Niagara Gazette — John Ceretto and Robert Restaino sat next to one another on stage at the Earl W. Brydges Library for last week's Niagara Falls Block Club Council candidates forum but they barely acknowledged each other.
In fact, there seemed to be a lasting tension between them as they gave their answers to questions ranging from the economy to discrimination. But it existed long before the candidates for the 145th state Assembly District met on stage that night.
In recent weeks, a healthy dose of animosity has developed in the race, driven in part by the Republican committee's decision to send out mailers portraying Restaino, the Democratic challenger, as a "petty tyrant" and reminding voters of his involvement in a March 2005 incident where, as a sitting city court judge, he held 46 people in contempt of court while searching for the source of a ringing cell phone in his courtroom.
Ceretto, the Republican incumbent from Lewiston who is seeking a second term in Albany, said the advertisement was fair because every candidate is as good as his record. Restaino and many of his supporters disagree, suggesting Ceretto should have been focused on the issues facing the district, not a "campaign of personal destruction."
"Everything I have said is public record," Ceretto said. "This isn't a personal attack on him. This has all been reported in local papers, (the Niagara Gazette) did it when he decided to run. It's his record."
The 52-year-old Restaino, meanwhile, understands the mistake he made and continues to try to make up for what happened. He was removed from his judgeship in 2008 by an independent commission that reviewed his actions behind the bench.
Restaino said he understands the punishment and lives with it, but also feels he's answered for it plenty of times. He feels his work on the Niagara Falls school board and in private practice as an attorney better reflects the type of person he really is and said the incident will not have any bearing on his effectiveness as a lawmaker, if elected.
“I don’t think there’s much more that I could say that hasn’t already been said," Restaino has repeatedly said.
Restaino was elected to the school board last year. Up until his decision to run for election, he held a position as Niagara County Medicaid inspector as well. He currently works as a practicing private attorney in the Falls. He believes his overall resume provides him with the experience necessary to be a strong state lawmaker and said his work on the school board in particular has given him a better understanding of what needs to be done in Albany.
"I've learned a lot about the obvious inequities in the way our state distributes its (education) funding," he said of his time on the school board. "The state constitution talks about providing a quality education to all residents of the state. But not all districts are created equal. Some have more challenges than others. I believe funding should be a part of what is the great equalizer.
"I think the governor's approach to reigning in spending is good for all New York. But the key is distribution. Equal distribution isn't necessarily equitable distribution. They're two different things."
Before defeating former state Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte in the 2010 election, Ceretto worked as an employee of New York State Parks. He also has previously served on the Lewiston Town Board and in the Niagara County Legislature.
Ceretto said he considers jobs and taxes to be two key issues facing the state and and argues that both have improved since he took office two years ago. He believes the state has done a better job of holding down expenses and credits the 2-percent property tax cap, which he supported in 2011, for doing the same for property taxes.
He touted what he described as a strong, working relationship with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the tax cap and other issues and believes New York is finally heading in a better direction overall.
"The state government for years was dysfunctional," he said. "It was broken. Spending was going up for years and we ended up overspending to the tune of a $13 billion budget hole. They were fighting instead of doing things. Now it's changed. Things are getting done."
Ceretto also admits the state has a long way to go. One solution to its financial concerns, he said, involves working on mandate relief, where state legislation would lessen the financial burdens faced by local municipalities, including counties, towns and cities.
Restaino agrees mandate relief is necessary, but questioned Ceretto as to why the cap was passed without such relief in place to begin with.
Ceretto said Democrats in the Assembly, led by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, made it impossible to pass legislation featuring mandate relief, but didn't go into specifics about which mandates he's remove.
The race has also dealt with issues in local development, including the future of the Robert Moses Parkway between Porter and Niagara Falls.
Both candidates recently expressed support for a plan which would begin and end the parkway at Findlay Drive rather than downtown Niagara Falls.
Ceretto said keeping the upper portion of the parkway is important to the economies of the northern villages along its path, but he would like to see the area open up along its route.
Meanwhile, Restaino said he'd like to also see development along the upper Niagara River along the underused portion of the parkway running from Niagara Falls State Park to Fourth Street.NEW YORK STATE ASSEMBLY, 145TH DISTRICT John Ceretto AGE: 60 PARTY AFFILIATION: Republican PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND: Former employee of Carborundum Co. and the Tulip Corp. who has worked as a substitute teacher and with New York State Parks. Elected to the Lewiston Town Board in 1995. Served in the Niagara County Legislature from 2005 through his election to the state Assembly in 2010. PARTY ENDORSEMENTS: Republican, Conservative and Independence OTHER ENDORSEMENTS: Good Government Club of WNY, National Rifle Association, Unshackle Upstate, New York State Professional Firefighters Association and Laborers Local 91 Robert Restaino AGE: 52 PARTY AFFILIATION: Democrat PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND: Operates a private law practice he opened in Niagara Falls in 1986. Spent 12 years serving as a judge in Niagara Falls city court, Juvenile Justice Court and Domestic Violence Court. From 2008 through 2012, served as a special assistant, Medicaid Inspector General for Niagara County. Current member of the Niagara Falls School Board. PARTY ENDORSEMENTS: Democrat and Working Families OTHER ENDORSEMENTS: Executive Board of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 200United, Niagara Building Trades Council, Western New York Teamsters, United Auto Workers, New York State Nurses Association and the Western New York Council of the Communication Workers of America.