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After months of walking door-to-door to talk with Town of Tonawanda voters, Lynn Marinelli likes to joke that she is in her best physical shape ever.

On Nov. 5, she will learn whether the same can be said of her political career.

In a closely watched race, Ms. Marinelli, a Democrat, and Brian O'Bannon, a Republican, are battling in a special election for the 11th District seat in the Erie County Legislature.

The seat, which opened up after Leonard R. Lenihan left to become the county's personnel commissioner, is crucial to both sides.

Democrats now hold an 11-6 majority in the Legislature.

"Symbolically, it would be very important," said O'Bannon, a former member of the Tonawanda Town Board. "People want things changed, but they feel like they can't do anything about the Democratic majority. This would show them you can."

Both sides expect the contest to be close, noting that voter registration in the district -- which is based in the Town of Tonawanda, but includes part of North Buffalo -- is split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

"You don't take anyone for granted. You don't assume anything," Ms. Marinelli said.

Predicting victory also is difficult because neither candidate has a clear advantage.

Both, for instance, have powerful political allies who have helped their campaigns. Ms. Marinelli, on leave as director of the County Commission for the Status of Women, is an ally of County Executive Gorski's.

Gorski's political muscle is widely credited with helping Ms. Marinelli win a bitter primary race against James C. DeMarco, who had been appointed to succeed Lenihan.

O'Bannon, who served a total of 14 years on the Tonawanda Town Board, is well-known in local GOP and civic circles.

He said his campaign will have spent about $35,000 by Election Day. Campaign reports indicate that Ms. Marinelli has raised nearly $32,000.

O'Bannon also has the Independence Party and Conservative Party lines on the ballot. Ms. Marinelli also carries the Liberal Party endorsement.

The two candidates are strikingly different.

Ms. Marinelli, 33, emphasizes her background in social services, first with the late Assemblyman William B. Hoyt and then as a Gorski appointee as the county women's commissioner. She notes that much of the county's $1.1 billion budget involves social services.

"My heart has been with those issues," she said.

If elected, she vows to:

Be a full-time county legislator.

Focus on social issues such as prevention of domestic violence and other "quality-of-life" concerns.

Support making the temporary 8 percent sales tax permanent.

Propose a "library protection act" that would make libraries drug- and alcohol-free zones.

O'Bannon, 58, stresses ending political patronage when it results in "no-show" jobs. He also is strongly critical of the infighting between the county and city governments. If elected, O'Bannon proposes:

Ending the warfare between local industrial development agencies by merging them into a single county-led agency.

Putting a lid, possibly of $85 million, on the amount of the sales tax that goes to the county and sharing the remainder with the area's other localities.

"At least we'd be sharing," he said. "The county is like a gorilla gorging itself on this money. The more you feed it, the more it wants."

He says he would be available whenever needed as a county legislator but does not plan to leave the financial-planning and insurance agency he runs.

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