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In Niagara Falls, Choolokian hoping for mayoral-race boost from absentee ballots

NIAGARA FALLS – Glenn A. Choolokian is holding out hope that absentee ballots in the Democratic primary for mayor will be enough to overcome incumbent Paul A. Dyster’s 73-vote lead in the race.

But if Dyster squeaks out the election victory, as his campaign and other observers expect he will even after absentee ballots are counted, what does a relatively small margin of victory over a fierce critic say, if anything, about the state of Niagara Falls and the direction it’s heading?

Having already been elected to two terms in the Falls – something that hadn’t been seen here in two decades until Dyster won his second term four years ago – Dyster was facing an opponent in Choolokian who, during the campaign, said the Falls was at an “all-time low.” Choolokian said he could not find anything positive the Dyster administration had done in nearly eight years.

In the run-up to the primary, Choolokian also reiterated his concern about Buffalo’s influence in the Falls.

Choolokian’s critics, however, said the incumbent councilman only offered criticism but provided no alternative vision for the city – which has been infamously struggling economically for decades despite attracting millions of tourists due to the presence of a known natural wonder – the conditions of which supporters said were improving under Dyster.

With an even lower turnout than the Democratic mayoral primary from four years ago, as well as what some describe as an anti-incumbent culture in the city, the primary election resulted in a slim margin between the two candidates.

“The disaffected voter came out,” said Frank A. Soda, former chairman of the Niagara County Democratic Committee.

The unofficial results from the Niagara County Board of Elections show Dyster leading Choolokian, 2,110 to 2,037. Along with write-ins, that’s a 27-percent turnout in a city with roughly 15,000 registered Democrats. At least 179 absentee ballots will be counted no earlier than late next week. While Dyster declared victory Thursday night in his Pine Avenue headquarters, Choolokian has not conceded and wants to wait until the absentees are counted.

Soda – who called the turnout “just a disaster” – said he believes Choolokian’s campaign “got every imaginable vote they could get,” and the “serious Democratic voter” did not flock to the polls.

Soda credited the Choolokian campaign for reaching out to voters by going door-to-door, noting he believed Dyster “needed to make more of a personal presence” at voters’ doors.

“I think there are an awful lot of Dyster voters out there who didn’t show up,” Soda said.

Dyster, the endorsed Democrat in the race, also had endorsements from top Democratic Party figures, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Rep. Brian Higgins, and Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten M. Gillibrand.

Gordon G. Stewart III, chairman of the city Democratic Committee, acknowledged the typically “short shelf life” of politicians in the Falls, and said the one thing he would change in the campaign, if he had the chance to do it over again, would be not to have waited to “turn up the heat” until later in the campaign.

“There was a little bit of complacency,” Stewart said, adding that the campaign may not have taken Choolokian’s public stances on issues as seriously as they should have.

“I just think they saw him as somebody other than Dyster,” Stewart said. “That’s why he got most of his votes.”

Choolokian won on Cayuga Island and in the LaSalle section of the city in general, places Dyster has done well in previous runs for office.

Several people reported long lines at times at St. Raphael’s, the polling place in DeVeaux, typically a Dyster stronghold and the area that provided the margin of victory this time.

The Dyster campaign probably could have been more aggressive and done some things a little better, while there are areas in the city that are “a little problematic,” said Nicholas J. Forster, chairman of the Niagara County Democratic Committee.

“We’re happy with a win, whether it’s one vote or 1,300 votes,” Forster said.

Dyster, who won a landslide victory in the Democratic primary four years ago, said he believes there were two main forces at work in this race – those voters who disagree with one of the many decisions he made over almost eight years as mayor, and those who’ve become a core group of supporters who share his vision.

He said the time needed to knock on voters’ doors isn’t easy to find when doing the work of the city’s chief executive.

“I think that the burden on me in the campaign is to better tell the story of how the city is moving in a positive direction and what needs to be done in order for that to continue,” Dyster said.

For Choolokian’s side, the results indicate people are not happy with the Dyster administration and people “are definitely looking for a change,” said Sam Archie, Choolokian’s campaign manager.

Archie said there’s too much voter apathy and he believes people are disgusted.

“If it stays the way it is, it’s not a mandate towards his administration,” Archie said.

In the Republican primary for mayor, John G. Accardo has declared victory in the three-way race, but Bob D. Pascoal, who was only 46 votes behind, has not conceded and is awaiting the absentee count.