Let’s leave aside speculation about what caused State Senator Marc Panepinto to announce he would not run for re-election to a second term. Time will reveal all. Instead, let’s look at the contenders to fill the vacuum he has created in the 60th District, which has been a topsy-turvy affair ever since Antoine Thompson broke it in 2010.
With Friday’s announcement by Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs that he will seek the Republican line in the race, the GOP side of the ballot seems settled. Certainly, there remains Kenmore Republican Kevin Stocker—twice a candidate for the seat already—who has been campaigning for some time. But he will receive no support from the local GOP establishment. Absent a scandal, he can’t reasonably hope to beat Jacobs in the Republican primary. His best bet, if he wishes to continue his campaign, is to create his own line in order to achieve a place on the ballot in November’s election.
Jacobs’s advantages: He has access to money (his own, as well as other people’s), broad name recognition, and—important in a district that has twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans—crossover appeal. He occupies an office that produces very little controversial public policy with which to criticize him.
His disadvantages: That registration advantage for Democrats is formidable; if Democrats can unite behind one strong candidate quickly, then Jacobs will have his work cut out for him. His opponents can make a negative of his tenure on the Buffalo school board, the easiest elected body in Western New York to criticize. He led the recent, failed campaign to change bar closing times from 4am to 2am. That effort may win him some votes, but it will cost him some too. Most importantly, it didn’t work: It was a failure, and a smart Democratic campaign can make hay with that.
On the Democratic side, the list of potential candidates is long:
— Amber Small has already announced. Small is the director the Parkside Community Association. Her name has been bandied about as a candidate for various other elected offices in recent years. She has the support of Democratic political operative Diana Cihak, who has made it her mission to recruit and aid women candidates for elected office. It has been suggested that she has been promised financial support from the Senate’s Independent Democratic Caucus, which loses influence if Republicans win an outright majority. As first Democrat to jump into the race, she may be given the courtesy of serious consideration by party leadership for the endorsement. Her biggest disadvantage is that she’s a relative unknown, which makes for a tough matchup against Jacobs.
— Assemblyman Sean Ryan has the advantage of representing a district that includes many crucial parts of the 60th Senate District, providing him name recognition and familiarity with the district’s constituencies—both rank-and-file voters and party leaders. He has a long relationship with Panepinto and gets on well with the county’s Democratic leadership—far better than does Panepinto, in fact. He is tight with unions and can raise money. If he chooses to run, he probably has the inside track. But maybe he doesn’t want to: As a Democrat in the Assembly, he is in the majority, which means he can get things done and bring money home to his district. If he wins the Senate seat, he may well be a member of the minority. Plus it’s a risk—the demographics favor a strong Democrat with the natural advantages Ryan has, but Jacobs is a tough opponent for the reasons outlined above. Ryan may decide his future political ambitions, whatever they may be, are best served by staying where he is.
— Hamburg Town Councilman Mike Quinn and his ally Mike Schraft have gathered up the party machine in Hamburg, which could help Quinn if he pursues the 60th District seat. (Quinn is chair of the town’s Democratic committee and Schraft runs it with him.) Those are important Democratic voters, because they are likely to be attracted to Jacobs, if the Democratic Party is fractured in the primary and/or fields a candidate who doesn’t have Jacobs’s natural advantages. Quinn is an attorney with the firm Collins & Collins, which is intimately engaged in Democratic politics and labor circles.
— Erie County Legislator Pete Savage is in the mix, but his long-time role as a foot soldier for Mayor Byron Brown and Brown’s former consigliere, Steve Casey, do him no favors with Democratic Party leadership. And his relationships with key Jacobs allies—he does law work for developer Nick Sinatra on the side and is tight with the Lorigo family, which runs the county Conservative Party—probably mean he withdraws his name.
— Add to the list Lisa Chimera, a member of Tonawanda’s town board, and Al Coppola, who served a brief stint in the 60th and a long tenure on Buffalo’s Common Council.
And who knows who else might be waiting in the wings, waiting for the field to clear.