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Lancaster Operatics

Outgoing Erie County Legislator Dino Fudoli must have been having a pretty great day. He woke up on Tuesday as the Republican candidate for Lancaster town supervisor two weeks prior to the election. He was probably hoping to have some time to prepare his singing voice for his debate night at the Opera with incumbent Robert Giza, but that must have all changed after reading an incendiary Buffalo News investigation into Fudoli’s former life, which included allegations of frequent use and selling of the club drug ecstasy. One of his supposed clients, a waitress at the restaurant he managed, overdosed on E and died.

That might not even be the worst of the report. That honor belongs to Depew law enforcement’s alleged coverup of Fudoli’s involvement in Christina Burgio’s death. The report suggests that the case was reassigned to a detective who knew the family personally. Depew and Lancaster are decidedly suburban, but their pre-sprawl, small-town roots are intact. Everybody knows everybody. Fudoli’s father owned some businesses. The cops knew the kid had some issues, but maybe they didn’t feel he deserved this; as in, let’s use this as a chance to scare the kid straight. It’s not hard to imagine.

Fudoli’s opening statement to the assembled at the opera house was an apology for his voice, because he had been “out there campaigning nonstop” and he was hoarse. It’s also not hard to imagine that Dino spent all day on the phone going full Mel Gibson to anyone who would listen. He instantly went on the offensive, vigorously denying all of the allegations, and placed a robo-call to Lancaster residents defending himself and accusing the Democrats and Robert Giza of political slander. I talked to one Lancaster Democratic committee member who received the call and had known the incumbent, Giza, for many years as his children’s gym teacher at St. Mary’s. “There’s no way Bob has anything to do with that story,” I was told.

That account jibes well with the visual scenario presented as Fudoli settled in at his table next to Giza on the opera house stage. Giza’s presence defines a stereotype of Midwestern small-town honesty and politeness. He looks and talks like an idealized Hollywood grandfather, and he’s been in town government for 30 years, never seeking any outside office. As I was told about Giza, “He knows every business, every building, every stone in this town and how much it costs.”

The 2010 census has the Village of Lancaster as 97 percent white, and of that 97 percent it’s a yeoman’s assumption that roughly half are Polish and half are Italian. That contrast was in effect Tuesday night with Giza and Fudoli. Fudoli cuts a rather pugilistic figure: medium height with a muscular build and shaved bald head. He began his political career in 2009 as Collins’s handpicked successor to Kathy Konst as part of an organized putsch to replace Democrats with Republicans on the Legislature. His platform reads right out of the Tea Party playbook: lower taxes, smaller government, cut waste, get rid of career politicians. Now he has an addendum: I have demons.

The opera house is a school-sized auditorium affixed to town hall with an oval-shaped balcony and gorgeous woodwork throughout, but it will never be confused for the Met. The website says it is a rare remnant of an American small-town tradition of combining a municipal building with a public auditorium space and calling it an “opera house.” As such, it resembles an ideal setting for the “town hall meetings” we’ve heard so much about in the last decade of American politics.

The last decade has been kind to Lancaster, which has enjoyed population growth and development paralleled locally only by Clarence, and for that Giza puffed out his chest and admired his handiwork in his opening statement. But there was an admirable and understated humility in the man’s demeanor. He described his political aspirations as stemming from a desire to serve and help others in Lancaster, to return the favor done to him as a working-class kid making his way on the heels of the Depression. He was entirely believable.

On the other hand, Fudoli was forced to thrust his personal issues into the fore during his statement: admitting to having a long-term drug problem that he overcame to become a better person. He denied ever selling drugs or having anything to do with the overdose death of Burgio.

The rest of the debate was a ho-hum affair with Fudoli’s strengthening but still raspy voice attacking and Giza defending his record. Fudoli scored extra points in the packed room when he brought up the elderly population living on fixed incomes and unable to afford tax hikes. He promised not to raise taxes.

But taxes were not on the minds of news reporters who swarmed both candidates when they finished their closing arias. Instead they both had to answer questions about the News investigation and its fallout, which at the time of this writing, still posed far more questions than answers.

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