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The legislative incumbents who have helped make a shambles of state government all won re-election in Western New York, which will now give them the chance to make good on their promises to reform the system that has protected them but bled their constituents. On the line is nothing less than their reputations for truthfulness.

The only truly interesting local races were the ones that included no incumbent on the ballot. In those races, Democratic Assemblyman Brian Higgins won the congressional seat being vacated by Republican Jack Quinn; Quinn's son, Jack Quinn III, took an Assembly seat from the Democrats, claiming the office from which Richard Smith is retiring; and Democratic Erie County Legislator Mark Schroeder cleaned up, as expected, in the race to succeed Higgins in the Assembly.

Higgins' victory over Erie County Comptroller Nancy Naples caps the ugliest race this region has seen in years, with the national Democratic and Republican parties running the kind of misleading ads that got the tobacco companies sued. Schroeder's easy victory, meanwhile, should help raise the blood pressure of Assembly leaders, since this active and outspoken legislator has vowed not to support Sheldon Silver for speaker unless he commits to an on-time state budget. Nothing is more important to this state than to attack the institutional problems of state government, and Schroeder will have to be a leader of that effort.

But the real story in this year's local elections is how little things have changed, even in a year when pressure to reform state government reached a crescendo. Down the line, incumbents won handily, and in some cases against able challengers who could have helped change the discussion in Albany.

In the Assembly, Francine DelMonte, William Parment and Sam Hoyt all won easy victories, despite facing credible Republican opponents. In the Senate, a strong candidate did nothing to prevent Republican Mary Lou Rath from coasting to a new term.

Mainly, though, this was another case of the Albany machine helping itself. In at least 10 legislative races, challengers were political weaklings, with little or no prior experience and without the money or organization to challenge incumbents as entrenched in their seats as the Niagara River is in its banks.

It's the old story, practiced to perfection in New York. State legislators draw safe districts for themselves. They impose weak ethics and fund-raising laws that benefit their political interests. They take wads of taxpayer dollars and distribute them in their districts like confetti. Legislative staffers use compensatory time off to work for their bosses' re-elections.

In all of these ways, and others, incumbents discourage able challengers from even signing up for the race. That leaves retirees, students and other unlikely candidates to make suicide runs against incumbents who are all but immovable.

It's no way to run a democracy. Intellectually and functionally, democracy works where the possibility of defeat is serious enough to keep incumbents on their toes. In no place are incumbents safer than in the overtaxed State of New York. They proved it again Tuesday and, unless they keep their word to reform the way Albany works, they will prove it again two years hence.

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