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The guy who broke decades of inertia on the waterfront apparently is going to the place he can really do some good -- Washington.

He did it almost despite himself.

Brian Higgins appeared to eke out a victory Tuesday over Republican Nancy Naples for the open 27th Congressional District seat. Naples is contesting the victory and wants a recount.

Until a few weeks ago, Higgins' campaign for Congress was wrapped around tying Naples to what George Bush's presidency had supposedly done to Western New York -- not what Higgins had done for it. It wasn't just the ads bought by the national party, but paid for from his own pocket.

It made no sense. Higgins had done what no other politician had -- gotten something done on the vast stretch of near-wasteland we call a waterfront. Higgins ran a mystifying campaign that, until a few weeks ago, kept his greatest accomplishment a secret.

The three-mile waterfront stretch is our biggest hope and our greatest embarrassment. The state legislator from South Buffalo combed the Albany budget and found millions to spruce up a scraggly cove called Gallagher Beach.

Those millions prompted the county to add its stake and Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton to toss in $5 million more from the federal level. What's coming is a waterfront you can take your kids to on a summer day, not an eyesore to turn away from as you drive past.

He hired consultants from out of town who told him what mattered to Buffalo, based on polls and focus groups and the view from hundreds of miles away.

Higgins didn't need consultants. He needed an intervention. He needed somebody to grab him by the lapels and say: It's the waterfront, stupid.

Higgins thought he knew better than his big-city advisers, but went along with the program. Until lately.

"When I'm out there in Springville and South Buffalo, that's what people say -- 'You're the only guy who ever got anything done on the waterfront.' That's what I'd prefer the campaign to be about," he said, in frustration, a few weeks ago.

Finally it dawned on him: It's his life, his candidacy, his shot. He should run the race he wants to run.

Tuesday night, standing in an upstairs hallway at the Buffalo Irish Center a few minutes before 11, his instincts paid off. The numbers were in. He had won -- barely, in a district with 73,000 more Democrats than Republicans.

"I stopped looking to consultants and followed my gut," said Higgins, breaking from a bear hug with a supporter. "I got back to (being) me."

The difference never showed in his TV ads. But it was a different Higgins every day the past few weeks, from Knights of Columbus halls to senior centers. It wasn't cheap talk about George Bush and Washington. It was about the cheap power we need more of from the waterfall up the road, and his fight to get it from the power authority. It was about getting more traction on the waterfront, from the place -- Washington -- with the big pots of money.

Instead of saying somebody else should do something about the waterfront, Higgins did something himself. That's what separates a politician from the pack. Not trying to connect dots to George Bush.

"Every day (the past few weeks), from six in the morning to midnight, it's what I talked about -- the issues important to people here," said Higgins.

In cheap power and the waterfront, Higgins hit on the region's hope to drag itself out of the muck. Washington is the place to do it.

"This (victory) means that we can push that stuff forward," he said. "Without question, I'm in a better position to do that in Congress."

He finally figured out how to get there.


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