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DEMOCRATS, GOP GIVING LEGISLATIVE RACES PRIORITY

One of the most intense efforts in recent years to control the Erie County Legislature is taking shape, as Democrats attempt to strengthen their grip and Republicans try to chip away at their minority status.

Up for grabs are the 17 seats of the county's governing body, which the Democrats now control 11-6. But also at stake are jobs, political careers and the ability of the Gorski administration to slide through its agenda with relative ease -- or face a stronger, and maybe even impenetrable, Republican wall.

"It's a huge battleground for us," said Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis. "Granted, the sheriff's race is the marquee, but the Legislature has a greater impact on how this community is governed. And it sets the table for the county executive election in 1999."

"We're being aggressive -- very aggressive," added Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon. "I consider the sheriff and Legislature races equal priorities."

As a result, both major parties are expected to pour money and manpower into the most competitive races.

Some candidates, such as Republican Barry A. Weinstein in the 15th District and Democrat Francis J. Pordum in the 12th District, bring their own resources to the contests. But others will be looking to the Republican and Democratic headquarters for help.

Both parties also begin their efforts talking about issues. Besides the interests pertinent to each district, the GOP will be emphasizing taxes.

"The sin tax is the defining issue in this race," said Davis, referring to County Executive Gorski's proposal for new taxes on tobacco and alcohol to help finance the new Buffalo Bills lease.

"When you look at how voters have rejected tax increases in school districts all around the county, you realize there is a voter revolution going on against taxes," he added. "That's good for Republicans."

Davis also wants to retain at least the six Republican members of the Legislature to maintain leverage in issues requiring 12 votes to pass.

"If the Republicans lose any more seats, that gives the Democrats a veto-proof County Legislature," he said. "We want a system of checks and balances."

Pigeon, meanwhile, said Democrats will stress that they've done a good job with Gorski in governing Erie County.

"That takes in everything from promoting regionalism to saving the Buffalo Bills to controlling property taxes," Pigeon said.

Some of the top races include:

15th District: Weinstein comes off his Republican primary victory over Penny F. Zeplowitz with advantages of money and enrollment as he tries to unseat one-term legislator Randi Cohen Kennedy. In what could prove the most competitive race of the Legislature, Weinstein brings his own money into the race after spending about $50,000 in the primary.

Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Amherst district by about 4,000 voters, and after years of GOP control, they're looking to win it back.

"We've got a good shot at it," Davis said. "Weinstein is doable for us."

Ms. Cohen Kennedy faces a tough battle after defeating former Legislator Brian D. Rusk by only 20 votes in 1995. Democrats also are planning major investments in her race, though they acknowledge the difficulties lying ahead.

Mrs. Zeplowitz remains as the Independence party candidate.

11th District: The Tonawanda-based district now represented by incumbent Lynn M. Marinelli is also receiving a sharp Republican focus this year after Ms. Marinelli handily won her rookie run in a 1996 special election. Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 300 voters, making the seat a toss-up at the outset.

Ms. Marinelli has proven a popular vote-getter in her short career, but the GOP has entered businesswoman Cindy Vastola-Lancaster, who brings money and name recognition to the effort. Ms. Vastola-Lancaster won 40 percent of the vote against an "invulnerable" Democrat -- Leonard R. Lenihan -- in 1993 and is considered a strong contender.

The district also lies in Davis' home turf, adding even more prestige to any potential GOP win there.

12th District: This normally Republican seat based in Hamburg was held for several years by Bert Villarini, who resigned earlier this year and was replaced by appointee Jeanne Z. Chase. Democrats hold a voter edge of nearly 3,000 in this district, and now Pordum enters with a brimming campaign fund and high name recognition.

Pordum, a 14-year assemblyman who gave up his seat in 1996 to run for the House of Representatives against Rep. Jack F. Quinn, represents one of the strongest hopes for Democrats.

"He's very strong," Pigeon said. "He just spent $500,000 in TV advertising last year, and he represented all of that district for 14 years."

Republicans, however, are also poised for an all-out effort to preserve a seat they consider theirs.

9th District: Democrats are looking at a 5,000 voter edge in this South Towns district, and also harbor high hopes for newcomer Kathleen Higgins-Greeley. The cousin of former South Council Member Brian M. Higgins and wife of William Greeley, chief of staff to Assemblyman Richard J. Keane, Ms. Higgins-Greeley brings well known names to the race.

But incumbent Republican John W. Greenan also is part of a well-known West Seneca family and is expected to wage a tough response to the Democratic challenge.

14th District: Well known Amherst Democrat Dennis E. Ward is challenging incumbent Republican William A. Pauly. Ward has unsuccessfully faced Pauly before, but is now poised to face him again with an approximate 900-voter edge in Democratic registrations.

Mark A. Lahood is the Independence candidate while Eric Doktor will appear on the Freedom line.

Republicans still harbor hopes of knocking off Michael A. Fitzpatrick in the 2nd District, where their banner will be carried by William A. Nicholas. Nicholas was handily beaten by Fitzpatrick, however, in the Democratic primary.

They also hope that Cheektowaga's Janice Kowalski-Kelly will take advantage of an expected low turnout in the city portion of the 5th District to beat incumbent Democrat Gregory B. Olma, who easily won his recent Democratic primary.

Democrats, meanwhile, face other tough races. But they also are optimistic about Barbara A. Guida's return face-off with Michael H. Ranzenhofer in the 16th District, and about John F. Donogher against incumbent Republican Dale W. Larson in the 17th District.

Other races feature Republican Timothy R. Straube against veteran Democratic incumbent Edward J. Kuwik in the 1st District; Republican Pedro Velez-Lopez against Democratic incumbent Judith P. Fisher in the 4th District; Republican Daniel F. Krawczyk against Democratic incumbent Raymond K. Dusza in the 8th District; and Republican Jerry F. Reiter against Democratic incumbent Charles M. Swanick in the 10th District.

Democrats running unopposed are George A. Holt Jr. of the 3rd District, Albert DeBenedetti of the 6th District, and Crystal D. Peoples of the 7th District. Republican Frederick J. Marshall runs unopposed in the 13th District.

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