Christopher Carl Collins, the hard-charging Republican investor who promised to rid county government of politics and run it like a business, crushed Democrat James P. Keane in a landslide Tuesday to be elected the seventh Erie County executive.
Collins beat Keane, 63 percent to 35 percent, to retain county government for the Republican Party after an eight-year reign by County Executive Joel A. Giambra. That translated into 130,659 votes for Collins and 72,161 for Keane, with 91 percent of the ballots counted.
West Seneca Supervisor Paul T. Clark, who remained on the ballot as the Independence Party candidate after losing to Keane in the Democratic primary in September, had 2 percent.
Collins, from Clarence, rode the crest of a strong suburban turnout to crush the Democrats' attempt to retake the Rath County Office Building. Turnout in the City of Buffalo, a Democratic stronghold, was paltry.
The victory by Collins also thwarted Keane's second attempt to claim the office and preserved the failure streak of city-based Democrats to win the office since it was established in 1960.
The victory capped a remarkable run for Collins, 57, who overcame several obstacles to win an improbable victory. Standing in his way were an overwhelming Democratic enrollment advantage, the failure to secure a minor party line and the perception that 2007 was a "down year" for the Republicans, defending themselves against an unpopular president and an unpopular incumbent county executive -- both Republicans.
But Collins touched a nerve with voters still reeling from the aftereffects of a 2004-05 budget crisis and imposition of a financial control board by New York State. The final tally confirmed earlier polls showing voters buying into the Collins' message that stressed his own business-oriented resume while relentlessly labeling Keane a "career politician."
"Today the voters and the taxpayers have spoken," he told a jubilant crowd in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo. "That's when Erie County will have a chief executive, not a chief politician. More importantly, the taxpayers of Erie County have taken the first step toward running Erie County like a business and turning this county around."
He also obliquely "thanked" his South Buffalo opponent for providing a contrast for voters to consider.
"I want to thank Jim Keane -- in my memory, I don't remember voters having such a clear choice between two candidates," Collins said to cheers. "While we both want the same thing for our community, we have a very different vision of how to get there, and during this campaign Jim Keane was steadfast in his convictions."
Collins also thanked former Buffalo Mayor James D. Griffin, who got the longest and loudest cheer of the night.
"When we entered this, we needed to make sure that everyone knew this was a nonpartisan, nonpolitical campaign," Collins said. "And the endorsement of Jim Griffin and [former County Comptroller] Alfreda Slominski showed that this campaign transcended partisan politics, and I could not be more grateful for their support."
The overwhelming victory also allows Collins to claim a mandate from county voters as he begins to form his government and implement his business principles.
Keane noted so much in a concession speech about 10 p.m. in Ironworkers Hall. He later addressed reporters at Democratic headquarters in Ellicott Square.
"I think Donn Esmonde of The Buffalo News may have put it best: . . . [I] stepped in front of a freight train. Voters, we knew they were very, very angry and justifiably so, and they've taken it out on me today," Keane said. "While that's regrettable, look, that's their decision. You have to respect what the voters have said."
Pollster John Zogby, of Utica-based Zogby International, said the three campaign polls he conducted this fall for The News and WGRZ-TV Channel 2 showed that Keane never took advantage of a national wariness of the Republican Party. Collins, meanwhile, distanced himself from any kind of politics.
"Keane never defined himself, while Collins jumped on a theme we're seeing all over the country about professional politicians," Zogby said.
It amounted to a perfect political storm for the Schenectady native who has lived in Erie County for the last 31 years. After bursting into politics in 1998 only to lose badly to Democratic incumbent John J. LaFalce for the House of Representatives, Collins went back to the business world until last spring.
That's when Erie County Republican Chairman James P. Domagalski called to pique his interest in the race for county executive after defining a model candidate as a business person with community involvement who might also self-finance his campaign.
After spending $500,000 of his own money on the 1998 congressional race, Collins and his companies lent or contributed $410,500 to his successful 2007 effort.
Keane, meanwhile, probably reached the end of his political career, after his concession speech Tuesday night.
He came out of what had been retirement in 2006, and this year mounted a return to politics at age 61. After a long career as Common Council member from the South District, commissioner of emergency services and deputy county executive in the Gorski administration, and then as an aide to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Keane had a long and high-profile career in local government.
His biggest moment in politics may have been his convincing victory in the September primary for county executive over two Democratic rivals -- Clark and Griffin.
But he may also be remembered as never able to win the "big one," failing in a 1986 challenge to Republican Rep. Jack F. Kemp, the 1987 Democratic primary for county executive, and in his bid for the Erie County Democratic chairmanship in 2002.
News Staff Reporters Harold McNeil and Patrick Lakamp contributed to this report.