ALBANY – The attacks ads against Sen. Mark Grisanti might be expected: The Buffalo Republican has wrongly embraced tax hikes, went against gun owners with his support of the SAFE Act and backed questionable state spending.
But who launched the barbs comes as a surprise.
They come not from a right-leaning organization or candidate, but from one of Albany’s most powerful forces on the political left: the New York State United Teachers.
In the latest of ironies in New York politics, NYSUT has launched a series of advertisements and mailings designed to portray Grisanti as “not conservative” enough to be re-elected to the Senate district that includes part of Buffalo and several suburbs to the city’s north and south.
In one television ad, an image of a rhinoceros is shown as the word RINO – “Republican in Name Only” – appears next to Grisanti.
A mailing sent to the homes of voters accuses Grisanti of breaking his promise to not raise taxes and says he was “just pretending” to be a fiscal conservative.
“A real conservative doesn’t break his promises – especially on taxes,” the mailing states.
NYSUT members, or anyone who follows state government, might be left rubbing their eyes and ears. In one policy fight after another, NYSUT has proven itself to be a powerful force on the political left.
It has fought the state’s property tax cap, urged higher taxes to help fund more public school state aid, fought back against charter school expansions, pressed voters on local levels to adopt funding increases for districts and lobbied for measures roundly criticized by conservatives to help boost pension levels for members.
Yet, there is NYSUT on the front lines in the 60th Senate GOP primary race tagging Grisanti as a lefty out of touch with his district.
What’s going on?
Uncharacteristically, NYSUT officials in the union’s Albany-area headquarters did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment.
But Grisanti believes he knows the answer.
“It’s hypocritical and dishonest that they’re trying to be portrayed as conservative,” Grisanti said of NYSUT.
A political roadmap is needed.
Grisanti faces a challenge in next Tuesday’s GOP primary from Kevin Stocker, a Kenmore attorney. Meanwhile, two Democrats – Al Coppola and Marc Panepinto – are squaring off in a Democratic primary for the same Senate seat.
And NYSUT endorsed Panepinto this summer.
The Grisanti camp’s theory is that NYSUT is seeking to indirectly help Stocker, who is considered a weaker general election candidate. Should he win the GOP primary, he then would run up against the NYSUT-backed Panepinto in a district that, by enrollment numbers, favors a Democrat.
The anti-Grisanti ads and mailings do not mention the word “teachers,” but they say they are funded by VOTE-COPE, which is NYSUT’s political arm.
One mailing notes that the ads and mailings were not “authorized or requested’’ by any candidate or their agents. While VOTE-COPE’s recent state election disclosure notice does list a $160,000 ad purchase on behalf of Buffalo Democratic Sen. Tim Kennedy’s re-election effort, there is no reference to another ad or campaign being waged in Western New York by the union.
To Grisanti, it is a confuse-voters kind of political campaign.
Grisanti several times called NYSUT a “downstate” or “New York City” liberal group, though NYSUT represents thousands of teachers and retirees in Western New York.
Grisanti notes that Stocker is also seeking a spot on the ballot line of the Working Families Party, whose influential members include NYSUT. The left-leaning Working Families Party has already endorsed Panepinto.
“They’re basically trying to hijack, in my opinion, a primary when they can care less because they’re actually backing a Democrat,” Grisanti said. “They’ve been trying to take this seat ever since I came into office.”
The 60th Senate race this fall could play into the equation whether Democrats can succeed in their effort to oust Republicans from their partial control of the state Senate.
Panepinto called it “ironic” that Grisanti is complaining about negative ads when he has an advertisement on the airwaves blasting Stocker for seeking the liberal Working Families Party line. “He’s going negative against his Republican opponent calling him not conservative enough,” Panepinto said.
The Buffalo lawyer added that Grisanti has also gotten the backing of the Civil Service Employees Association, the big state and local government workers union.
“I don’t know why he’s picking on NYSUT when CSEA is just as progressive a union as NYSUT,” Panepinto said.
The Democrat added that Grisanti has voted for gay marriage rights and the SAFE Act yet in the primary is trying to portray himself as right-leaning with positions against such measures as the Dream Act, a plan in New York to give state financial aid to children of illegal immigrants. “I think that’s what NYSUT is trying to point out,” Panepinto said of Grisanti’s positions.
Meanwhile, Nick Langworthy, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party, accused unions of trying to “hijack” the primary.
“It is not every day that the Working Families Party and New York City Teacher Unions try to hijack an election from Republican Primary voters, but that is exactly what is happening in the 60th Senate District,” he said in a statement. “This election needs to be settled by voters of the Republican Party, not the radical New York City Working Families Party and downstate special interest groups that are simply trying to steal a seat for the New York City Democrats.”