If Chris Jacobs loses, it's all over for Senate Republicans

Chris Jacobs

Chris Jacobs, the Republican candidate for the 60th state Senate District. (Joed Viera)

On a warm September evening, Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs stood in a narrow window-front office in Buffalo’s revamped Theatre District, calling his victory over attorney Kevin Stocker in the primary for the Republican line in the race for the 60th state Senate District.

Holding a commanding 50-point lead with about 42 percent of the votes counted, Jacobs acknowledged that while nothing was official, he was ready to send his supporters, family and staffers home – it was 9:40 p.m., and Jacobs felt that it was “getting late.” Tall, slim and blonde, the 49-year-old has little in his personal or professional life that political strategists see as a vulnerability. In a brief stint as secretary of state in the Pataki administration, as a candidate for lieutenant governor, as a Buffalo school board member and now as county clerk, Jacobs has maintained a relatively low profile. Party insiders use words like “spectacular” and “phenomenal” to describe his prospects as a candidate.

“I just want to thank everybody for being here and everybody for helping in this effort,” he said, making a point to acknowledge his mother and each member of his campaign team.

Without boasting about his drubbing of Stocker, Jacobs asked the room to help him press on as he looks forward to the general election.

“Primaries are challenging. I’ve never had one before,” he said. “The good thing is it gets us out there and it gets us engaged with our constituents. I think I’m a better candidate now than I was three, four months ago to begin the primary.”

State Senate Republicans certainly hope that Jacobs is the better candidate on Nov. 8. The conference currently is one seat away from holding an outright majority, and only kept its tenuous grip on power this past session thanks to state Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with the GOP, as well as a partnership with the breakaway Senate Independent Democratic Caucus. A number of tossup races in Long Island and the Hudson Valley could tip the balance either way, but Jacobs is widely seen as the Republicans’ best chance to pick up a Democratic seat. If no other seat changed hands, a victory by Jacobs would give the GOP absolute control of the chamber.

Tall, slim and blonde, the 49-year-old has little in his personal or professional life that political strategists see as a vulnerability.

On the flip side, there’s little chance that Republicans can hold the line in the Senate if Jacobs falls short. A loss by Jacobs would have to be offset by pickups in tougher Senate races, and that won’t be easy in a presidential year, when greater turnout tends to benefit Democrats. If the GOP fails to win a numerical majority, it would have to persuade Felder and state Sen. Jeff Klein’s IDC to stick with them. Failing there, the last bastion of Republican power in the state would be relegated to the minority.

About four miles north of Jacobs’ primary night victory party, Amber Small was celebrating a victory of her own at her storefront campaign office in the increasingly diverse working-class Buffalo neighborhood of Black Rock. Tucking her long brown hair behind her ear, she greeted a supporter with an excited hug, both of them cheering as they embraced.

Small, the 30-year-old executive director of the Parkside Community Association who has never held elected office, had soundly beat political veteran Al Coppola by 34 points in the Democratic primary. Now, she was Jacobs’ only opponent – a remarkable development given the district’s recent history of crowded races with minor-party-line competitors and unpredictable results.

Small told her supporters that their efforts gave her a chance to carry their voice to Albany. “The work is only getting started, but I’m so incredibly confident that we’re going to do this,” she said.

While Small was charming and warm with the people who had gathered to congratulate her, she was all business when asked about her opponent. Some of Jacobs’ supposed advantages – name recognition, the ability to self-finance his campaign – could actually be weaknesses, she said, for a “career politician who’s backed by a personal and family wealth of billions of dollars.”

While Small was charming and warm with the people who had gathered to congratulate her, she was all business when asked about her opponent.

The Democrats’ first choice as a candidate was Assemblyman Sean Ryan, who has a strong reputation in the district. But after he declined to run, party members touted Small as a young and energetic candidate who can bring fresh perspective to a Legislature set in its ways. She speaks with the polish of a politician who has been at it for decades, a skill no doubt honed through her involvement with Women Elect, an organization that encourages women to run for elected office.

The people of the 60th, she said, want someone with a proven track record of working directly with communities.

“I’m excited that I’ve been able to earn the trust of voters in the 60th,” Small said. “But I need to earn it all over again and on a bigger scale.”

At the northernmost point of 60th Senate District, a few thousand feet before the Niagara River crashes over the edge of the world-famous Niagara Falls, suburban Grand Island splits the waters. A few miles south the district snakes through north and western Buffalo, comprising mostly white neighborhoods – all but cutting out the city’s East Side, a collection of mostly black neighborhoods. The district then continues along the shoreline of Lake Erie, jutting into Republican-leaning southtowns suburbs, before reaching its terminus in lush farmland, where anti-Safe Act lawn signs outnumber those supporting any particular candidate.

The 60th, which not so long ago was one of the most reliably Democratic state Senate districts, has confounded political analysts and granted power to unlikely candidates in recent years. It has played a pivotal role in the balance of power in the chamber. Now, for the first time in three election cycles, only two candidates are on the ballot, apart from a little-known Green Party candidate. And this year, it could again determine which party holds the majority.

Amber Small

Amber Small, the Democratic candidate for the 60th state Senate District, at her primary victory party. (Joed Viera)

When most politicos talk about the shift of the district from a Democratic stronghold to the frenetic and unpredictable scenarios that have played out in recent elections, they point to the most recent round of redistricting. The redrawn lines cut the registration advantage for Democrats over Republicans from almost 5-to-1 to less than 2-to-1.

But that shift was predated by Republican Mark Grisanti’s upset of Democratic state Sen. Antoine Thompson, who held the seat from 2006 to 2010. Grisanti, riding a wave of anti-Albany sentiment following the infamous 2009 Senate coup and a series of Thompson blunders, was able to steal away a district that most state GOP prognosticators had initially written off.

Thompson had been skewered for using his Senate budget to print out a stack of 100-page books promoting his accomplishments and missed session days to attend what he described as a trade mission to Jamaica. But Thompson had an enrollment advantage of 126,545 Democrats to 26,256 Republicans. His stunning loss cost Democrats the majority.

John McArdle, a consultant and former GOP staffer who spent two decades working in the Senate, said it wasn’t until two Republican power brokers – former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra and then-state Sen. George Maziarz – took a closer look at the race that the leadership began to believe that Grisanti had a shot.

Enough factors worked in Grisanti’s favor – Thompson’s implosion, voters’ desire for change – to allow the Democrat-turned-Republican to win a seat that would normally never be in question. The newly elected Erie County Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy, who was initially skeptical, recalled that Grisanti was “lightning in a bottle.” Langworthy also credited Carl Paladino’s insurgent gubernatorial campaign. “Had Carl’s candidacy in ’10 not been so successful in Western New York,” Langworthy said, “there never would have been a Mark Grisanti.”

One of the worst-kept secrets of the partisan gerrymandering in 2012 is that Grisanti’s district was redrawn for him to hang onto the seat. He faced a tough re-election fight, despite the advantages of incumbency, because of Republicans’ massive enrollment deficit in the district.

Several sources, including one who was in the room where redistricting decisions were discussed, confirmed that Grisanti was going to get as many Republicans as possible drawn into his district. Other Western New York Republican senators took on more Democrats. Maziarz took Niagara Falls, a Democratic island in mostly rural Niagara County. State Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer took part of Rochester. State Sen. Patrick Gallivan added Democrats to his suburban and rural Western New York district.

For one cycle, it worked. Democrat Mike Amodeo and longtime Democrat Chuck Swanick, who ran on the Conservative Party line, split the ticket, and Grisanti won by 20 points, despite having been one of four Senate Republicans to vote to legalize same-sex marriage.

But Grisanti was not able to hang on a second time. After voting in support of the Safe Act, a gun control bill deeply unpopular with many Republicans, he lost the confidence of his party. The Erie County Republican Committee did not endorse a candidate that year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had benefitted from Grisanti’s bipartisanship on two signature bills, did not publicly endorse him, either.

Democrats and their labor allies smelled blood. The state’s powerful teachers’ union ran ads attacking Grisanti from the right, calling him a “RINO.” The state party committee infused cash into Democrat Marc Panepinto’s campaign.

Grisanti lost to Stocker in the primary, but continued to run on the Independence Party line. This time the split worked to Panepinto’s advantage, allowing him to win with only a third of the vote.

How the 60th state Senate District radically changed over the years

  • Buffalo 1992-2002
  • Buffalo 2002-2012
  • Buffalo 2012-present

Indeed, the district’s primary matchups have made it one of the most unpredictable in recent years, with candidates continuing minor party bids after missing out on a major party line. “When you have primaries and candidates running on third party (lines),” McArdle said, “you don’t know what could happen.”

In the coming weeks it will be seen how committed state parties and their allies are to this race. Despite a significant voter enrollment gap – 90,791 Democrats to 52,480 Republicans, according to the most recent Board of Elections data – many observers believe Jacobs, with his political experience, wealth and name recognition, has the edge, which could divert resources to other Senate Republican candidates.

There’s no doubt that Jacobs, a self-described moderate who has proven his crossover appeal in winning a countywide seat in Erie County, which has similar enrollment numbers to the 60th, has advantages. As a scion of the family that owns Delaware North Cos., the food services giant that has contracts with state and national parks and entertainment venues around the world, he has access to almost all the capital he would ever need as well as business and personal connections through the company. Jeremy Jacobs Sr., his uncle and the company’s chairman, owns the Boston Bruins and has strong ties to the University at Buffalo. The family name will adorn the university’s new medical school, nearing completion in the heart of Buffalo’s medical campus, a collection of higher learning institutes, medical technology companies and health care providers often trumpeted by politicians as a sign of progress in the city.

In 2014, the three-way race between Panepinto, Grisanti and Stocker saw more than $4 million spent, one of the most expensive races in Western New York history. While it remains doubtful that spending will reach that level in 2016, this cycle is shaping up to be costly.

Jacobs spent more than $242,000 during the primary and was the beneficiary of mailings paid for by the state GOP committee and radio advertisements bought by outside groups, while Small spent a relatively paltry $80,000. But Small could have significant money spent on her behalf after picking up the endorsement of the New York State United Teachers, which spent more than $1 million to help Panepinto win office two years ago. And the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee was another heavy contributor to Panepinto’s campaign last time around, and could be again this year, depending on where the party sees its best chances to take back seats.

In the most recent filings Jacobs is getting significant help from the state Senate GOP, from which nearly $120,000 was transferred to his campaign account last week. Small has yet to receive any funds from the Senate Democrats, thoughshe was able to raise $12,000 in recent weeks, most of it from political action committees and the campaigns of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Panepinto. As it stands now, Small has $24,000 on hand after spending $15,000 in the time covered by the filing, while Jacobs still has $243,000 after spending $225,000.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris, who oversees the Senate Democrats’ statewide campaign efforts, said the party is still optimistic about Small. While Jacobs may have fundraising advantages and better name recognition, Small will benefit from the presidential year down-ticket voting, especially given Hillary Clinton’s bid to become the country’s first female president, he said.

“We think Amber is very dynamic and represents the future,” Gianaris said. “We’re excited about her candidacy.” The Democratic enrollment advantage should also have a big impact in a year when there are only two party-supported candidates to vote for, he said. Jacobs’ advantages “only gets it to the point of making it a competitive district. It doesn’t put it in the bag for them,” he said.

State Democrats’ support for Small will come down to how well she performs in coming weeks, but she is “on the radar,” Gianaris added. “We’re constantly looking at the full board and making decisions about resources as the races show themselves to be more or less competitive.”

60th District party enrollment, 2000-2016 graphs

When candidates began to come forward for the 60th District race this year, the contest was shaping up to be another wild one. The Democratic side of things looked to be a three-way race between Small, Panepinto and Coppola. But Panepinto, who had been dogged by accusations that he had voted on bills benefitting his private law practice, announced just days before the deadline that he would not run, despite already securing his party’s endorsement. The senator said he wanted to spend more time with his family, though rumors of sexual misconduct between staffers in his office were also circulating.

On the Republican side, Stocker was viewed as a legitimate threat to Jacobs after his 2014 upset of Grisanti. But Jacobs won, and Stocker also failed to secure the Conservative Party line, preventing a third-party campaign that likely would have hurt Jacobs’ chances.

Now, Jacobs and Small have a few short weeks to win over voters. Compared to other recent candidates in the district, they both have clean slates. Grisanti was blasted for his votes on same-sex marriage and gun control, while a NYSUT mailer suggested his no vote on the Women’s Equality Act was tantamount to being complicit in domestic abuse in 2014. In 2010, Grisanti was attacked for defending people accused of drug dealing and murderer as a private attorney. Panepinto’s 2001 election fraud conviction was highlighted in mailers and advertisements. Thompson was blasted for his spending on mailers and his trip to Jamaica.

The most prominent point of contention this year is education policy. Jacobs has expressed support for charter schools, as a city school board member, a co-founder of one of the city’s first charter schools and as founder of the Bison Fund, a charitable organization that promotes charters and private schools.

He has also proposed starting a pilot program for community schools in the Buffalo district, perhaps to be merged with or done in cooperation with Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and others who were able to secure funding for community schools across the state last year.

“The reality is that charter schools are here in New York State and have been here for 15 years,” Jacobs said in an email to City & State. “The reality also is that charter schools are but a very small percentage of public schools, so my main focus if elected to the State Senate will be to help the schools that the overwhelming majority of our children attend and that is traditional public schools.”

Beyond that, he has steered clear of controversial issues.

Small has stood with local teachers demanding a new contract and joined in a call for the state to make good on payments to districts guaranteed by a court decision.

“It’s not my place to tell a parent where they should send their child to school,” Small said at a recent event. “But, we have a system that is set up to siphon money out of district schools and make them weaker.”

In addition to teachers unions, Small has defended same-sex marriage, women’s reproductive rights and a host of other progressive issues, but has no record to attack given her newcomer status.

How have the last four senators to hold the 60th state Senate District faired?

  • Byron Brown
  • Byron Brown

    2003 - 2005

    Buffalo’s first African-American mayor was the third city executive in a row to make the jump directly from the state Senate to City Hall. Brown held the 57th District in his first term as a state Senator and the 60th after the 2002 redistricting. He left halfway through his third term after being elected mayor of Buffalo.

  • Antoine Thompson
  • Antoine Thompson

    2007 - 2010

    After being snubbed by Democratic headquarters as Brown’s successor for his Senate seat, Thompson went on to beat Marc Coppola and his cousin, Al Coppola, in a three-way primary. Thompson was being groomed for higher office while in the Senate, with some speculating that he might even succeed Brown as mayor. But after a series of high-profile blunders, Thompson had his seat shockingly stolen away by Democrat-turned-Republican Mark Grisanti.

  • Mark Grisanti
  • Mark Grisanti

    2011 - 2014

    Grisanti, as a Republican, was able to overcome a near 5-to-1 enrollment disadvantage to upset Thompson. He lost the seat in 2014 after failing to gain the Erie County GOP’s endorsement over his vote for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s SAFE Act, and lost in the primary to attorney Kevin Stocker. He stayed in the race on the Independence party line, but in splitting the vote with Stocker, Democrat Marc Panepinto was able to take advantage and take the seat.

  • Marc Panepinto
  • Marc Panepinto

    2015 - 2016

    Panepinto, due to a split ticket to the right, was able to win the district with just a third of the vote. His only term was tarnished after news reports suggesting he was voting on bills that could benefit his private law practice surfaced. He had stated his intention to run for reelection, but called off his campaign days before nominating deadlines.

Still, some punches have already been thrown. Small last month sent out press releases tying donations from people charged in U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s wide-ranging bid-rigging criminal complaint to Jacobs, noting that he had received campaign money from developer Louis Ciminelli and his brother, as well as companies they own and other related businesses. The Jacobs campaign fired back that Ciminelli has donated to politicians of all stripes over the years, including Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who has in turn donated to Small’s campaign. And donations directly from Louis Ciminelli, which came during Jacobs’ campaigns for county clerk, have since been donated to the United Way.

Advertisements attempting to link Small, who has in no way been linked to the purported investigation, to news reports that federal investigators are questioning people at the Erie County Democrats’ headquarters have begun showing up in social media feeds.

While aware of the challenges she faces, Small is hoping that the skills and relationships she has built through her nonprofit work will help her. As she sees it, her candidacy represents an opportunity to reject the notion that money and connections are qualifications for elected office.

As Jacobs sees it, his mission in this race is to keep downstate democrats from leaving western New York high and dry.

“We’ve got a lot of dark money in these races now, groups and PACs that have really glossy names, but they stand for things that our community does not stand for,” Small said. “It’s deceptive, and it’s just not right.”

During a campaign stop to talk about community schools, Jacobs said that while experts’ prognosis that he has an edge in the race is encouraging, he has a hard road ahead of him.

The man the GOP has put up as one of their best chances to win a pivotal seat and help secure an outright majority is familiar with tough races, having lost as William Weld’s running mate in his 2006 gubernatorial bid after serving as the secretary of state under Gov. George Pataki. As Jacobs sees it, his mission in this race is to keep downstate Democrats from leaving Western New York high and dry.

“I just think it’s so critically important for this area to keep this Senate seat, to be part of keeping the majority as it is,” he said. “If we lose the Senate voice for upstate and Western New York, that’s going to be very, very detrimental.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said only two candidates are on the ballot. In fact, a Green Party candidate is also running.