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Richard B. Dobson Sr. declared victory Tuesday night over party-backed candidate Bert D. Dunn in the Democratic primary for sheriff, apparently dealing the party leadership a major setback.

Dobson was holding on to a slim lead over Dunn, 18,121 to 17,429, with 99 percent of the votes tabulated.

The Dobson campaign declared victory shortly after 11 p.m.

In declaring victory at the J’s White Elephant in Lackawanna, Dobson said that he wanted to be known as a sheriff who came up through the ranks.

He served in the Sheriff’s Office for 32 years, retiring in 2000 as a lieutenant watch commander.

His campaign manager, James J. Eagan, called the win “the biggest upset in Erie County Democratic politics in a decade.

“Tonight a person who has dedicated his life to public service has taken on the establishment and a well- financed opponent and won,” Eagan said. “We know there are more votes to be counted, but we believe we are statistically far enough ahead to declare victory. Tomorrow we hit the ground running.”

If the victory stands, Dobson will face incumbent Republican Sheriff Timothy B. Howard in the Nov. 5 general election.

Although he was accused of being aligned with a wing of the Democratic Party led by Cheektowaga leader Frank Max, Dobson said he was not associated with either wing of the party,

Dunn, a 12-year veteran of the department, was a controversial choice to be the party’s standard-bearer, after he was hit with accusations of party disloyalty following a text he wrote to a supporter, saying he was not a fan of either President Obama or Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and that Ronald Reagan was his favorite president. Dunn later said that county sheriff is not a political job.

The two candidates differed on the proper way to run the Sheriff’s Office.

An Orchard Park resident, Dunn, 43 is also the president of Bert’s Bike & Fitness, a family-run business in Orchard Park, and is the holder of a master’s degree in business administration from Canisius College, which he said put him in good stead to run the Sheriff’s Department. The sheriff controls a $101 million budget

Dobson, 68, of the Town of Wales, earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 1972, after attending night and day classes while working as a sheriff’s deputy. Dobson retired from the Sheriff’s Office 13 years ago.

“I don’t agree that police work and law enforcement is a business, and it cannot be run like a business. Law enforcement is a public service,” Dobson said.

“As far as the budget is concerned, my experience lets me know where the waste is. I don’t need an MBA to show me what does and doesn’t work,” Dobson added.

He said disillusion with the way the department is currently run and its leadership prompted him to run.

“I very much respect the true professionals who work in the department, and I want to go back and work with them to improve the morale and improve the efficiency of the department so that we will better serve the public,” Dobson said.

Dobson said he comes from a law enforcement family. In late March 2011, Dobson lost a son, Kevin, 43, a state trooper who died after being struck by a motorist while conducting a traffic stop on the Youngmann Memorial Highway in the Town of Tonawanda.

email: hmcneil@buffnews.com