Author: Griffin-Nolan, Ed
Date published: November 10, 2010
The night belonged to Tom Dadey, the newly elected chair of the Onondaga County Republican Party, and he was clearly enjoying his moment. As the national results showing a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives came in Nov. 2, Dadey took to the podium at the Doubletree Hotel at Carrier Circle to deliver the biggest applause line of the night.
"Nancy Pelosi," he shouted into the mike, "you're fired!" The revelers who had begun filtering in around 8 p.m. were buoyed by closer-than-expected races in the 49th state Senate District, and what appeared to be a victory for newcomer Don Miller over incumbent Al Stirpe in the 121st Assembly District race. None, including Dadey, had predicted that Ann Marie Buerkle would be holding a lead over 25th District Congressman Dan Maffei by the time the sun set the next day.
This is a party that lost the congressional seat two years ago when Maffei rode the Obama hope train to Washington, taking from the Republicans a seat they had held since the early 1980s. This was a party leadership whose endorsed candidate for county executive, Dale Sweetland, was beaten by Joanie Mahoney in a primary three years ago, and whose endorsed Syracuse mayoral candidate, Otis Jennings, was beaten by Steve Kimatian in last year's primary. (Neither Jennings nor Sweetland were seen at the party on election night this year.)
Dadey took the reins of the county operation earlier this year, and Kimatian, after losing the mayoral race to Stephanie Miner, took over the leadership of the city party, which some observers joked could meet in a minivan and everyone would have their own seat belt. The pair took hold of a party badly outnumbered in the city and, as of 2008, outnumbered in the county as well.
Mahoney, who helped as much as anyone to chase old-guard leader John Despirito from the post of county chair, arrived at the Doubletree just before the polls closed. Before stepping into the elevator to visit with the candidates ensconced in their rooms upstairs, Mahoney offered her predictions. Her honesty outweighed party loyalty.
"Andrew Cuomo will be the next governor," predicted the unpredictable Mahoney, who had crossed party lines to endorse Cuomo. "New York will elect two Democratic senators" she continued, "and Dan Maffei will be re-elected." And in the 49th state Senate race? Mahoney felt that one was too close to call.
Two Republican regulars who enjoyed easy victories were given the stage early and allowed to head home after brief speeches. Sheriff Kevin Walsh cruised to victory for a fourth term after his Democratic challenger Joe Price imploded once his online rants became public. Surrounded by his wife and children who had come from all parts of the country to join him, Walsh thanked the voters who have now made him the second longest-serving sheriff in Onondaga County history behind John Dillon. After thanking the members of the Sheriff's Department (presumably including the three individuals who ran against him this year), he went on to pledge to save Air One, the county helicopter axed from Mahoney's budget proposal last month and whose status is currently in limbo.
State Sen. John DeFrancisco, who handily defeated Kathleen Joy, a Democratic Syracuse common councilor making her first run for a state seat, spoke briefly. The real race, he told the crowd, is for control of the state Senate. "It's been a very interesting night," said the 10-term senator. "We had a clean campaign, which was very unusual for this year. The crucial issue is whether we get the Senate back in Republican hands. We need to get some balance back in for upstate. With a governor from New York City, and Sheldon Silver running the Assembly, we need a Republican Senate to give us some checks and balances over New York City."
The balance in the Senate was likely to be determined by the outcome of the 49th District, in which concert pianist and political novice Andrew Russo was waging a determined campaign against incumbent Democrat David Valesky. At 9:28 p.m., Dadey took to the podium to announce that Russo was leading in the town of Sullivan, the first town reporting. Russo, tall and prematurely gray for a man who just turned 35, defied the usual election night conventions. Alone among the candidates, he mingled with the crowd while the results were still trickling in.
Russo was surprisingly forthcoming when asked what he planned to do if the election did not go his way. With two children, a wife and a musical career, he said he would find plenty to do. "I'm not a career politician," he said, "and if this doesn't turn out, I have other options for things to do." Russo had obviously not been coached: Candidates never speculate on what they'll do if they lose.
His thoughts on the campaign? "It was exactly what I expected. I'm not na´ve; I knew what I was getting into. I didn't perceive the campaign as nasty like everybody says it was." He portrayed himself as a candidate who had taken the high road, criticizing his opponent's record while Valesky's ads attacked him personally. Even the demands of fund-raising didn't seem to bother Russo. "Raising money is something I feel comfortable with."
He said he feels a certain affinity with Tea Party Republicans. "I have this in common with the Tea Party: I'm new to the game. I've been attacked in the campaign for not being involved in the past, but that's the past. The Tea Party is hard to describe. They're all over the map. The have a raw passion for politics."
He then retired to his reception room and huddled with advisers, including David Vickers, the controversial leader of Upstate Citizens for Equality, the group that is fighting Oneida Indian land claims and claims of Native American sovereignty. Vickers described his role in the campaign as "being helpful behind the scenes."
At 11:20 p.m., Dadey told this reporter that Miller was the likely winner in the race for the 121st Assembly seat (official results eventually put him on top by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin) and that Russo's chances were fading. Russo fell short by a 53-49 spread as Valesky surged behind a strong showing in Onondaga County.
As far as the congressional race, Dadey shook his head. "There are absentee ballots to be counted," he noted, "but we have some ground to make up." As the party closed down just around midnight, Buerkle was trailing by fewer than 1,000 votes. The next day would bring news that Wayne County pushed her ahead, yet Dadey braced for a long battle, one that neither he nor the county executive could have predicted.