By Justin Sondel and Mark Scheer firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — The hotly contested and at times controversial Democratic primary for Niagara Falls City Council ended with incumbent Sam Fruscione as the odd man out on Tuesday.
Unofficial results from the Niagara County Board of Elections showed Fruscione finishing last in the four-candidate race for three open Democratic lines on the November general election ballot. First-time candidate and Falls teacher Andy Touma was the top vote getter. He was followed by incumbent lawmakers Charles Walker and Kristen Grandinetti, who finished second and third, respectively. The three winners will move on to face three Republican candidates for three open council seats this fall.
Touma, who gained support in the community through extensive door-to-door campaigning, celebrated his first political victory with supporters in the ballroom of the Four Points Sheraton on Buffalo Avenue. An overjoyed Touma said his campaign was effective because he took the time to listen to people as he visited them at their homes and spoke with them on the phone.
“My team recognized, they feel that going door-to door and talking to folks was the way to go,” Touma said. “It was the way to approach people and really get to the heart of the matter and find out exactly what people are feeling.”
Touma, the exhaustion from the campaign showing on his face, said whenever he felt tired encouraging words from citizens would help him keep going.
“I just kept going for the people knowing that they were there for me and they believed in me,” Touma said.
After pausing for a few moments to thank supporters inside his Pine Avenue campaign headquarters, Fruscione credited his defeat to tactics employed by his opponents in the local Democratic Party, including Mayor Paul Dyster, and what he described as “character assassination” and “games and tactics that occurred from many media sources toward the Italian American community” during the campaign.
“That definitely played a role,” Fruscione said. “It was a negative role by the media. But, that’s something we’ve all got to deal with in the future. They treated me like it was 1951 in the Falls. This ain’t 1951, folks. It’s 2013. Racism, anti-Italianism will not be tolerated at all in Niagara Falls so I’ll continue to move my mission forward.”
Fruscione and his campaign manager, Ron Cunningham, referenced articles and television news reports that appeared in the run-up to the primary, including those concerning his involvement in a souvenir shop downtown that counts among its items mob-related merchandise. An anonymous mailer referencing Fruscione’s involvement in the store was also delivered to Falls voters in recent weeks.
Another anonymous mailer, delivered within the past week under the label the “Niagara Examiner,” criticized the councilman’s private and business dealings as well. He blamed Dyster and other opponents of his in the local Democratic Party for printing and distributing the flier which he described as “anti-Italian.”
“It was definitely a smear campaign and it’s unfortunate that some people will do anything to win,” Cunningham said.
At least two anonymous mailers hit local mailboxes, encouraging voters to choose Fruscione. One was highly critical of Grandinetti. Another, which received far more attention and media scrutiny, lauded Fruscione for joining fellow members of the council majority in questioning aspects of Buffalo developer Mark Hamister’s proposed $25 million downtown hotel project. The flier, which suggested Hamister was attempting to run a “con game” in the Falls, was distributed by the WNY Progressive Caucus, a political action committee that counts among its donors former Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Pigeon, state lawmaker Tim Kennedy and other Buffalo-area political figures and businesses.
Fruscione denied having had any advance knowledge of the mailer’s delivery as did a spokesperson for the Caucus. Fruscione said he did not believe his stance on the Hamister agreement or the flier criticizing the developer had an impact on the primary’s outcome.
He also indicated that he planned to remain diligent when it comes to the Hamister deal.
“I’m going to stand my ground,” he said.
Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian said he was “very disappointed” in the outcome of Tuesday’s race, crediting Fruscione with standing with him and Anderson to protect the interests of working class people in the city.
“This is probably the first time in 40 years real family people in Niagara Falls had true representation,” Choolokian said.
Back at the Sheraton hotel, a relaxed Walker said it felt good to have the support of his party and Democratic voters in the city.
“Once you make the decision to run, it’s good to know that your party supports you and gives you the opportunity to represent them for another term,” Walker said.
Walker said his strong showing in the primary coupled with his experience and record on the council give him confidence that he will do well in the general election.
“I’ve been there a while,” Walker said. “I have a voting record.”
Grandinetti waited for election results at her home. After the final numbers were tallied, she joined Walker and Touma at the Four Points Sheraton to celebrate their victory.
Grandinetti said she was nervous about the primary, but was glad to see that she lives in a city where people listen and know what’s going on.
“I think that the three people who won are the three people who have the city’s best interests at heart,” Grandinetti said.
Now that the primary is over Grandinetti said she will need to continue to work hard to retain her seat.
“It’s not over yet and I’m not overconfident,” she said.
Fruscione isn’t out of the race yet and vowed Tuesday to continue on in November where he will appear on the ballot on the Conservative and Independence party lines. He also said he will finish the remainder of his current term with the same focus he’s had for years.
“I think I got a lot of positive things done over the past eight years,” he said. “I saved a lot of people’s jobs and held the line on taxes.”