60th District race shapes up as a Contest between two Former Friends

by Matt Ricchiazzi

Not long ago, Chris Jacobs and Amber Small were very good friends. Well, some say, they were much more than just friends.  They hung out in the same social circles, were invited to parties together, met at choice bistros and restaurants and were regarded by Buffalo’s social set as two of Buffalo’s most charming and engaging young people on the rise.

Now the once close friends will be squaring off against each other and the only time these two will be seen together is on stage for a candidates’ debate.

And that’s how the race for one of the most pivotal Senate districts in the State is shaping up: Jacobs, a venerable Republican with a depth of political and private sector experience; and Small, a union-backed 30 year old political newcomer with high aspirations and left leaning ideology.

And don’t be surprised if at any moment the campaign turns negative. There is a lot of money at stake.

It’s expected that Small will be backed by more than million dollars from the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT). She has already been endorsed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation (BTF).

Jacobs, too, has proven he is willing to play hardball to win – something that skeptical local operatives have been waiting for him to prove. He easily defeated attorney Kevin Stocker, who won the primary two years ago by more than 20 points. Negative mailers against Stocker were paid for by the state GOP, but Jacobs’ cadre of local GOP compatriots took to WBEN airwaves to attack Stocker, perhaps largely out of loyalty to Jacobs.

Most of the negative campaigning–if it erupts–will be paid for by money from New York City power brokers. Both candidates have been marketing themselves not only to their constituents and local leaders but to statewide party bosses and wealthy contributors who might like to have a finger, if not a hand, in this potentially Senate tilting district.

State Senate candidate Amber Small with County Executive Mark Poloncarz
State Senate candidate Amber Small with County Executive Mark Poloncarz

If money is ever an indication of loyalty in politics, Small might be expected to respond to requests for support from Senator Liz Krueger, a longtime politician who represents one of the wealthiest parts of Manhattan. Krueger hosted a fundraiser for Small in Manhattan just prior to the primary, based – Small told Artvoice  – on her support of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act that has passed the Assembly but is stalled in the Senate.

Small should also be the beneficiary of a million dollars or more from the New York State United Teachers Union – whose goal is to do what’s best for teachers, such as increased wages, and, as the fruit of smaller classes, more teacher hires. The line between teacher compensation and taxpayer fleecing is often hard enough to distinguish when you haven’t taken a million dollars from the union to get elected.

But Jacobs also has powerful friends. He worked closely with State Republican Chairman Ed Cox and State Independence Chairman Frank McKay, two New York City-based political powerhouses who have long encouraged Jacobs to seek state office, and who have funneled considerable resources into the district to ensure that Jacobs won an uncertain primary.

State Senate candidate Chris Jacobs
State Senate candidate Chris Jacobs

Throwing the race into flux is James DePasquale, the Green Party candidate who has the backing of The First Amendment Club, a powerful and private group of local activists, attorneys and bureaucrats based in Black Rock. “The Club,” as it is known, has had a hand in electing Antoine Thompson and Mark Grisanti to the same Senate seat in recent years.

Small claims that DePasquale is a faux candidate intended to siphon votes on the left in a ploy to protect the ambitions of Jacobs. DePasquale’s campaign manager is John Duke, a “non-partisan operative” who served as Director of Consumer Affairs in Thompson’s office from 2007-09, and as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs in Grisanti’s office from 2010-12.

Small has been at the forefront of a charge to remove DePasquale from the Green Party through State Supreme Court. Small’s argument is buttressed by the fact that registered Republicans helped circulate DePasquale’s petitions. DePasquale’s rebuttal is he has friends – some of whom happen to be Republicans.

The process is legal, so long as the petition passers first register as a commissioner of deeds with the city, a status not all that dissimilar to a notary public.

But Small is behind a faction of the Green Party which seeks to expel DePasquale from the party through an action in State Supreme Court, which in turn would remove him from the ballot, based on a notion that Green Party bosses think DePasquale’s ideals don’t match Green Party’s ideology.

This prompted a response from Duke: “Color me green fusion, but I thought ideological purity tribunals went out of style when the Nazi’s surrendered in 1945.”

For his part, DePasquale is focusing his entire campaign on a single issue: the cleanup of Scajaquada Creek and Hoyt Lake. While he has almost zero chance of winning, it complicates the electoral math since by some people’s calculations, a vote for DePasquale is a vote for Jacobs.

Jacobs is expected to do well in the Republican-heavy areas in the south of the district, including Orchard Park, Hamburg, Lakeshore, Angola, Evans and Brant. In the north, he is expected to do well on Grand Island.

Small is expected to do well in the Parkside neighborhood of the city, where she has worked as a professional activist in her capacity as Executive Director of the Parkside Community Association. Small will need to focus on getting out Democrats in Tonawanda, where Jacobs has performed strongly in his runs for County Clerk.

As a Democrat, Small has a large advantage in the district, which has a large Democrat plurality. The present 60th has 104,000 registered Democrats and 22,000 registered Republicans. Yet Jacobs has beaten Democrats county wide where the plurality of Democrats is more than 100,000 with 276,813 registered Democrats to 145,502 Republicans.

How much of a factor DePasquale will be is based entirely on how many people are willing to cast a vote for a man who is not likely to win. He may pick up some votes in Black Rock and the West Side, based on the backing of The First Amendment Club. That he is making Hoyt Lake the issue of his campaign indicates that he may pick up votes in in Elmwood Village and North Buffalo – votes in neighborhoods that Small would otherwise be likely to get. If the race is close, DePasquale may be a spoiler, which would be an interesting result of a contest between two former buddies, who might turn negative on each other and, in the case of DePasquale, at least for Small, might prove that three’s a crowd.