By Robert J. McCarthy NEWS POLITICAL REPORTER
Updated: 04/15/08 6:56 AM
- Derek Gee/Buffalo News
- Leonard A. Roberto announces his Assembly bid Monday outside the Mahoney State Office Building.
One of the least influential offices in state government — a Republican seat in the Assembly — is touching off a wild scramble in Erie and Niagara counties that could involve hundreds of thousands of dollars and a rare GOP primary.
It all revolves around Assemblyman Michael Cole, R-Alden, who was censured by the Assembly Ethics Committee last year for spending the night at the Albany apartment of a legislative intern in violation of state rules. Because the episode weakened him in the eyes of some Republican leaders, Cole now finds himself challenged by four other Republicans for what normally would be a slam-dunk renomination.
The freshman assemblyman, nevertheless, says his fundraising has picked up in recent weeks and claims to have compiled a solid conservative rating that should appeal to minor parties.
“I will make a strong case for re-election,” Cole said Monday. He also said he officially will announce his candidacy this month.
The political spotlight fell on the race Monday when Leonard A. Roberto, a veteran political activist from Alden, announced his candidacy for the Cole seat. He joins Elma Supervisor Michael P. Nolan; Jeffrey A. Bono, who ran for the seat as a Democrat in 2006; and Jane Corwin, a former investment banker from Clarence, as either announcing or expressing interest in the race.
Roberto ran for county executive on the Independence Party line in 1995 and challenged State Sen. Dale M. Volker of Depew in a GOP primary in 2006. Monday, on the steps of the Mahoney State Office Building in Buffalo, he criticized the recently completed budget process that “increased state spending at [nearly] twice the [projected] rate of inflation at a time of $3.50 per gallon gas.”
“Coupled with a declining population, loss of manufacturing jobs and an increase in public employment,” he said, “the spending habits of our Legislature, if left unchecked, will most certainly bankrupt our state and counties.”
In 2006, Roberto founded an organization called Primary Challenge, which encourages party members to run against entrenched elected officials in primary elections.
But the looming figure in the race is Corwin, a close ally of County Executive Chris Collins who is running at his urging. According to sources close to Collins, she has promised to commit $250,000 to $500,000 to the election, despite the relatively little influence wielded by Republican members of the Assembly.
With two seats vacant, Democrats outnumber Republicans, 106-42, in the Assembly, an advantage so lopsided that Assembly Republicans even are powerless to override gubernatorial vetoes.
Corwin did not return a phone call Monday seeking comment, but Cole said he does not believe her perspective will influence that many voters of the 142nd District.
“Especially as the community braces for hard economic times, they want a representative who understands what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet,” he said.
Cole described himself as part of a “regular Alden family” but added he also will make a “significant” contribution of his personal funds to his re-election campaign.
Some Republican leaders have quietly expressed reservations about putting Cole before the voters this year after his Albany problems. The assemblyman always has maintained that he stayed in the apartment after walking the intern home from a gathering at a local tavern because he was too drunk to make it home.
Cole said Monday that he was forthright in dealing with the situation with reporters and constituents and that he considers the incident behind him.
“I didn’t run and hide,” he said. “I answered every question and told the truth.”
He also said he believes he will raise more than $100,000 for the race.
Cole added he has also made a case for the GOP endorsement in meetings with party leaders.
Democrats have not named a candidate in the heavily Republican district.