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Four words that he uttered at a news conference last May helped Timothy B. Howard win a third term as Erie County sheriff.

The words were “I won’t enforce it,” and Howard was talking about the SAFE Act, a controversial new state firearms law that has outraged gun owners.

The support of angry firearms owners helped the Republican sheriff to a big win Tuesday over his Democratic Party opponent, retired Sheriff’s Deputy Richard E. Dobson, and Sheriff’s Lt. Bert D. Dunn, a Law and Order Party candidate who lost the Democratic nomination in the September primary.

Howard, 63, of South Wales, also received a big boost from having two candidates scrapping with each other over the votes of Democrats.

Late Tuesday night, a jubilant Howard thanked his supporters and leaders of the Republican and Conservative parties for helping him win. He said people all over Erie County have thanked him for his stand on the gun issue.

“I did what I thought was the right thing to do,” Howard told The Buffalo News. “People in Western New York feel strongly about the Constitution and Albany’s misreading of it.”

Since taking office in 2005, Howard has faced some difficult times – including prisoner escapes, mistaken releases of prisoners and suicides at the jail and prison operated by his department. But voters made him only the third Erie County sheriff since 1821 to be elected to three consecutive four-year terms.

“The SAFE Act was a major issue in this election,” said Carl J. Calabrese, a former Erie County deputy county executive who now works as a political consultant. “A lot of people in Erie County, both Republicans and Democrats, are hunters, gun owners and shooters ... These are motivated people who get out and vote. In a low-turnout election year like this one, it can make a huge difference.”

Howard has repeatedly voiced his opposition to the state gun control law enacted earlier this year with strong support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Howard supports a court challenge to the SAFE Act and has publicly stated that he won’t enforce the law, because in his view, it violates the constitutional rights of gun owners.

Gun owners worked hard to help Howard win, said Harold “Budd” Schroeder of Lancaster, chairman of the board of the Shooters Committee on Political Education. “Don’t you see the signs posted all over Erie County, opposing the SAFE Act? People are very upset about this.”

Not everyone agrees. As they walked out of a polling place at Edison Elementary School in the Town of Tonawanda, William and Pauline Stelmach said one reason they voted for Dobson was Howard’s refusal to enforce the gun law.

“Howard is the sheriff. He is supposed to enforce the law, not make laws,” William Stelmach said.

Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said Howard’s attack on the state gun law provided a “distraction” from the real issue of the campaign, which he said was Howard’s “poor leadership” of his department.

“When he took that position, it gave him a wedge into Democrats who would not normally vote for a Republican,” Calabrese said. “A lot of Democrats are blue-collar people, union people, hunters and gun owners.”

James E. Campbell, chairman of the University at Buffalo’s political science department, said he believes the split of Democratic Party voters probably had a bigger impact.

Dobson and Dunn had battled for the Democratic Party nomination, with Dobson narrowly winning in the primary. Dunn then decided to continue in the race as a minor party candidate, spending more than $300,000 of his own money.

The sheriff makes $79,000 from the county for running the largest local police force in Western New York, a department with more than 1,000 employees and a requested budget of $118 million for the coming year. In addition to his county salary, Howard receives a State Police pension of more than $50,000 a year.

Howard was in the State Police for 24 years before joining the Sheriff’s Office as undersheriff in 1998. He became sheriff in June 2005 when his predecessor, Patrick J. Gallivan, was appointed to the State Parole Board. Gallivan has since been elected to the State Senate. Howard won elections in 2005 and 2009.

Howard has come under intense criticism at times. The low point of his tenure as sheriff came in April 2006, when prisoner Ralph “Bucky” Phillips escaped from the County Correctional Facility in Alden.

Before he was recaptured months later in Pennsylvania, Phillips went on a high-profile crime spree that included killing one state trooper and badly injuring two others with gunfire.

Howard’s department was criticized for the Phillips escape by the state Commission of Corrections. His department also has been criticized by state and federal agencies for prisoner suicides and overcrowded conditions at the Erie County Holding Center.

Howard said he has worked hard to improve conditions in both the jail and the prison.

Dobson, 68, of East Aurora, and Dunn, 43, of Orchard Park, have both criticized Howard and claimed they would be better choices for sheriff, but neither candidate ran an aggressive campaign.

The race against Howard was like a “David vs. Goliath” quest, Dobson said late Tuesday.

Dunn said he hopes Howard will hold no grudge against him for trying to beat him in the election.

“Win or lose, I’ll be back at work in the Sheriff’s Department at 5:45 tomorrow morning,” Dunn said Tuesday night. “I’ll do a good job for him. Even if he gets mad at me, I don’t interact with him very much, so I won’t really know.”

New Staff Reporters Samantha Maziarz Christmann, Matthew Spina and Charity Vogel contributed to this report. email: dherbeck@buffnews.com