Local hardball stings Albany heavyweight
Senate minority leader does a U-turn at fundraiser amid protest against Niagara Democratic chairman
By Tom Precious and Thomas J. Prohaska BUFFALO NEWS STAFF REPORTERS
Updated: 07/11/08 6:42 AM
The State Senate’s top Democrat got a taste of hardball politics — Niagara County style — Wednesday night, when he was greeted by a few dozen protesters who turned out calling for the resignation of the county’s Democratic chairman.
Senate Minority Leader Malcolm A. Smith of Queens refused to attend a Niagara County Democratic Party fundraiser in Niagara Falls after being confronted by protesters demanding the resignation of County Democratic Chairman Daniel Rivera for grabbing a female colleague’s nose.
Diane M. Roberts, the victim of the nose grab, did attend the fundraiser and later issued a statement opposing the protesters.
Rivera called the incident “a politically orchestrated hit job” for which he blamed
Gary D. Parenti, a longtime foe of his within the Democratic Party. Parenti denied any involvement.
Smith, the scheduled headliner of the $500-per-person event, waited for 45 minutes while a small group of pickets urged him not to enter the gathering in the Red Coach Inn. After a brief chat with leaders of the group, Smith said he would not attend and then drove off.
A video of the event, posted on the Web site YouTube.com, shows Smith telling an unseen questioner, “I came down here planning on going to the event, but I understand there was some roughhousing with a young lady, and the respect I have for women as well, that’s why we’re sitting back here taking a look.”
Protest organizer Kathryn Lake Mazierski of Lewiston, a former president of the state chapter of the National Organization for Women, said Smith sat in his car outside the event for nearly 45 minutes. Meanwhile, Mazierski, who worked on Parenti’s unsuccessful 2006 Assembly campaign, said she could see Smith working the cell phones.
The video then shows Smith standing outside a sport utility vehicle in the Comfort Inn parking lot, talking with Mazierski and Elaine Pienta, a Lewiston Democrat and Rivera foe.
As the conversation becomes audible, Smith can be heard saying, “We respect women’s rights, and I’m not going to cross the line for somebody who abuses women.”
Before leaving in his SUV, Smith added, “You don’t have to thank me. It’s easy to do the right thing.”
At issue was the recent resignation of Roberts, of Lewiston, as vice chairwoman of the county Democratic Party. She left her post after accusing Rivera of grabbing her by the nose twice and yelling obscenities at her during a conversation over a news release at an April fundraiser in the Niagara Club.
The video shows Roberts smiling and waving at the pickets from a second-floor window of the Red Coach Inn.
“Surprisingly, these individuals — championing women’s rights allegedly based on my personal situation — had not a clue who walked past them as I entered the building,” Roberts wrote in a statement she released Thursday.
“When advised later by a member of the restaurant staff that I was inside the building, one of the protesters made the statement that it did not matter how much I had been paid to attend! To be clear, I was not paid a dime to attend and went fully of my own volition.
“I am intrigued by the amount of attention this clearly political attack by political operatives has garnered. It is nothing more than an attempt to distract the voters from the real and important issues — job creation and the lowering of taxes to stimulate economic growth.”
Rivera said he did not fault Smith for refusing to attend.
“It was conveyed to me that he was basically intimidated and threatened,” Rivera said. “He was being spoon-fed political garbage by Gary Parenti’s political operatives. I’m not going to fault Sen. Smith. He was put in an extremely ugly position by people who have ulterior motives.”
Parenti said, “I had nothing to do with it. I’m not trying to take over the party. I have so many other things to do. I’m involved with [B. Thomas] Golisano’s PAC [political action committee]. I’m doing presidential [campaign] stuff. I’m active in the party, but I’m not trying to take it over.”
Parenti sued Rivera for libel after Rivera published a newspaper column during the 2006 Assembly primary campaign attacking Parenti’s criminal record as a drunken driver, allegedly through the use of sealed court records that Rivera might have accessed through his work as an insurance investigator.
Parenti won an out-of-court settlement; Rivera lost his job with the insurance company but is now working for a law firm.
Roberts suggested that the protesters would be better off volunteering at shelters for battered women if their concern is protecting women.
“My commitment to the Democratic cause — and especially to the Democratic female elected officials from this area — is as strong as ever and untouched by any personal issue which existed between myself and Chairman Rivera,” she said.
Mazierski said, “I don’t think Daniel Rivera, based on his conduct, is fit to lead the Democratic Party in Niagara County. . . . The only motivation we have is, Dan Rivera needs to go.”
On the local Democratic Party’s Web page, the evening was promoted as a “private reception” with Smith, who is in line, if the Democrats are successful in the fall elections, to become the Senate majority leader.”
Cort Ruddy, a spokesman for Smith, said Smith’s staff had been told about the issue.
“The protest was our first indication of how serious things were,” he said.
Asked if Smith has a position on whether Rivera should continue as county chairman, Ruddy declined to comment.
YouTube - Niagara County Dems Rebuffed (Part 2 of 2)