This year’s Election Day is a slow year for many communities, and one of the only local contests in Erie County involves Cheektowaga Municipal Justice, where a lawyer and a retired police sergeant are vying for the votes.
City judges will be elected from 15 cities in Erie County, but the only other contested local race outside of Buffalo is for city judge Marilla, where Taylor A. Erhardt, who has Democratic party lines , Republican, conservative and working class families, is being challenged by Howard S. Lobaugh Jr., who is running on the Marilla Patriot Party line.
In Cheektowaga, John J. Wanat draws on his experience as a Cheektowaga police officer for 23 years. Jennifer A. Runfola also draws on her experience as a practicing lawyer for 26 years.
Wanat, a registered Democrat, has both Republican and Conservative endorsements. Runfola, a Democrat, is on Democratic and Labor family lines.
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The candidates faced off in the Democratic and Conservative primaries in June. Wanat won the Conservative race, while Runfola beat him in the Democratic contest.
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Runfola served as an assistant district attorney for Erie County and was Cheektowaga’s first female assistant district attorney. She also worked as a confidential legal assistant for Erie County Court Judge Thomas P. Franczyk. She is in private practice, while also serving as an assistant city attorney and prosecutor.
She said she has practiced in village, city, county and supreme courts.
“It helps me on the first day to come out running. I’m well prepared to do what a judge has to do on the first day of January,” Runfola said.
Wanat retired last month as a sergeant. He also worked as a prison officer before joining the city and does not consider his lack of a law degree a disadvantage, due to his experience as a police officer interpreting laws and arresting suspects.
“I got my law degree on the streets,” he said.
Runfola attended law school at the University at Buffalo and the University of Akron, earning a degree from Akron. She was admitted to the bar in 1997.
Wanat has undergone training in crisis intervention and SWAT, and has assisted at the Erie County Police Training Academy, teaching recruits about mental health, critical incidents and shootings involving officers.
“You need a lawyer when you’re in trouble, not when you want to be tried,” Wanat said.
Runfola said she’s held nearly every position a lawyer could hold in the courtroom.
“I bring a unique perspective,” she said.
The Cheektowaga Court collects the second-highest amount of fines in Western New York, but attorneys sitting on the Cheektawaga bench have been in the minority. Two former police officers, David Stevens and James J. Speyer, are the current judges. Speyer, a former deputy police chief, is not running for re-election this year, creating the opening that each of the candidates hopes to fill.