Joel Feroleto, Mike LoCurto’s cousin and a scion of a North Buffalo political family, was essentially appointed to a four-year term as councilman.
Joel Feroleto, Mike LoCurto’s cousin and a scion of a North Buffalo political family, was essentially appointed to a four-year term as councilman.

The Public Record: Primary Choices

by / Sep. 1, 2015 11pm EST

In February, the prognosis was that 2015 would be a quiet year in local politics—a year in which incumbents would go largely unchallenged, in which voters would have few or no high-quality choices to make in their representation.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, a Democrat, for example, has maintained a degree of popularity (except among the grumbling factions of his own party) sufficient to ward off one heavy-hitting potential Republican challenger, Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs, who may have other, higher offices in his sights. Before Jacobs declined to run, Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw removed his hat from the ring. Instead Poloncarz faces Ray Walter, the Republican assemblyman from Amherst, a sharp guy whose turn as a sacrificial lamb this year will no doubt be rewarded with a judgeship or some other lagniappe down the road.

Republican attorney Emilio Colaiacovo and Democrat Frank A. Sedita III are likely to be cross-endorsed for State Supreme Court justice—no primaries. (This despite the fact the Sedita, the Erie County District Attorney, continues to pretend publicly that he is not a candidate for the job.) The only decision left for the voter in November will be whether to vote for a judge at all.

There are two seats open for Erie County Court and there are two candidates—once again, no election worthy of the name. One candidate is an incumbent, Sheila DiTullio, rated “outstanding” by the Erie County Bar Association. The other is James Bargnesi, until recently a prosecutor in the Erie County District Attorney’s office, where part of his job was drumming up donations for Sedita—donations everyone knew would purchase Sedita a judgeship, even as Sedita maintained that the money was for his putative reelection race in 2016. Bargnesi withdrew his request for a rating from the Bar Association, which suggests his rating was going to be poor. Otherwise why bother withdrawing the request, especially given the lack of other candidates?

There is some interesting action in the race for a single Erie County Family Court judge. The Erie County Democratic Party has endorsed Kelly Brinkworth; the faction usually associated with former chairman Steve Pigeon—keeping his head low this political season while an investigation continues into his political and financial activities—has been working on behalf of the well funded Michele Brown. (The way money seems to be flowing through Brown’s campaign committee to other candidates in the region suggests it’s being used a sort of clearinghouse for donations.) Brenda Freedman, a referee in both Erie County Family and Supreme Courts, is in this mix, too. Rounding out the ballot is Democrat Joe Jarzembek, an attorney who works at Erie County Family Court for the county’s Department of Social Services.

Here’s a sad truth: Only lawyers and politics junkies know or care about judicial races. Most voters don’t take part in judicial elections, and many who do just guess or follow party lines.

The September primaries for Erie County Legislature are dull to nonexistent, save for a couple quiet efforts by both Democrats and Republicans to co-opt the Green Party line for their candidates. But that’s inside baseball: Most voters simply don’t notice or understand such manipulations. The general elections in November will be just slightly more heated, as Democrats seek to regain the majority by unseating Ted Morton of Cheektowaga, and Republicans focus on picking off Democrat Tom Loughran of Williamsville.

Perhaps no narrative better exemplifies the ability of party leaders to slowly bleed the franchise of significance than that of the Delaware District Common Council seat. In late winter, there was the possibility of a dynamic primary challenge to incumbent Mike LoCurto: Jay McCarthy, a member of the Buffalo Board of Education’s majority coalition, made no secret of his intention to run for the seat. Well funded and well connected, McCarthy might have given LoCurto a run for his money. Ultimately he withdrew: As a member of the board’s majority coalition, McCarthy would have had a tough time winning over teachers, who are active in Democratic primary politics, especially in the Delaware District, where many teachers live.

So it seemed LoCurto would go unchallenged. Then, in late July, after the deadline for candidates to get on the ballot for the September 10 primaries, LoCurto was offered and accepted a job for the Erie County Department of Planning and the Environment. That meant that LoCurto’s committee on vacancies would choose someone to replace him on the ballot—and that committee would choose whomever Democratic Party leaders told them to choose.

“Whomever” turned out to be Joel Feroleto, LoCurto’s cousin and a scion of a North Buffalo political family. (His father is a big donor to Democratic candidates, his mother is a judge.) He does not face a primary opponent; it was too late for any challenger to file petitions to get on the primary ballot. In a city where Democrats enjoy a major enrollment advantage, Feroleto was essentially appointed to a four-year term.

This is not a judgment of Feroleto or his potential to be a good councilman—he may turn out to be terrific—but the choice was uninspired and predictable, the kind of rigged game that turns thinking people away from politics. You want evidence? This Tuesday, following its own rules on filling vacancies, members of the Common Council reviewed resumes and interviewed candidates to fill the vacant Delaware District seat until such time as Feroleto wins the seat officially. Guess how many candidates submitted resumes for the job?

Just one: Feroleto. Nobody else bothered. 

Meanwhile, three candidates submitted resumes to fill the Masten District seat, left vacant by Demone Smith, who has taken a sweet patronage gig as head of the Buffalo Employment and Training Center. There are also three candidates on the primary ballot and a fourth waging a write-in campaign. Two candidates are challenging Fillmore District Councilman David Franczyk. Those are serious races, far more competitive than observers of the scene might have predicted last February.

But in Delaware there’s  is only the Republican candidacy of orthodontist Peter Rouff. Rouff is an investor in this paper, so of course I’m biased in his favor, but he knows what everyone else knows: A Republican’s chance of winning a seat on the Common Council are thin. The district has 12,520 registered Democrats and 3,055 registered Republicans. It’s been almost 35 years since a Republican sat on the Common Council. (Former University District Councilman Kevin Helfer was elected as a Conservative and was in all but name a Democrat.) Rouff joined the race specifically because he was outraged that voters in his district were deprived of a choice. He aims to make a point about the quality of our representation and how it is chosen. 

For that conversation alone, his race against Feroleto is worthy of attention.