Reshaping the image of Niagara Falls is no easy feat, but Johnny Destino is committed to making it happen. The young Democrat wants to bring life back to the faded icon that attracts tourists from around the world.
Destino is many things: a father, a lawyer, a former Republican, and a school board member. Now he hopes to add a New York State Senator to the list.
A native of Western New York, Destino graduated from Niagara Wheatfield Senior High School in 1994. From there, he continued his studies at the University at Buffalo, graduating in 1999 with a double degree in Communication and Political Science. After school he moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, for a job in Information Technology - but it wasn’t long before he made his way back to Niagara Falls.
Destino was one of the first employees for the Seneca Gaming Corporation, worked there for five years helping grow the company and returned to UB where he earned his law degree in 2010.
Now an attorney in private practice, Destino is an active member of the Niagara Falls School Board and the Orleans-Niagara BOCES Board, which has familiarized him with managing employees, handling state and federal issues and keeping a budget.
“The school board is responsible for the $130 million annual budget; we make sure we are in compliance with state regulations and federal mandates, and we make sure 700 employees and six unions are happy,” Destino said. “On the BOCES Board we have a $50 million budget to balance and we oversee 13 component districts.”
But that’s not all: Destino also serves on the Community Missions of Niagara Frontier Board, where they provide crisis services and community services for those in need. They house a soup kitchen and a food pantry to help local people in crisis.
Though he has his hands full, Destino says he is ready to run for Senate and make a difference for a city he believes offers more than meets the eye.
“I was never involved in politics growing up. My family was never political. I have three young children and I’m worried it’s not going to get better for them. This city is an international destination; there are billions of people in the world, they all know Niagara Falls and despite its current condition they’re still coming here,” Destino said. “We need a new spirit of cooperation and positivity if we’re going to correct the problems in Western New York.”
Destino also believes his legal background will come in handy if elected to the Senate.
“Being a lawyer provides me with one of the biggest advantages that I have: it’s a legislative position. Who better to help write and craft new laws than an attorney who has to comply with them?” Destino said. “My background has helped me on the school board, understanding contracts and negotiations, and taught me how to be respectful of peoples constitutional rights. It’s really well suited and is why so many politicians are lawyers.”
Destino plans to focus on many issues during his campaign. He wants to put an end to the cuts to public education funding, reap the benefits of low cost hydropower, help to lessen the strain of student loans, and bring total ethics reform to Albany.
“I want to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment that has hurt our children and bring the benefits from low cost hydropower back to Western New York,” Destino said. “I’d like to see New York State create a refinancing program for students. I believe when politicians abuse their office and if they’re ultimately convicted of a crime they shouldn’t be able to use their campaign funds for their defense and their pension benefits should be stripped.”
Destino is proud of the fact that he was the lawyer that filed legal claims against former Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak on behalf of women who alleged inappropriate behavior. He believes that when concerns are brought up they need to be taken seriously - and staffers who are told of these claims must report them
Destino commends Gabryszak’s accusers for speaking out. “They’re very courageous in coming forward,” he said. “These young people wanted to start their careers and they felt that if they said anything that there could be retributions.”
Throughout his campaign Destino has endeavored to uphold three core values: honesty, trust and integrity. He believes these values, along with his resume, are what set him apart from his opponent.
“I am not a career politician. I haven’t been elevated above my abilities,” Destino said. “This gives me a perspective that people who have only have a public job wouldn’t necessarily have.”
One common knock on Destino: he has been on both sides of the political fence. Once a Republican, he changed his party to Democrat in 2012. At the time, the Niagara Falls Reporter said his own future and the future of his hometown “best lay with finding allies among other people”:
Destino twice ran for public office, once for mayor against Paul Dyster in 2011 and again in 2012 against State Sen. George Maziarz in the GOP primary. Destino did surprisingly well against Democrat Dyster, who narrowly edged him out by 724 votes in the general election.
“My values and positions haven’t changed,” Destino said. “Democrats care about people. They don’t want to cut jobs without creating them.”
Destino grew up in Western New York and has seen his family and friends leave to find jobs. His main motivation for his campaign is his family - he wants to ensure they have a future in the place they call home.
“I want my children to have as many opportunities as I had growing up. I’m fearful that we will lose that chance,” Destino said. “I don’t want my kids to have to leave to find a job.”
The first thing Destino would do if elected?
“I would move to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment immediately,” Destino said. “And I would restore cuts to school aid.”
Johnny Destino has a tough fight in the race against Republican candidate Rob Ortt – the candidate backed by the “Maziarz Machine” - but he is passionate about making a difference in Western New York. And who knows, this lawyer may have the moves to take him all the way to Albany.