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Campaign Clamor Nowhere Near Crescendo

Challenger Norman Green and PJ Wendel share a moment in Dunkirk on Labor Day weekend after the boil-water order was lifted.

Halfway through the month of September, the political pressure cooker of the fall campaign has barely begun to simmer. While yard signs for candidates are making sparse appearances in our communities, it is tough to tell in Chautauqua County that Election Day — not to mention early voting — is quickly approaching.

County executive and clerk highlight the major races while legislators, council members in both cities as well as a number of contests in towns and villages also will be taking place. Republicans, who now dominate many of these positions, appear almost too smug.

After Jason Schmidt’s victory for district attorney last November, the GOP holds all the major offices locally with the exception of both the mayoral positions in Jamestown and Dunkirk. Do Democrats have a chance this year?

Dysfunction within the county party has been well documented in these pages and in this column. In recent years, we have seen controversy involving the appointment of the current Election Commissioner Luz Torres as well as infighting and power struggles that included officers in leadership positions.

County Republicans, believe it or not, have had their own battles that date back to when former state Sen. Catharine Young decided to step away from representation in 2019 to take a position at Cornell University as director of the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva.

Then County Executive George Borrello, who had been serving in that position for only one year, was one of the candidates vying for Young’s seat. The other? Current Executive PJ Wendel, who was then serving as legislator for Busti.

During a hotly contested party meeting held in Cassadaga, Borrello was chosen by the party to take Young’s position. He did, however, need a primary victory in June to secure the nomination. Wendel, in 2020, would then be selected by the County Legislature to become interim county executive.

But his road to the seat was not an easy one.

This past July, longtime Brocton county Legislator Mark Odell resigned after accepting a new job in Florida. A photo published in The Post-Journal and OBSERVER included Odell, Legislature Chairman Pierre Chagnon and Wendel all smiles in saluting Odell’s service in office and with the county Industrial Development Agency.

It was not as amicable two years ago when Odell also sought the executive position that Wendel ultimately won. ” I have helped develop, support and execute many of the key initiatives (Borrello) has boldly put forth (during) the past two years” Odell said in a 2019 news release. “As a fellow private-sector businessman, I believe that I am in a very unique position to build upon the great momentum developed in recent years by Sen. Borrello during his successful tenure as county executive.”

His efforts, however, never gained enough momentum and led to the current Wendel years that have been highlighted by numerous COVID-19 conferences with little direction and vision on how the county is moving forward. To be fair, Wendel does not need to wow anyone. He won last year’s election for the one-year term with ease.

This week, however, the Democrats did attempt to spice up the bland campaign. Eleven Democratic county candidates came out with unified platform statement that aims to improve six areas of government that include: taxes and fiscal responsibility, management, public health, industrial and economic development, infrastructure and public information.

The statement also “jointly rejects the (Wendel’s) call for facemasks in public settings to be a ‘personal choice,’ which is contrary to recommendations that the Chautauqua County Public Health Director and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending.”

Finally, the platform also seeks more county transparency and term limits for legislators and the executive.

Three of those who signed the statement include incumbent Legislators Robert Bankoski of Dunkirk, Robert Whitney and Paul Whitford of Jamestown. All three, it must be noted, have done an excellent job of toeing the Republican line of more spending and taxes in Legislature chambers, rarely voting or speaking in opposition or putting forth ideas.

During a time of divisive politics in our nation, things in Chautauqua County are lacking urgency. There are major concerns at this time that include a declining population, the lack of a workforce, a looming crisis in health care staffing, numerous municipal drinking-water issues and spiking COVID-19 numbers.

This is not the time to be comfortable.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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