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Top county race may get chippy

Editor's Corner

This year’s county executive contest between incumbent PJ Wendel, left, and Norm Green is not expected to be cordial.

Obstacles have greeted incumbent Executive PJ Wendel from the very start. For the 18 months he has held the top Chautauqua County government position, he has had to deal with a global pandemic while facing an election in back-to-back years.

Appointed by the Legislature to the post in January 2020, Wendel faced off against Richard Morrisroe of Dunkirk in last November’s election winning handily in a race that was very similar to previous county executive contests. Overall, due to COVID-19 protocols, it was fairly quiet and cordial.

This year’s battle against Norm Green, who has the ability to upset members of his own party, will likely be a bit more rambunctious. Green, for all intents and purposes, plans to battle till the very end after two tumultuous years leading the county Democrats.

Those issues have been well documented in this newspaper and space. There has been constant in-fighting, a lack of trust as well as previous party candidates insinuating they did not receive enough support.

For now, however, Green gets the spotlight — and a very uphill challenge. As a Democrat in rural upstate New York, there is no denying he’s an underdog.

His platform, which was announced in April, seems ambitious enough. He appears willing to target taxes, economic development, a new prosperity, job creation, managing and delivering county services, how to shrink government costs while increasing services with no union labor jobs being cut, and reversing the recent government decisions that have driven the county into poverty, making it one of the poorest counties in all of upstate New York.

Even if you do not agree with Green’s affiliation or actions, there is no denying he’s spot on. Republicans here have been given a pass for raising taxes, spending and not putting enough of a focus on workforce development.

Major industries are practically begging for workers. What has the county’s response been? In the administration and the Legislature it has been typical. No plan. No discussion. No worries.

Green’s entry into this race, however, could change that through some added pressure regarding the issues. While campaigning, he will aim to keep this group of county leaders and legislators accountable.

Within the last week, he made noise regarding a proposal to create a Chautauqua Lake District. His comments came after Wendel appeared to back a tax to fund concerns regarding the important waters.

Green’s criticism is exactly what this county needs. In Mayville, it seems as though no one likes to step on someone else’s toes.

There is nothing wrong with working together, but when everyone seems to be in agreement on every issue that comes forward, something is wrong with that picture. Harmony has nothing to do with working in a bipartisan spirit. It does, however, have everything to do with a sense of convenience.

That will not be the case in this race, which will be a significant change. Previous campaigns for this position have seemed almost too chummy.

Consider 2013 when Vince Horrigan challenged Ron Johnson. Both were excellent candidates but the only thing that separated them was their stance on the Chautauqua County Home. Horrigan, from the south, pushed for a sale. Johnson, from the north, was against it. Horrigan won.

Similarly in 2017, current state Sen. George Borrello and Michael Ferguson got along great at debates while keeping the campaign clean. Very little separated the two when it came to the issues and in the end, Borrello rode Republican momentum to win.

Green, however, will be in desperation mode. There will be a lot fewer pleasantries when he and Wendel do get together.

For now, the incumbent holds the advantages. Wendel also believes with the worries regarding the virus lessening by the day, there is reason for optimism.

“As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic I will shift our focus on rebuilding our economy, and coming back stronger than before,” he said in his kickoff announcement. “Although many things slowed down last year, my team has been hard at work. In 2020 our economic development team worked with over 90 companies to retain over 1,500 local jobs and get commitments for nearly 300 new local positions. I will bring the same intensity my team has brought to county government for the last year throughout a four-year term to achieve results for the residents of Chautauqua County.”

With decreasing population and rising poverty levels, this county needs a wake-up call and a new vision. Right now, no one has risen to the challenge.

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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