Republicans claimed the countywide posts of clerk and comptroller Tuesday, while incumbent Republican Sheriff Timothy B. Howard claimed victory while holding a razor-thin lead of 3,850 votes over his Democratic challenger Bernard A. Tolbert.
The contest may yet be decided by about 12,000 absentee ballots yet to be counted.
Democrat Bernie Tolbert will concede the EC sheriff's race to Republican Tim Howard later this morning, according to Dem Chairman Jeremy Zellner.
— Bob McCarthy (@bobmccarthybn) November 8, 2017
Democrats claimed a major victory on the legislative side, taking control of County Hall for the first time since 2013 with a new 6-to-5 majority.
Michael P. Kearns, a Democrat running on the Republican line, also survived a final charge by Democrat Steven J. Cichon to win the election for county clerk. But it was closer than most GOP observers had expected. Kearns beat Cichon by the surprisingly close score of 51.9 to 48.1 percent, or about 7,850 votes.
Only Republican Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr. could claim a landslide victory, beating Democratic challenger Vanessa Glushefski 55 to 45 percent, or about 21,571 votes. He won a second four-year term.
Howard claimed victory early Wednesday morning.
"I am truly and deeply sorry so many of you had your work undermined in an attempt to get at me," he said. "Thank you all for supporting me, and I am proud to continue to be your sheriff."
It was a crazy night even by the raucous standards of Erie County politics. Throughout the vote count, Howard and Tolbert saw their leads see-saw until Howard finally ended the evening leading by about 3,850 with 99.8 percent of the vote counted.
The Democrats' control of the Legislature was cemented when incumbent Democrat Thomas A. Loughran in District 5 beat GOP challenger Guy Marlette and Democratic challenger John Bruso knocked off incumbent Republican Ted B. Morton in District 8.
Turnout was pegged at 26 percent for the City of Buffalo, a result that was considered relatively strong because the September Democratic primary all but settled the mayoral race in favor of incumbent Democrat Byron W. Brown. The effort to turn out Brown’s base may have helped Tolbert, as more city Democrats than expected showed up at the polls.
Kearns claimed victory late Tuesday during celebrations at the Avant.
"The establishment doesn’t like me – but the voters of Erie County do,” the clerk-elect said before referring to the county’s Democratic leadership. “The Democrats thought they could buy this office. You can’t buy an office, Mark Poloncarz. You can’t buy an office, Jeremy Zellner. You can’t buy an office, Steve Cichon.”
Mychajliw, also at the Avant, hinted at the future brought by his victory — the biggest of the countywide candidates.
“I am honored and humbled, and thankful and grateful, that I get to give Mark Poloncarz at least two more years of checks and balances,” he said before a cheering crowd.
Tolbert and Howard waged the fiercest of this year’s three countywide contests, despite little or no direct confrontation after the incumbent shunned most invitations for debates or candidate forums. Their race boiled down to Howard’s attacks on Tolbert’s involvement in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed while he headed security for the National Basketball Association, putting the Democratic challenger on the defensive throughout the campaign.
Howard was forced to explain 22 deaths in the county jail system under his watch. Tolbert made his campaign rounds wearing a “22” lapel sticker that served as an unofficial theme.
Other controversies included the Sheriff's Office’s failure to report serious inmate incidents to the state, Howard’s decision to wear his uniform while speaking at a pro-Trump rally, and his lack of participation in candidate debates.
Observers from both parties have said all along that internal polling showed Howard leading the race, but that Tolbert was staying within striking distance. The contest heated up in its final days as Tolbert denied any involvement in sexual harassment while with the NBA (which he said he could not discuss because of confidentiality agreements) and also turned the tables on his opponent by noting Howard was named in a sexual harassment suit by a former jail employee (though the sheriff was not personally accused of any inappropriate behavior).
Incumbency once again played a role for Sheriff’s Office election that has not witnessed a challenger’s victory since Republican Kenneth Braun over Democrat Michael Amico in 1973.
Incumbency prevailed in the comptroller’s contest, too. Mychajliw’s victory preserved a record in which no elected incumbent comptroller has ever been defeated since the inception of the office in 1964.
Mychajliw, a former television reporter, has now won three elections in five years since his first victory in a 2012 special. Glushefski waged a low-key effort against Mychajliw in which qualifications seemed to reign as a major issue. She emphasized that she was both an attorney and certified public accountant and was ready to assume command immediately upon election.
But Mychajliw’s name recognition, incumbency advantages and superior fundraising combined to pave his way to victory and cement his position as a major Republican figure in the Rath County Office Building who will be expected to challenge many of Democratic County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s initiatives.
In the clerk’s race to fill the unexpired term of Christopher L. Jacobs, the former clerk who is now a Republican state senator, Kearns’ victory remains one of the more unusual in Erie County politics after he declined running in his own Democratic primary against Cichon in order to continue as a Democrat on the GOP line.
Cichon emphasized his “outsider” role as a WBEN Radio newsman while attempting to paint Kearns as a “career politician.” He drew intense support from the county Democratic organization, which has consistently described Kearns as out of touch with core Democratic values.
Kearns has promised to retain his Democratic registration, but he continues a close collaboration with the Republicans that dates to his first Assembly run in 2012. He also is expected to chart an independent course and use the clerk’s office as a bully pulpit.
Turnout appeared to be heavier than expected in suburbs like Hamburg, according to several election inspectors.
“This is a higher turnout than the presidential race last year,” said Bob Mulholland, an election inspector at the Scranton Fire Hall.
Last year, 225 people voted at the fire hall, and that number was surpassed Tuesday afternoon, he said, adding that many voters seemed interested in the propositions.
The sheriff's race also brought voters to the polls, such as Lynn Mancuso of Amherst, who said she voted Tolbert for sheriff.
“I hope he’s going to make it safer for the inmates,” she said.
Voter turnout was “fantastic” and “unusually high” at Amherst Baptist Church, according to election inspector Veronica Cavan. Ditto at North Park School in North Buffalo, according to election workers there.
Nine hundred Amherst residents had voted at Main-Transit Fire Hall in Amherst by 3 p.m.
“Everyone says they’re turning out for the propositions,” said one inspector.