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Chautauqua County executive race highlights need for jobs, infrastructure

P.J. Wendel and Norm Green
P.J. Wendel Campaign/Norm Green Campaign
Incumbent Chautauqua County Executive P.J. Wendel (left) and his challenger Norm Green.

Both candidates for Chautauqua County executive say there are two major issues in the race, jobs and infrastructure, but with significant differences.

A year ago, P.J. Wendel was chair of the County Legislature and a long-time high school physical education teacher. Norm Green was county Democratic chair and Democratic county elections commissioner. Now Wendel is the appointed executive, replacing George Borrello, who is a state senator. Green quit as elections commissioner to make this run for executive.

It's all for a full-term in the job. Whoever wins, the legislature is likely to remain Republican.

Wendel said as a ten-year legislator, he can work with the members. Green said these are increasingly partisan times, but he could work with a Republican legislature.

"Will a Republican legislature stand up to Norm Green if he's a Democratic county executive? Well, our history is that once the elections are over, we're able to solve the problems of the county and take leadership from the county executive and one can only hope that would be the case again," Green said.

Wendel said he's spent his first year dealing with COVID-19, along with everything else.

"Whether its our opioid crisis or a housing stock that's much older than most places or lack of a workforce that is ready to step in, there are a myriad of things that we have, but there isn't any one specific thing," Wendel said. "My opponent would tell you it's the failure of my government, with which I would disagree. But we also have a global pandemic that's still going on."

Green said there are a series of interrelated issues that boil down to one.

"The single issue that I have in Chautauqua County is the fact that population is decreasing and poverty is increasing," Green said. "So the state of the economy. It's usually, 'It's the economy stupid,' and that's what we're talking about in our race."

Wendel said it can be complicated because a lot of the issues aren't county government issues.

"We're looking to manufacturers who are saying, 'We need employees.' We're looking at a large number of our baby boomers that are ready to retire. I spoke with one manufacturer who said they have 25 people who had 40 years or more of experience in the business. You can't replace that overnight. So we're looking at a workforce that's turning over rapidly," Wendel said.

The jobs market is starting to look slightly better in the county, as the Blue Bunny ice cream plant in Dunkirk begins to hire.

Both candidates know they are coming off a summer with major drinking water issues in Fredonia and Mayville. Wendel said the county recently put together a shopping list of needed infrastructure projects, if Washington gets its spending plans together, and it totaled $111 million.

There was a COVID shipment of $25 million and $8 million of that went to the continuing effort to ring Chautauqua Lake with sewers, not a ring of septic tanks. Green points to that as the incumbent favoring the county's rural areas and he wants more urbanized areas helped by improving Route 60.

"We don't have a metro," Green said. "We have a separate economy in Jamestown, where their water ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. We have a different economy in Dunkirk/Fredonia, where their water ends up going over Niagara Falls. The two economies need to be connected."

Green said tourism would benefit, and the jobs it creates, if there were a greater effort to siphon off the millions of travelers who head along the Thruway to Niagara Falls, instead stopping at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown.

In his campaign, Wendel pitches to the heavily rural nature of Chautauqua County and his teaching career against Green.

"What it gives you is the background of real common people," Wendel said. "I haven't been in the political arena. I haven't been involved in county government for two decades. My opponent has made points that he has been in county government for 22 years. That's great. But I think coming from the outside, whether it being the volunteer fire service and teaching, from local government."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.