate” Grisanti are going to “ruin themselves” and declared the senator “dangerous to our children.”

Wow.

Grisanti has issues, to be sure, although not necessarily the ones Stocker is hyperventilating about. His top staffer is making a boatload of money. His continuing ties to Joel Giambra are reason for pause. And where exactly does he stand on hydrofracking? I mean, he is chairman of the Senate committee overseeing the issue.

Stocker probably isn’t going to win the primary and he’s never going to win the general election in November. That’s why Sen. George Maziarz and most of the GOP establishment are backing Grisanti, even though many of them strongly disagree with him on gay marriage and drug decriminalization. They realize what’s at stake—control of the Senate.

They’re playing to win. Carl and Co., well, they’re just playing.

For Paladino and his surrogates, it’s all about payback. That’s why Paladino is also backing Johnny Destino in a primary against Maziarz. Don’t get me wrong, an entrenched power like Maziarz ought to get challenged at the ballot box now and again, but Destino’s candidacy is akin to a nuisance lawsuit. Not going anywhere.

The Democrats are also involved in nonsense, thanks in part to Pigeon’s continuing shenanigans.

And then there’s the ongoing battle over the chairmanship of the Erie County Democratic Party, thanks to Albany. You’d think the upset victories of Kathy Hochul for Congress and Mark Poloncarz for county executive last year would have solidified Lenihan’s status. But Mayor Byron Brown and Cuomo want him gone and their surrogates continue to maneuver for Lenihan’s ouster.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with public policy or good government. And that’s the problem with our local political culture. Governing takes a back seat to petty politics.