The winds of change swept through Erie County Tuesday, bringing both a new snow season and a new era in county government. Business executive Chris Collins' victory in the county executive race comes on a strong vote against politics as usual, and carries with it a clear mandate for efficient and streamlined government.
To meet that demand, Collins must start with a solid management team -- one that includes not just executives versed in Six-Sigma management style, but advisers versed in the less-straightforward ways of politics. The county executive executes policy -- but much of that policy goes through or stems from a co-equal County Legislature, and the winds of change were barely breezes in that quarter.
Collins' first task should amount to building bridges, not simply tearing apart structures to get to a leaner and more service-focused government. He needs working relationships not only with the Legislature, but with the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority and with other elected county officials, especially the comptroller and clerk, who don't work directly for him. Voters obviously want him to lean more heavily on the "Six-Sigma black belts" he hopes to import from the private sector than on any political advisers, and he can make that into a good thing for the county and its taxpayers. But he can't dictate change -- he needs political diplomacy, to make change happen.
With a largely-unchanged County Legislature waiting for his input on next year's proposed county budget, the challenge starts today. Collins has undisputed management and fiscal skills, and can draw significant political strength from his defeat of a very experienced politician, Jim Keane, who had taken many of the same stands on county issues but could not overcome the sheer voter aversion to career politicians that marked this race. The strength of that aversion can be measured in this -- Keane's Democratic Party had 120,000 more members than Collins' Republican Party, and the race wasn't that close. Keane conceded soon after the polls closed.
Every resident of Erie County should wish Collins well. A lot rides on this historic change, the emplacement of a businessman as the county's top political executive. But the winds of change -- the same winds that brought New Yorkers Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, and elected County Executive Joel A. Giambra before him -- were as narrowly focused as a lake-effect snow band this time, and left most county government incumbents untouched. Collins has a mandate. He may not have an easy time with it, but this new era should at least start without the political bickering that has marked the current one, and with a greater appetite for cooperative effort toward better county government.
In other races, Niagara Falls gained a good and highly qualified mayor-elect in Paul A. Dyster. The mayoral contest in the Falls was a good one, with Candra Thomason offering a sound alternative on the Republican line, but Dyster brought impressive credentials to this race. And in Erie County's surprisingly spirited campaign for the post of Erie County Clerk, incumbent Kathleen C. Hochul held on to the post she has filled very capably since her appointment to fill a vacancy earlier this year.