The Fall of Grisanti and Rise of Panepinto

The Fall of Grisanti and Rise of Panepinto

The Fall of Grisanti and Rise of Panepinto
November 5, 2014

The polls had just closed on Tuesday, and state Sen. Mark Grisanti’s supporters had just started to trickle into his party at Central Buffalo’s Soho Burger Bar. And as they mingled by the bar and sat in plush couches, they didn’t talk of politics much, but idly made small talk or sat in those chairs and silently watch the overhead TV screens.

In fact, Grisanti had deliberately planned this party as small affair between family and friends. But the ratio of suits to grey beards illustrated just how isolated Grisanti had become from his local political allies. At least one state activist had shown up: Joshua Klainberg, senior vice president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. As chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee, Grisanti had been very supportive of the League’s campaigns to clean up polluted streams and brownfields, and they were happy to return the favor. In fact, the League said it donated a substantial $500,000 to his campaign.

“You know, the mood is hopeful in here,” Klainberg said. “He has a very enthusiastic base. … And you stand by your friends.”

But a different tone was struck by an elderly gentleman who snuck out for a smoke: “It’s pretty grim in there.”

This–for now at least–is the end of Mark Grisanti’s legislative career. After losing a Democratic primary bid for state Senate in 2008, he ran as a Republican in 2010 in the overwhelmingly Democrat dominated district–and won. But he didn’t act like a very enthusiastic Republican. He was an eager supporter of some environmental legislation. Although he ostensibly preferred lower taxes and less regulation, he also backed big government-subsidized development projects such as the Buffalo Billion and the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus.

But it was his stance on social issues that made him a polarizing figure in his district. When he backed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s bill legalizing same-sex marriage in 2011, he lost the support of the Conservative Party. And when he cast his vote for the governor's signature SAFE Act gun control measure, he likely destroyed his career. Kevin Stocker, an affable lawyer and former prosecutor, challenged Grisanti for the Republican nomination. And, thanks in no small part to the thousands of Western New York voters fiercely upset with the SAFE Act, Stocker won.

Despite the loss, Grisanti still had the Independence Party ballot line, and chose to stay in the race against Stocker,  Democratic candidate Marc Panepinto and Conservative Party candidate Timothy Gallagher. Running as the third party candidate is never easy, even for an incumbent who was elected on two occasions by winning Democratic and Independent votes. But it was the attack ads from outside groups that gave him the most trouble this cycle. Because the district is one of the few swing states in the region, and the Senate majority was at stake, NYSUT’s VOTE-COPE PAC, the state’s largest teacher’s union, spent an estimated $900,000 to keep Grisanti from winning reelection. Much this money came in the form of brutal attacks; one flier featured the bruised face of a battered woman with the caption, “Mark Grisanti won’t protect you from her abuser.”

Enjoying only name recognition and the financial support of some outside groups, Grisanti faced off against two sophisticated party organizations. He may never have had a chance.

“What are you guys all here for?” Grisanti boomed as he charged into the room, arms outstretched. His family and friends all cheered, the camera lights of television news crews turned toward him, and he began to work the room. As he sat for a few TV interviews, the crowd cheered again, and high spirits were filling the room at last. “It’s too close to call,” Grisanti told City & State. “I really think we have a chance. There’s about 44 percent of the vote still out there, and only about a difference of 500 to 600 votes.”

But as the evening wore on, it became clear that processing a race this complicated and close were going to drag out the results. The TV news folks packed up their gear. Even some of Grisanti’s supporters drifted out of the party. Word went around that Grisanti was not going make a speech. Instead, he would wait until the results of the election were fully reported before making any public remarks. There were still a few hundred votes out there, said Grisanti’s chief of staff, Doug Curella.

The wait wasn't very long. The Erie County Board of Elections released its unofficial results in short order. While no one collected close to a majority, Panepinto walked away with 34 percent of the vote. Kevin Stocker came in second with 30 percent, the incumbent received 29 percent, with Conservative party candidate Timothy Gallagher grabbing just 7 percent.

Less than two miles away, Panepinto threw a rousing party at Casa Di Pizza to celebrate, giving a victory speech next to Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, state Sen. Tim Kennedy, and others. “You’ve only got to win by one,” Panepinto reportedly said. “And I’ve won by more than one.”

As for Kevin Stocker? He never left his house, but put on his pajamas and played board games with his children.

Placeholder blue outline avatar
Chris Thompson