Apr 12


Challengers target party committee seats

Few candidates for high-profile elected offices will face primary challenges in June. But party committee seats in Buffalo and Elma are being hotly contested.

Stefan Mychajliw is running for a GOP committee seat in Elma.

June’s primary elections look to be pretty subdued in Erie County, at least at the top of the ballot, where candidates vie for the more familiar offices — primarily state legislature seats this year. 

Instead the action this year is down ballot, deep in the trenches, where battles are brewing among Democrats and Republicans seeking party committee seats. 

Committee members — two representing each election district for two-year terms — choose their party’s leadership, from the chair to the treasurer. They also have a say in their party’s endorsement of candidates for public office. And serving on a party committee is a good introduction to local politics for those interested in running for office themselves.

Buffalo progressives took a pass on trying to build influence inside the Democratic Party two years ago, after being first galvanized then disappointed by India Walton’s campaign for mayor. But this year a handful of left-leaning candidates and outsiders are challenging Democratic Party insiders for committee seats in the city.

Some of those insiders are big names in local politics:

  • Attorney Stephanie Cole Adams and Keelan Erhard, who works for the progressive think tank Partnership for the Public Good, are challenging Emlyn Rivera, sister of Niagara District Councilmember David Rivera, and attorney Marc Panepinto, a former state senator.
  • Nathan Feist, a paralegal in Adams’s office, and architect Scott Archambault filed challenges to Oswaldo Mestre, citizen services commissioner and senior advisor to Mayor Byron Brown, and Latesha Wiley. 
  • Progressives Matthew Dearing, who ran for the Ellicott District Common Council seat last year, and Jeffrey Carballada are taking on former Council President Darius Pridgen and Xaiver Riley.

Matthew Dearing during a political rally in June 2023. Photo by Garrett Looker.

There are a few more outsiders vs. insiders races, too. 

Buffalo ReUseAction founder Michael Gainer is seeking an Ellicott District committee seat. Bridge Rauch, an organizer with the Clean Air Coalition of WNY, is running for committee in the Fillmore District.

Also in Fillmore, former Erie County Legislator Greg Olma — once a Democratic insider but now on the outs with party leadership — is running against Ivory Payne, the party’s sergeant-at-arms. Olma’s running mate is Chris Hawley, a City of Buffalo planner and proprietor of the Eugene V. Debs Social Hall. Payne’s running mate is Phyllis Yarborough, an aide in Fillmore District Council Member Mitch Nowakowski’s office.

There aren’t a lot of contests, to be sure, not nearly enough to be called a movement.  There are Democratic committee seats for 159 city election districts on the ballot in June. There are races in just a dozen of them. 

And most of the challengers are facing objections to the validity of their nominating petitions — an annual ritual that often winnows political newcomers from the field. It may be several weeks before the board of elections, possibly with input from the courts, determines who has qualified for the ballot in June.

By contrast, eight of 12 Republican committee seats are being contested in Elma, where a war of vengeance is afoot:

  • Stefan Mychajliw, the former county comptroller, and his wife, Ashley,  are taking on Town Supervisor Wayne Clark and his running mate, Brendan Ball.
  • Jim Malczewski, a former Erie County legislator, and his wife, Michelle, are running against Town Clerk Patricia King and James Lembke, a former town GOP chair.
  • William Feskun and Adam Papisz are challenging Michael Cirocco, the current town GOP chair, and Tracy Petrocy, a longtime town board member.
  • Jeffrey Breidenstein and Kenneth White are challenging Howard Diehl, the town’s highway superintendent, and Timothy Walczyk, who runs the town’s sewer systems.

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That’s two-thirds of Elma’s GOP committee seats in play.

The conflict in Elma is at least in part fallout from the Republican vs. Conservative Party disagreement over who should succeed Erie County Legislator Joseph Lorigo, who vacated his seat last January to become a state supreme court judge. 

Republican legislators appointed Malczewski to the vacancy over the objections of Joe’s father Ralph, chair of the Erie County Conservative Party. Ralph Lorigo wanted his son’s wife Lindsay in the seat. The contretemps led to Conservative and Republican primary contests between Lindsay Lorigo and Malczewski. 

Lindsay Lorigo won both primaries and then last fall’s general election. Malczewski was out on his ear. 

Elma’s GOP establishment, led by Clark, backed Lindsay Lorigo in that fight, according to Republican sources. And now, those sources say, they are being punished.

For his part, Mychajliw may have motives beyond vengeance: The former congressional candidate recently moved to Elma from Hamburg, after an unsuccessful bid for town supervisor there. He’s said to be interested in pursuing elected office in his new town.

Apart from those committee races, and some town justice contests, Erie County voters won’t find a lot of choices to make on June 25.  Just two major office-holders in Erie County may face primaries, if their opponents’ nominating petitions stand up. 

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat, is being challenged by community activist Terry Robinson, who filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Kensington Expressway tunnel project that Peoples-Stokes supports.

Assembly Member David DiPietro, a Republican, is being challenged by Mitch Martin, who ran Erie County Sheriff John Garcia’s campaign in 2022 and currently works for the Sheriff’s Office.

There may also be a Democratic primary race for the 26th District Congressional seat, between state Sen. Tim Kennedy, the party’s endorsed candidate, and attorney Nathan McMurray, a former Grand Island town supervisor who has run for Congress before.

For many prominent offices, there are no primaries at all this year.

Erie County Legislature Chair April Baskin is the lone Democrat seeking to replace Kennedy in the state Senate. In November she will face Republican John Moretti, a retired state trooper, who also has no primary competition.

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Likewise, there are no primary races for Erie County District Attorney, which is an open seat, since John Flynn stepped on April 1. The Democrats have settled on acting DA Michael Keane and Republicans have settled on attorney James Gardner, a law clerk for state Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Case.

Incumbent state Sen. Sean Ryan, a Democrat, has no primary opponent. Neither does Republican state Sen. Patrick Gallivan.

There are three Buffalo City Court judgeships available and three candidates to choose from. Because it’s the city, all are Democrats. City Republicans are not fielding candidates at all.

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