on November 6, 2013 - 12:42 AM
County Republicans scored an election sweep Tuesday, winning control of the County Legislature while retaining the offices of sheriff and comptroller in the Democratic stronghold of Erie County.
The GOP swiped one legislative seat from the Democrats and waged successful re-election campaigns for Timothy B. Howard over Democrat Richard E. Dobson and minor party candidate Bert D. Dunn in the race for sheriff.
Then they scored an equally impressive victory as Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr. defeated Democrat Kevin P. Gaughan for comptroller.
In addition, Republicans won victories in key town races by returning Barry A. Weinstein over Democrat Mark Manna as Amherst supervisor, though the Town Council’s results remained too close to call.
Though the GOP suffered some setbacks, such as losing control of the town board in Hamburg, the Republican countywide victories could pose major challenges to the future leadership of Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner.
The Republicans had been quietly predicting two countywide victories for weeks, but the big prize was control of the County Legislature without Democratic cooperation for the first time since 1977.
“Tonight we have elected a Republican majority to the Erie County Legislature,” Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy told a happy crowd at the Embassy Suites Hotel at the Avant Building in downtown Buffalo. “Change has come to Erie County.”
The party had set control of the Legislature and the offices of sheriff and comptroller as its top priorities for 2013 – and won them, Langworthy said.
“We did all three,” he shouted. “The Republican Party is alive and well in Erie County, and the Erie County Legislature is under new management.”
State Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox, who chose to receive election returns in Buffalo rather than his traditional Manhattan venue, called the local results “historic” while heaping praise on Langworthy.
“The fact that we have a majority of the Legislature for the first time in 35 years shows the Republican Party is working for the people of Erie County,” he said. “And this is just the start.”
The state chairman also pointed to victories in other parts of the state, particularly a big win for Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who is often mentioned as a potential challenger to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo next year.
Still, Democrats showed their share of successes. They captured control of the Hamburg Town Council, and in Orchard Park, incumbent Janis A. Colarusso held an ever-so-slight lead over Patrick J. Keem for supervisor of Orchard Park as the party won two seats on the Town Council.
And in Niagara Falls, a Democratic slate backed by Mayor Paul A. Dyster also scored big wins, opening the door to a pro-development slate on the City Council.
All of this left Erie County Democrats struggling to put their best face on the situation. Divided into factions for years, their lack of unity appeared as a problem following the Tuesday elections.
The GOP’s victories may spell major difficulties for Zellner, who has been under fire from various factions ever since inheriting the party helm from former Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan in 2012.
Not only did he absorb a serious blow to his efforts to retain his leadership position in the party, Zellner’s job as chief of staff of the County Legislature may be threatened, depending on what coalitions develop after new legislators are seated in January.
Zellner would entertain no such talk late Tuesday night. He pointed to successes on the town level in which his organization was intimately involved, and he said his chilly relations with Cuomo’s statewide political organization are beginning to thaw.
The chairman also predicted the wing of the Democratic Party that supported his 2012 victory remains intact, with not one significant town or zone leader showing signs of defection.
“I feel very confident about next year,” Zellner said, noting his plans for staging a mass rally outside a meeting of the Independent Oil and Gas Association meeting slated for this evening at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.
Nevertheless, Cheektowaga Democratic Chairman Frank C. Max Jr., leader of another faction of the local Democratic Party, strongly hinted that he will challenge Zellner for the party helm again in 2014. He pointed out that the Democrats’ lack of control in the Legislature most likely points to GOP control of the patronage-rich Water Authority and said that Zellner faces tough days ahead.
“The longer you mismanage the party, the longer you have a problem,” he said. “So we have to take this into our hands and do something about it. And I have every intention of doing that.”
For the moment, however, Republicans, along with Independence and Conservative allies who are solid members of their caucus, appear to control County Hall with a 6-5 majority.
Republicans seemed to take advantage of a low overall turnout by getting their voters to the polls in one key legislative district. That resulted in a GOP victory for Ted B. Morton over Wynnie L. Fisher in District 8 (centered in Lancaster and Alden).
Democrats stymied Republican hopes for District 5 (covering most of Amherst), however, as Democratic incumbent Thomas A. Loughran retained his seat despite a stiff challenge from Republican Robert N. Anderson, the Amherst highway superintendent.
Although Republicans will not truly control County Hall come January, because its caucus consists of one Independence legislator (Lynne M. Dixon) and one Conservative (Joseph C. Lorigo), party leaders believe they have formed a majority caucus without a Democrat for the first time in generations.
The GOP was unsuccessful in the judicial ranks, however, as Paul B. Wojtaszek, a Republican Niagara County legislator, was defeated by Democrat Mark A. Montour, a Lancaster town justice for State Supreme Court. That contest was waged over the eight counties of Western New York constituting the Eighth Judicial District.
One of the few contests in which the GOP was trounced took place in Buffalo, where Democratic incumbent Byron W. Brown cruised to a third term as mayor over Republican Sergio R. Rodriguez. But it was a race the countywide party never counted on winning – or, for that matter, paid much attention to.
Rodriguez was viewed in many GOP quarters as a nuisance who would only hurt countywide candidates by encouraging a bigger turnout in heavily Democratic Buffalo.
But even that factor didn’t affect the successes of Howard and Mychajliw.
That is prompting some top Republicans like former Chairman James P. Domagalski to question why any Republican should ever compete for mayor of Buffalo again.
“Do you pour money into races you’re going to lose by 3 or 4 to 1, or do you win the County Legislature, sheriff and comptroller?” he asked.
Rodriguez appeared to have done not much better than the 27 percent of the vote Republican Kevin J. Helfer took in the last major Republican effort for mayor in 2005.
In the sheriff’s race, Howard was helped by the split opposition presented by Dobson and Dunn.
Both had battled in the September Democratic primary, which Dobson won with help from an independent committee with close ties to former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon. Pigeon poured $112,000 into that race as part of a campaign against candidates backed by Zellner and Democratic Headquarters.
Dunn may have actually helped the Howard cause by spending $300,000 of his own money and capturing a significant percentage of the vote. Dobson, meanwhile, raised little money and made only a token television effort against his better financed rivals in the closing days of the campaign.
In the comptroller’s contest, neither Mychajliw nor Gaughan raised much money for their advertising efforts. But Mychajliw, a former television reporter, demonstrated early strength last year when he won a special election in a presidential year when turnout proved especially heavy in Democratic Erie County.
Mychajliw showed he could resurrect that strength again this year against good government activist Gaughan, who was hampered by revelations that he at one time owed $28,000 in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. Mychajliw jumped on that disclosure early on and made it the center of attack ads against his rival.
The Republican victories provided Cox a bully pulpit for bragging rights for tonight’s speech at the Hyatt in which he plans to outline his dissatisfaction with Cuomo’s performance in what is billed as a major kick off to next year’s elections for governor and other posts.