A third unannounced candidate may play a role in what figures to be a hotly contested state Senate primary this year between incumbent State Sen. Timothy Kennedy and Erie County Legislature Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant.
And the mystery candidate appears to be receiving help getting on the ballot from a Grant supporter.
Based on an audio recording, Kennedy charged that Grant’s campaign has recruited the other candidate to run in the Democratic primary in an effort to take votes away from him.
Kennedy said the recording captures a violation of election law.
Kennedy and Grant’s race in the 63rd Senate District is expected to be close. In 2012, Kennedy barely won a Democratic primary against Grant, edging her by 156 votes. This year Grant has been endorsed by the Erie County Democratic Committee’s executive committee.
She denied knowledge of the third candidate.
A member of Kennedy’s staff recorded a conversation he had at his home on July 1 with a man circulating petitions for someone named Dennis R. Nawojski.
On the recording, provided to The Buffalo News, a man identifies himself as Dennis Waite and tells the Kennedy staff member, Paul Hypolite, “All you’re agreeing to is putting his name on the ballot.”
“I’m doing this for the Democratic Party,” Waite says on the recording. “I’m also on Betty Jean’s committee.”
Hypolite, Kennedy’s director of community relations, asked how Nawojski’s petition would help Grant.
He also asked why the party is supporting Nawojski. So Kennedy won’t have a good chance?
Waite replied no.
Hypolite asked Waite why he supports Nawojski if he also supports Grant.
“I support all the Democrats,” Waite said. “In this particular case I was asked by the party to do this for him.”
Grant said she does not know Nawojski and did not recruit him to run.
“I know a lot of Polish people – I don’t know that name. That’s not ringing a bell,” she said.
She said she has limited knowledge of Waite.
“I have a lot of volunteers,” she said. “I never asked anyone to pass any petition for anybody other than me.”
Grant denied knowledge of Nawojski’s campaign and called Kennedy hypocritical for complaining because Kennedy seemed content with another woman, Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, entering the race. Grant and Miller-Williams are African-American, and Kennedy is white.
Miller-Williams said last month that she will not run in the primary.
“If he’s been a good senator and a good people’s representative, then he would welcome the competition,” she said.
County Democratic Committee Chairman Jeremy Zellner said he heard a rumor about Nawojski trying to enter the race. Zellner said he has not met him.
Zellner said he has not seen Waite in more than a year.
“He’s not on my staff. He’s not coordinating with me on anything,” Zellner said.
Kennedy said Waite’s acknowledgement in the recording that he serves on Grant’s committee as he passes petitions for another candidate violates state election law.
“It undermines the public trust in the democratic process, which many folks are apathetic to already because of this blatant corruption,” Kennedy said.
Election law states that placing campaign workers in the campaign organization of another candidate constitutes political espionage.
Kennedy said he intends to turn over the recording to the state Board of Elections and the District Attorney’s Office.
Waite could not be reached Wednesday.
According to public records, Nawojski lives at 474 South Ogden St., in Kaisertown. No one answered the door at the home on Wednesday afternoon. A listed phone number was disconnected.
Candidates have until today to turn in petitions to the Board of Elections. As of Wednesday afternoon, the county board said no petitions had been submitted for the 63rd Senate District.