A political fever is about to erupt for Republicans in Livingston County, when in less than a month the party Committee is expected to endorse two candidates for the upcoming Judicial primary. Judge Robert Wiggins, Judge Dennis Cohen, and local attorney Kevin Van Allen have announced they are seeking the 10-year term, but if either Wiggins or Cohen are elected they will age out four years into their terms.
The committee approaches this potential endorsement with a less-than-stellar track record in recent elections. In 2012, in a weighted vote, the committee endorsed District Attorney candidate Eric Schiener over Steve Sessler by a lopsided 4,409.5 to 330, in which only 5 of the 122 members voted for Sessler. Despite the committee’s vote, Sessler broke ranks and continued his campaign, challenging Schiener in the primary. After an energetic race, the election ended in a tie. After some back and forth court appearances the tie held, and the contest was decided by another committee vote. The Republican committee members showed a continued disconnect with the voters, however, awarding the contest to Schiener by another lopsided margin.
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After the 2012 primary, Sessler continued his campaign into the general election in November as a candidate on the Conservative Line, against Schiener on the Republican line and Greg McCaffrey on the Democrat line. McCaffrey was able to capitalize on the split Republican vote, marking the first time in known memory a Democrat was elected to County District Attorney.
In 2013, with another similarly contentious race shaping up for County Sheriff, the Executive Board of the Republican Committee voted by a 2-1 margin not to endorse a candidate at all in the race between eventual victor Thomas Dougherty and former Undersheriff Jim Szczesniak.
“When we meet this May we will be voting to endorse a judicial candidate,” said Lowell Conrad, Chairman of the Livingston County Republican Committee. “The judicial race is different from the Sheriff’s race because we have two incumbent judges.”
Judge Cohen is an incumbent, but he has a history of shifting party allegiance.
Judicial races have different regulations. For one thing, it’s essentially an “at large” contest. There are two judge’s seats being decided, and voters are presented with a list of candidates, with the seats being awarded to the top two vote-getters.
In addition, candidates have an easy way onto the ballot via 3rd party lines. This provides sitting Judges Wiggins and Cohen, both running for reelection, and Kevin Van Allen, who is challenging, with easy paths to the November ballot if so desired, without having to go through the party committee endorsement process.
County political insiders feel that Judge Wiggins is a clear favorite for the Republican Committee nomination, but the race for the second position is neck and neck between Judge Cohen and Van Allen.
“Some Republican Committee members have become misguided,” said a high ranking Livingston County Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s not about your personal feelings, it’s about representing the constituents of your district. If they had done that properly in 2012 then they wouldn’t have tarnished the image of the Committee.”
The Republican Committee is also in the process of an substantial overhaul. Since 2012, at least 20 members have resigned. In addition, after the primary, the size of the committee will be cut nearly in half as a result of county redistricting. That redistricting will not affect the upcoming committee vote, but after this year membership will be cut down from 122 to 78 seats.
Despite the coming downsizing, the committee has been quietly filling vacancies through an obscure interim appointment process. Committee members represent voting districts, and are normally elected by district voters in scheduled elections. When positions become vacant between elections, however, the positions are filled by a different process. If, for example, a given district has six seats, and two become vacant, the remaining four representatives decide among themselves who to appoint to fill the two vacancies.
With 20 vacant positions, and a potential close contest for the endorsement, the interim appointment process thus becomes an opportunity to influence, and some say predetermine, the eventual endorsement. Insiders say that there is intense skirmishing going on behind the scenes over those 20 seats, with Cohen supporters and Van Allen supporters both maneuvering for advantage.
As a sitting, elected judge, Dennis Cohen would seem to have an advantage against newcomer Van Allen, in such an exercise of extreme insider baseball. However, personal history and party loyalty can easily become complicating factors. Judge Cohen has a history of changing parties for electoral convenience, with dramatic episodes on his resume. In 1993, as a candidate for District Attorney, he changed parties in an unsuccessful attempt to pull the carpet out from under political powerhouse and current New York State Supreme Court Justice Tom Moran. Again in 2005, Cohen flip-flopped and registered as a Democrat after losing the Republican judicial primary and went on to win; he then quickly switched back to the Republican Party. If Cohen should lose he will have some options, but insiders say that it won’t be as a Democrat but possibly with the Conservative party.
The younger Van Allen was originally a registered Democrat, but in advance of last year’s hotly contested race for Sheriff switched to the Republican party, and campaigned actively for the eventual victor, sitting Sheriff Thomas Dougherty. Van Allen spearheaded Sheriff Dougherty’s campaign with an energy and spirit that was referred to as ‘The Big Red Machine,’ in an epic race that shaped the current Landscape of Livingston County politics. Notably, Van Allen’s one party switch, however, came well before his personal entry into electoral politics as a candidate for office.
Given how the political landscape is taking shape, the Livingston County Republican Committee, led by Chairman Lowell Conrad, is clearly at a crossroads in the minds of the voters. In less then a month it will truly be a moment where ‘the rubber meets the road’ and the newly elected Republican leaders will soon find out if the Republican Committee embraces the new movement or ignores it.
Over the weekend the GeneseeSun.com reached out to Livingston County Conservative Party Chair, Jason McGuire, via email and text message who did not respond.