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The disappearing GOP

Wondering where the person you elected has gone?

by and

No incumbents? No problem.

            People just shaking off the last bits of holiday reverie might be surprised to find that the person representing them in the county legislature is not who they elected to serve. Nearly a third of the 16-member Republican caucus will consist of appointees before too long.

            The slow leak sprung in November. Republican legislators Tracy Logel and George Wiedemer, defeating incumbent supervisors, took off to run Chili and Penfield, respectively. Jack Driscoll hoped to hop on that same train, but was left standing at the platform when Henrietta voters decided to stick with their warhorse, Jim Breese.

            Logel and Wiedemer instead took along Sean Hanna, who resigned after becoming regional director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

            At the end of December, we learned that lej president Dennis Pelletier planned to trade his $54,000 gig in the legislature for a $132,000 long-vacant post as executive director of the Water Authority.

            The latest buzz --- deemed premature by its subject --- is that Pieter Smeenk is ready to bolt.

            "It's no secret that I'm looking for something else," he says. "There's other interests that I would like to pursue."

            All Smeenk will say is that he's looking for a position "in government."  Replacements for Logel, Wiedemer, and Hanna, are already in place. Replacements for Pelletier and Smeenk are pending. Republican Legislator Wayne Zyra is Pelletier's likely successor.

Logel, Wiedemer, Hanna, Pelletier, and Smeenk are just the preamble to 2005's mass exodus, when most legislators --- Democrats and Republicans --- face term limits. Some Democrats say the Republican departures are part of a carefully calibrated strategy, and that more early exits are on the way.

            "I think they probably won't do any more this year, but I think they'll go further," says Democrat Carla Palumbo. "It's like a chess game. I suspect that, eventually, all the seats that are term limited will have people in them that aren't term limited."

            Filling the seats with appointees prior to elections is a safer bet, Democrats say, then letting the original incumbents ride out their terms.

            "It gives them a so-called incumbent," says Minority Leader Stephanie Aldersley. "It's someone who hasn't been elected, but...has served in the role for a while. So they can say, 'Keep Legislator So-and-So' instead of 'Elect Legislator So-and-So.'"

            It's a slim advantage, Aldersley says, but an advantage nonetheless. The public also loses, say Aldersley and Palumbo, because the new representatives are chosen in backroom deals and not by voters.

            Hogwash, says Driscoll, pointing out that the new appointees will have to run in special elections this fall to serve out the remainder of the terms of the legislators they replaced.

            "Actually I'm kind of flattered that they [Democrats] think we're that smart," he says. "The fact of the matter is they have nothing at risk here. We're going to have five Republican legislators up. And the Democrats will have no one up. Control of the legislature is now at risk in 2004, where it would not be until 2005. I'd say, 'Advantage, Democrats' on that one."

            Republicans hold a 16-13 majority in the county legislature.

Why would the GOP risk control of the lej a year earlier than it had to? Democrats can speculate.

            "It may be that they've got some marginal seats and they want to take every advantage that they can," Aldersley says. "What that tells me, in a district like Pieter Smeenk's, is that perhaps some Democrats have been winning out there. Therefore they have some concern about being able to hold on to the seat."

            She might be right.

            Smeenk represents the 11th District, which covers portions of East Rochester and Perinton.

            In 2000, East Rochester had 3,899 registered voters, including 1,553 Republicans; 86 Conservatives; 1,132 Democrats; and 964 Blanks (voters not registered with any party). (Enrollment has since declined to 3,626 registered voters, including 1,424 Republicans; 71 Conservatives; 1,059 Democrats; and 881 Blanks.)

            2000 was a presidential election year. Though Republicans outnumber Democrats in East Rochester, the Gore/Lieberman ticket carried the village handily. Gore/Lieberman defeated Bush/Cheney in both Smeenk's ER districts.

            Former First Lady Hillary Clinton didn't fare as well in her US Senate bid the same year, but arguably did post respectable numbers. She lost ER by 22 votes --- but finished dead-even with Republican opponent Rick Lazio in Smeenk's 6th District. She lost the 7th District 214 to 192.

            "If it's a vulnerable district, it [making appointments] is a good strategy because you have an incumbent," Palumbo says. "Open seats tend to be more competitive than seats that have incumbents. An incumbency brings with it a certain amount of ability to get re-elected."

            R. Anthony LaFountain, who replaced Wiedemer in the lej, says that, at least in his district, the viability of the seat is not in question.

            Wiedemer, LaFountain says, was elected Penfield supervisor by the "very same people that would have elected him for county lej." In other words, the seat would have in all likelihood remained Republican.

LaFountain --- who describes himself as a "very conservative" Republican --- left the Penfield Town Board to take Wiedemer's place in the lej. Immediately he was made chairman of the Human Services Committee and vice chair of Environment and Public Works.

            Other replacements have fared just as well. Mary Valerio, Logel's replacement, is now chair of Recreation and Education and vice chair of Public Safety. David Malta, Hanna's replacement, is vice chair of both the Human Services and Intergovernmental Relations committees.

            "I think that's a huge issue," says county Democratic Party leader Molly Clifford. "People have no experience whatsoever and they're now chairing committees. There are people in the legislature who have more experience and more leadership and frankly, you don't see Democrats as committee chairs."

            "As much as Republicans want to talk about working together and getting along, when it comes down to those critical decisions, they're more likely to give a committee chairmanship to a new member with no experience than to a Democrat who may have been in the legislature five, six, 10 years," she says.

            The GOP says it's a numbers game. Veteran Republican legislators, they say, are already serving as chairs of other committees or in leadership positions, and there are only so many chairmanships to go around.

            "I mean, if the Democrats are suggesting that they should get it because of longevity, it doesn't work that way," says Smeenk, laughing. "We're not going to put a Democrat in a chair."

            Giving someone a committee chair raises their profile, Palumbo says, and fattens their pocketbook. Base pay for a county legislator is $18,000 annually. Committee chairs get an additional $1,700 stipend, except for the Ways and Means Committee chair, which receives a $3,000 stipend.

            "They're bringing these guys in, they're brand new," she says. "They don't even know how to run a committee. These guys get the experience they need so that come 2005, when everything turns over again, they're [the GOP] running experienced incumbents that are chairs of committees."

            LaFountain admits that he doesn't have a background in Human Services, but says he will work hard to get up to speed. He does, however, have experience in public works as a five-year employee of the Penfield Public Works Department. He was also chairman of the town's Public Works Committee.

            Being a committee chair doesn't mean anything, Driscoll says, in terms of visibility.

            "Nobody hears about them," he says. "I'm chairman of Ways and Means Committee. Who knows that?"