ALBANY – When State Senate Republicans were redesigning district seats to help protect vulnerable Republicans a couple of years ago, they figured that Sen. George D. Maziarz was so politically strong that he could take on a bunch of Democratic voters from Buffalo Republican Sen. Mark J. Grisanti and absorb them into his district without fear of losing.
While it lasted, they were right.
Now, with word of Maziarz’s surprise announcement Sunday night that he will not seek re-election this fall, Republicans find themselves suddenly having to protect a seat they believed, just 48 hours ago, was not in play.
What is now in play more than ever is control of the State Senate.
With the departure by Maziarz, of Newfane, coming at a time when at least his campaign fund is being investigated by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan, the 62nd State Senate District – which ranges from Niagara to Monroe counties – is one of four seats across the state where Republican incumbents elected two years ago will not be running again.
While Republicans sought to put a happy and unworried face on Maziarz’s departure, the reality is simple: Yet another sliver has opened up giving Democrats a stronger chance in their bid to retake the Senate after some 50 years of Republican domination.
“The Republicans can try and put as much lipstick on this pig, but it’s not going to help them. The fact is, there is a district that is competitive that previously wasn’t,” said Sen. Michael N. Gianaris, D-Queens, who heads the Senate Democratic campaign committee.
Republicans rallied Monday around North Tonawanda Mayor Robert G. Ortt as the leading replacement for Maziarz on the GOP Senate line this fall. He confirmed Monday that he is considering the nomination from the Niagara GOP’s committee on vacancies, which is expected to back him this week.
“I have not made a final decision, but I’m certainly looking at it,” Ortt said, adding that he will make a final decision in the next day or two.
Ortt, 35, has been mayor of the Lumber City for the last 4½ years and was mentioned earlier this year as a potential Republican opponent for Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore. But he said Monday that the Maziarz seat is much more oriented toward his Niagara County roots.
The mayor said he has had no contact with Senate Republicans about any potential help in fundraising and campaign organization, and is mindful of the potential minority status awaiting him should he prevail in November.
“I think about that,” Ortt said, “but for me, it’s about doing a good job representing the area.”
He would still need to win a primary in September, however, against Gia M. Arnold, of Holley. She held news conferences in North Tonawanda and Holley on Monday criticizing her lack of opportunity to be considered for the post by the committee on vacancies.
Democrats, meanwhile, said they remain not only committed to nominee Johnny G. Destino, of Niagara Falls, but excited, too. “Johnny Destino has been our guy, is our guy and will remain our guy,” said Nicholas J. Forster, Niagara County Democratic chairman. “He’s the right guy for the job at the right time.”
Forster noted that he called last week for an investigation of Maziarz’s campaign finances and dismissed the senator’s suggestion that he had been contemplating retirement all along.
“This is obviously catastrophic for the Republicans,” he said.
A Democratic source said the party did briefly look at other possible candidates to replace Destino, including former Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, of Lewiston; those talks did not come to fruition Monday, the source said.
Republican senators Monday were quickly honing their upcoming election mantra: that Democratic control of the Senate would lead to downstate domination of all the branches in Albany and that, in turn, would give New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a huge say over the state’s affairs.
“The stakes have never been higher because the radical left out of New York City, led by Bill de Blasio, is trying to squeeze control of the entire state. De Blasio is a committed leftist,” said State Sen. Catharine M. Young, R-Olean, chairwoman of the Senate Republican campaign committee.
Gianaris called the GOP claims tired and said they ignore that Republicans have been in charge while upstate has suffered its greatest economic slide over the last several generations.
Like Senate co-leader Dean G. Skelos, a Long Island Republican, Young would not say when she learned that Maziarz was quitting his race, but other senators said the GOP learned of it only Sunday.
“I didn’t have any inkling or an idea that this is what he was contemplating,” Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, said of Maziarz, with whom he shares a long border separating Senate districts.
Gallivan sounded the most realistic of Senate Republicans interviewed Monday. “I think every two years going into a re-election cycle, given the demographics of the state, it is always a challenge for Republicans to maintain a hold on the majority,” he said. He noted that more than half of Senate GOP districts have a majority of Democratic voters as constituents.
“Everybody had all the confidence that George could win handily. Clearly, that district is now in play, but with a good candidate and the right message … citizens will respond to that,” Gallivan said.
After the 2002 redistricting process, Maziarz was handed a district with 78,000 registered Republicans and 65,000 Democrats, according to a review of enrollment records on file with the state Board of Elections.
In the 2012 redistricting process, Grisanti needed help. So Senate Republicans took away Niagara Falls, and all its Democrats, and gave them to Maziarz to represent. The result, defying GOP claims that the district is a Republican district, is a district today with 62,900 Democrats and 59,800 Republicans.
But a Republican consultant, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the district, even with the slight Democratic enrollment edge, has strongly backed Republican Maziarz in the past and that many of its voters are conservative and would be attracted to Ortt.
“The Senate’s control is going to be decided in the Capital Region, mid-Hudson Valley and Long Island, not Western New York,” the consultant said.
A senator said the district also votes strongly Republican in most gubernatorial election years and that upstate Republicans will be trying to tag Democratic foes with President Obama, whose numbers are sour upstate.
“Those are sad and tired arguments,” Gianaris said. “We’re happy to take our chances with Andrew Cuomo at the top of the ticket.”
Besides Maziarz, the Republicans will have three seats to try to fill with newcomer candidates: two on Long Island and one now represented by a departing senator from Putnam County. Gianaris said Democrats believe that there will be eight seats in play in November, including those now represented by Grisanti and Maziarz.
That does not count, Gianaris said, the race against Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas W. Libous, R-Binghamton, who was recently indicted on federal charges of lying to FBI investigators; Gianaris said Libous’ district is drawn in such a way to heavily favor the Republican incumbent.
Gianaris said Senate Democrats have a total of $1 million in the bank, a far cry from the years of deficits they ran. Senate Republicans will report their fundraising prowess today to the state Board of Elections; in January, they reported having $2.3 million on hand, and they have been heavily raising money all during the recently concluded legislative session.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who counted on Maziarz as one of his closest political allies in Western New York, recently pledged to help Democrats take back control of the Senate. He did so to help secure the backing of the Working Families Party, one of three lines he is set to run on in the fall against Republican gubernatorial nominee Rob Astorino.
The Senate has been run by a coalition of Republicans and five Independent Democratic Conference members, who recently said they were ending their breakaway days and forming a new coalition after the November elections with the main Democratic conference.
Skelos, the Senate GOP leader, declined an interview request but said in a statement that Maziarz’s departure will have “no impact” on the ability of Republicans to win back total control of the Senate in November. “The last thing hardworking taxpayers want is an all-Democrat, all-New York City-run state government free to push their liberal tax-and-spend agenda on the people of New York,” said Skelos, who has never enjoyed warm relations with Maziarz.
Maziarz leaves office with a sizable campaign account; as of January, he had $943,000 in the bank, which, after leaving office, he can donate to charity, use for political purposes or, if necessary, dip into to pay for lawyers’ bills.
Like other Senate Republicans, Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer, of Amherst, said he heard of Maziarz’s decision to not run only Sunday night. He said that is not unusual in the Senate conference, though. “It’s a personal matter, and normally you discuss personal matters with your family and not colleagues,” he said. “I would never expect another member to confide in me when retiring or running for another office.”
That said, Maziarz’s abrupt decision – coming after his campaign July 7 submitted 327 pages of signatures from enrolled voters to get him on the ballot again – surprised most of Albany.
But Ranzenhofer said people speculated that Republicans would lose their seat when Maziarz first ran for the Senate. Such speculation happens whenever there is an open seat up for grabs, he said. “You hear it all the time by both sides,” he said.
News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org