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'Change' was Collins' charm Clear message made Democrats vote Republican

Don Allen forged a career in Buffalo City Hall working for Democratic mayors.

But he had no trouble this week flipping the Republican lever to help elect Christopher C. Collins as the next Erie County executive.

"Democrats who came over to vote for him realize this guy had a clear message: change," Allen said.

That sentiment played out across Erie County on Tuesday, when thousands of local Democrats did for Collins what they did in years past for gubernatorial candidate George E. Pataki and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan -- vote for a Republican.

In Amherst, where Democrats have a slight edge over Republicans, Collins won nearly three-fourths of the votes.

In West Seneca, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost 2 to 1, the businessman snagged two-thirds of the votes.

And he claimed two-thirds of the votes in Cheektowaga, the Democratic stronghold that's considered a bellwether of the region -- how Cheektowaga goes, so goes Erie County, political analysts say. This year was no exception.

Overall, Collins won 63 percent of the vote -- in a county where 28 percent of voters are registered Republicans. He prevailed in every Erie County community except Buffalo. Even there, the Republican earned the majority of votes in two of the city's Common Council districts.

Democrat James P. Keane's support was limited to the 1st Ward in Lackawanna and seven of Buffalo's nine Council districts.
The former deputy county executive won 58 percent of the vote in his home district of South Buffalo. Keane's strongest support came from Buffalo's East Side, where he won three-fourths of the vote. Voter turnout there, though, was less than 25 percent.

The low turnout was common throughout much of Buffalo, a factor that helped sweep Collins to victory.

Republicans fielded only one contest in the city, where only about one in 10 voters belongs to the GOP. With virtually no local races to consider, city voters stayed home. Less than 30 percent of Buffalo's 150,000 voters cast ballots in the county executive race.

At the same time, strong local races in the suburbs, where Republicans generally find more support, brought out Collins' base. Voter turnout averaged 40 percent outside of Buffalo. In Republican towns such as Eden, Elma and Boston, more than half the registered voters cast ballots.

Erie County Republican Chairman James P. Domagalski acknowledged the turnout contributed to a "perfect storm" for his candidate but said it was not at the core of Collins' victory.

"It happened because Chris Collins spoke to what we thought voters were intuitively looking for," he said, "and so many before spoke about it but didn't deliver."

Domagalski said Collins did not offer specific plans for every issue facing the county but did offer a "skill set and resume."

"People saw his ads about the jobs he had created and saved and said 'OK, I get that,' " he said. "At the end of the day, Chris was credible on those issues."

Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan was not available to comment Wednesday.

The core of Collins' victory was in Amherst.

With voters there deciding whether to give Supervisor Satish B. Mohan a friendly majority on the Town Board, Collins trounced Keane with 23,000 votes -- nearly three out of four in the town. Across the county, one of every six votes for Collins came from Amherst.

He widened his margin of victory in Republican strongholds like Clarence and Orchard Park.

In Clarence, Collins' hometown, residents voted on a new town supervisor as well as two Town Board seats. There, Collins got 80 percent of the vote.

In Orchard Park, another Republican town with a local board race, Collins claimed 75 percent of the vote.

But Collins' promise to run county government like a business resonated even in Democratic towns like Cheektowaga and Hamburg, where a hotly contested Town Board race appears to have broken the long-standing Democratic majority on the board. Collins won two-thirds of the vote there.

"Keane, he's living in another era," said Tammy McGovern, 47, of Hamburg. "I don't see how a career politician who spent a considerable pension living in Florida is going to come back here and do anything to salvage the area."

McGovern, who is registered with the Independence Party, said she's concerned about the local economy.

"I am so saddened to think my kids might have to go somewhere else to live because of the atrocity of how our government works. It sickens me," she said.

She added: "I have such a terrible lack of respect for politicians. I don't trust anything they say or do."

That sense of distrust permeated the county.

"I see Keane as though he belongs to the party to such an extent he would run the county to the benefit of the party rather than the benefit of the people," said Gordon Sacks, 87, a Republican from Snyder. "Whether Collins will do any better, I don't know. I don't believe his claim of running of it like a business has any validity. I'd like to give him a chance."

Attitudes like Sacks' and McGovern's even spilled over into Buffalo, where Collins won the majority of votes in the city's Delaware and North districts.

"Chris has fresh ideas," said Allen, who was community services commissioner under former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello. "I don't care [that] he is Republican. That makes no difference. I like the ideas."

Buffalo News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report.

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