George D. Maziarz and Amy Hope Witryol are battling for the State Senate seat in the 62nd District in the Nov. 6 election, just as they did in 2010.
However, the battleground has changed somewhat, as this year’s redistricting process has added the City of Niagara Falls, represented by Buffalo-based senators for the last 20 years, to Maziarz’s district, which already had all the rest of Niagara County, all of Orleans County and a slice of western Monroe County.
The nine-term Republican incumbent from Newfane had a sliver of Niagara Falls in his district in the 1990s, but this is the first time since Maziarz’s days as Niagara County clerk two decades ago that he has been on the ballot in the entire city.
“I have no problem with Democratic voters,” said Maziarz, whose newly configured district, because of the presence of Niagara Falls, contains about 3,000 more Democratic voters than Republicans.
In Niagara County, the Democrats have an enrollment edge of about 11,000 voters, but in Orleans County, the GOP has a nearly 2-to-1 advantage. In the two towns in western Monroe County, there are about 50 percent more Republicans than Democrats.
Witryol, a Lewiston Democrat who received 32 percent of the vote against Maziarz in 2010, has held several news conferences in Niagara Falls and has pounded Maziarz regarding his attitude toward the city, accusing him of interfering with its economic-development plans.
“He’s been the only elected official subject to a unanimous City Council resolution [in April 2011] calling on him to stop disparaging Niagara Falls,” Witryol noted.
But her larger theme has been what she calls the “pay-to-play” political system Maziarz has mastered, which in her opinion puts political fundraising ahead of actually working for the benefit of the district.
“The three counties in the 62nd District have the worst property tax-to-value [ratio] in the whole United States,” Witryol said. “What do they have in common? The same state senator for the past 18 years.”
Maziarz says that public financing of campaigns is wrong because it forces taxpayers to, in effect, spend money on candidates they may not like.
Witryol said, “Incumbents like Maziarz are fighting the governor’s call for public financing while spending millions of taxpayer dollars on ‘constituent’ mail that looks like campaign mail. If incumbents split that budget with challengers, there would be no increased cost to taxpayers, and we’d save billions of dollars in senseless spending by legislators pandering to big campaign donors.”
Witryol, a former Fleet Bank senior vice president, said Niagara Falls development should be governed by the city’s 2009 comprehensive plan, which she said is supported by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo through the state economic-development office in Niagara Falls, as well as by Mayor Paul A. Dyster and the Council.
“The pay-to-play system is distracting politicians from focusing on economic development,” Witryol said. “My opponent has been the only one I know to propose projects that are incompatible with the plan and, in my view, do more to destroy value in the City of Niagara Falls rather than create value. One could argue that his policies create value only for a few very wealthy special interests.”
Since 2000, Maziarz’s largest source of donations has been Niagara Falls Redevelopment, owned by Manhattan billionaire Howard P. Milstein.
Milstein, his brother, the chief executive officer of NFR and the company itself have given Maziarz a total of $79,346 since 2000. The company owns large amounts of vacant land in downtown Niagara Falls.
Maziarz’s second-largest donor over the last decade, with a total of $52,674, has been Tuscarora Indian businessman Joseph “Smokin’ Joe” Anderson, who also has been a player in downtown Niagara Falls with a year-round snow park that became a retail store.
Milstein, who has given Cuomo $75,000 in political donations, was named chairman of the state Thruway Authority last year.
Maziarz said, “I think those people contribute to the people who get things done, and they do it across the aisle.”
Maziarz had $788,879 available as of earlier this month, according to his filings with the state Board of Elections, while Witryol had $2,527.
Since mid-January, Maziarz has raised more than $356,000. Witryol has raised $24,000, but the reports show that many of those “donations” actually were Witryol’s own, paying campaign expenses with her credit card. Her campaign has spent about $21,500 through early October, while Maziarz’s spending has topped $296,500.
Differences on Wallenda walk
Maziarz said he played a key role in clearing the way for permission for daredevil Nik Wallenda to take his nationally televised wire-walk above the Falls on June 15, an event he called one of his greatest accomplishments in office. Wallenda has recorded radio commercials endorsing Maziarz.
Witryol said Maziarz has “mischaracterized” the impact of the Wallenda walk, citing a Niagara University survey of visitors that day. Only 52 percent said they came to the Falls on June 15 primarily because of Wallenda, and only 41 percent were from out of the area.
However, Maziarz pointed to the same study, which estimated a $3.3 million economic impact for the event, as proof of its success. Witryol said the impact was for that day, not all of which could be ascribed to the wire walk.
She accused Maziarz of trying to make the city and Dyster look bad by publicizing the $25,000 in overtime costs that the city sought to get Wallenda to pay.
She said Maziarz sought to get the Niagara County Community College culinary institute built somewhere else in the county and proposed an Off-Track Betting facility that she said would be incompatible with the city’s plans.
Maziarz said he wanted other localities to have a chance for the NCCC project, but after owner David S. Cordish donated the old Rainbow Centre Mall for the project, that settled the issue.
Anderson proposed the OTB parlor in March as part of a larger development. Maziarz denied having anything to do with it, although his close ally, former Niagara County GOP Chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek, is now chief counsel for Western Regional OTB.
Maziarz contended that even though Witryol is a Democrat, he doesn’t think she could work with Cuomo.
“She doesn’t seem to be interested in anything the governor’s interested in,” Maziarz said. “She seems to be focused on one particular issue, campaign finance reform, and personality issues within the City of Niagara Falls.”
“I’m not limiting my campaign to anyplace,” Witryol said. “We have Democrats and Republicans throughout the district who are tired of last place.”
Maziarz said he and Cuomo, a Democrat, agreed on imposing the 2 percent property tax cap on local governments and school districts; the Tier 6 pension plan for newly hired public employees that is aimed at reducing pension costs; and ReCharge NY, the replacement for the old Power for Jobs program that allows businesses to obtain reduced-cost electricity allocations for as long as seven years.
Maziarz said Cuomo called him, as chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, to promise that Power for Jobs would be reformed. Maziarz said he replied, “With all due respect, Governor, you’re the fourth governor who’s told me that.”
Cuomo then promised that the revised law would be signed in Maziarz’s hometown of North Tonawanda. He kept that promise in April 2011, and Maziarz said 104 companies in Western New York now have taken advantage of ReCharge NY allocations.
Witryol said ReCharge hasn’t resulted in job creation within the 62nd District, while local residential electric rates remain among the nation’s highest.
In an Oct. 20 appearance in Brockport, Witryol criticized Maziarz because the tax cap wasn’t coupled with mandate relief for localities.
“It’s not as important to alter the cap as it is to alter the state spending that requires schools and local municipalities to tax under it,” Witryol told The Buffalo News last week.
Working ‘to get things done’
Although Cuomo is publicly backing a couple of Republican senators in tight races, including Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo, he hasn’t endorsed Maziarz. But Maziarz said he believes that Cuomo has no problem if the Republicans maintain their narrow control of the Senate.
“I think balance is a good thing. I see the Assembly as being very heavily weighted toward the City of New York, and the Senate as the representative of upstate and the rural and suburban areas, like the district I represent,” Maziarz said.
“I think it’s an accomplishment to work with the governor to get things done.”
Although Maziarz is the archenemy of the Niagara County Democrats, he attributes that to the Republicans’ success in winning almost all local offices despite the Democrats’ enrollment advantage, and their 2010 success in bumping Maziarz’s longtime foe, Francine DelMonte, out of her Assembly seat.
“I have no problem working with Democrats in Albany. There are some highly partisan political people here in Niagara County who simply refuse to work with me,” Maziarz said. “The Republican Party is more organized, and the leadership is better than the Democratic Party, and that’s been true for years.”
Raising the Aronow issue
Witryol denounced Maziarz’s “Soviet-style control” of many local governments and agencies such as the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency.
She has sought to make campaign capital out of the case of former Niagara County legislator and Maziarz aide Glenn S. Aronow, who was sued for sexual harassment by a female colleague at the Senate majority office in Buffalo.
The case, stemming from incidents in 2007, was settled this month with a $90,000 state payment to the plaintiff. Aronow did not admit wrongdoing.
Witryol released an Oct. 15 letter from the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which she had asked for an investigation into Aronow’s doings. The letter said the matter is under review, but state law requires the commission’s work to remain confidential.
Witryol said she received no response to her previous complaints about Maziarz’s campaign material, so she believes this was not a form letter.
“He didn’t work for me when any of these incidents took place,” Maziarz said. But he declined to answer on whether he got Aronow the state job in the first place.
Aronow later joined Maziarz’s district staff. Maziarz said that he didn’t know about the suit and that when he found out, he told Aronow he’d have to resign if settlement talks started.
“He hasn’t worked for me in over a year,” Maziarz said. “He’s not going to work for me [in the future].”
Asked why not, Maziarz repeated, “He’s not going to work for me.”
The candidates will participate in a forum in the Niagara Falls Public Library, 1425 Main St., at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The event also will include Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and his challenger, Michael H. Madigan, R-Grand Island, and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, and his opponent, Robert M. Restaino, a Niagara Falls Democrat.