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Tom Reynolds was reflecting on the death of Conservative Party icon Billy Delmont last week when he underscored a key element of New York's unique political system. The former Republican congressman from Clarence recalled that his colleagues from around the nation were eternally mystified by New York's "fusion" voting system that allows Republicans or Democrats to run on a minor-party line without being an official member.

"They would always ask: 'Can you explain how these minor lines work?' " Reynolds said. "They could never quite grasp how a Conservative Party could be a party unto itself and not just a conservative movement."

Indeed, only a handful of states around the country tolerate fusion voting. Just about everywhere else, a candidate must belong to the party to run on its line.

So it is no wonder that Delmont's death at age 81 causes the local political world to take stock of the Conservative Party, as it trudges on without the most influential figure of its 50-year local history. The Conservative Party still has a few things going for it:

* It occupies the crucial third line on the ballot, providing an option for voters averse to marking the Democrat or Republican box.

* It exerts influence beyond its tiny membership of about 12,000 in Erie County, compared to almost 300,000 Democrats and about 160,000 Republicans.

* The Erie County organization retains the strong leadership of Chairman Ralph Lorigo, who has run the party with Delmont for the past 17 years.

* Conservatives are also in good shape until the next gubernatorial election in 2014, thanks to Republican candidate Carl Paladino in 2010. Most observers believe that if Lorigo hadn't masterfully manipulated election law to insert Paladino onto its line, the party could have folded by failing to attract the required 50,000 votes to remain a statewide party.

Still, the party is under pressure these days from various sources. Republican State Sen. George Maziarz of Newfane remains infuriated over the failure of Lorigo and Delmont to back Republican Mark Grisanti of Buffalo for re-election to the Senate. So does former County Executive Joel Giambra, another major Grisanti backer. They contend that the fragile Republican majority in the Senate could be threatened by the Conservative backing of Democrat Chuck Swanick.

Lorigo's anointing of Swanick demonstrates that the Conservatives are not always an extension of the GOP. But Delmont's absence may now dilute the sympathy he traditionally showed for Democrats like former County Executive Dennis Gorski, Mayor Byron Brown or Rep. Brian Higgins.

"Any time a person with Billy's proficiency in politics is gone from the scene, there will be an impact," one top Democrat said last week. "And it was no secret that Billy was more Democratic and Ralph more Republican."

Some speculate that Ray Gallagher, the former state senator and Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority chairman who switched from the Democrats to the Conservatives a few years ago, may fill some of the vacuum left by his old pal Delmont.

Lorigo, meanwhile, has shown he can take the heat. He periodically scraps with state Chairman Mike Long just for the heck of it, and has launched his own political counterattack against Maziarz.

His backing of Paladino in 2010 gives the party its strongest statewide position in years, and he's not about to relinquish the powers that New York's quirky laws give the Conservatives.

"There is no way to affect us from the outside," he said last week. "And there is no question that we will be much stronger, even from those outsiders who think they can come in and change things. That's never going to happen."

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com