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SHIFT OF ONE SEAT COULD RESTRUCTURE BALANCE OF POWER

The gain or loss of one seat in the Erie County Legislature by either Democrats or Republicans in the Nov. 4 elections could bring power shifts and a strong voice for two Democrats recently at odds with party leaders.

Nine votes produce the simple majority needed to pass most resolutions.

Right now, Democrats control. But two Buffalo Democrats -- Legislators Albert DeBenedetti and Gregory B. Olma -- sporadically vote with the six Republicans.

The gain of one seat by the Democrats would produce a basic 12, the number of votes needed to pass budgets and money measures. It could also provide 10 sure votes -- one more than needed on most issues -- for the county's Democratic leaders.

"If the Democrats pick up one seat, essentially Dennis Gorski controls Erie County from the top down," said Minority Leader Frederick J. Marshall, R-East Aurora, referring to the county executive. "That would give Mr. Gorski a vetoproof majority. He could do anything that needs a two-thirds without a problem."

But if the GOP picks up one seat, Olma and DeBenedetti could be in swing-vote heaven. If they wished, they could decide close issues.

Both won bitter Democratic primary elections against stiff opposition from many other Democrats. In the aftermath, Olma is vowing to make an effort to unseat Legislator Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore, as Legislature chairman.

Marshall said he is not counting on votes from Olma and DeBenedetti.

"They fade in and out," Marshall said. "I don't know what their plans are. I realize there is some dissension in ranks of Democratic legislators. I don't know what Mr. DeBenedetti and Mr. Olma will do after the election."

Marshall said a base of seven Republican votes, rather than six, is more likely to attract support because of the greater possibility of putting together the nine votes to win.

"If Greg and Al, after the election, still see six Republicans, they can add," Marshall said. "Six and two equals eight. If they want to have any say in this government, they might decide, 'Eight doesn't make it. Nine does.' "

Swanick said that on the money issues requiring 12 votes, he usually is able to get 14 or 15 votes with no special effort.

"I've never had personally to hunt around for a 12th vote," Swanick said.

Swanick said the door is open to DeBenedetti and Olma.

"In this business, you take things day-to-day and week-to-week," Swanick said. "Greg and Al certainly have their way of governing. It's their choices what they do. They are not necessarily team players, but no one from the Democratic majority is pushing away from them."

Swanick predicts that the Democrats will gain one or two seats out of the contests for 13 of the 17 seats in the Legislature.

Marshall and Swanick agree that three races appear to be close:

In Amherst, where Legislator William A. Pauly, a Republican from the Sweet Home area, faces Dennis E. Ward, a Democrat.

In the Williamsville area, where Democratic Legislator Randi Cohen Kennedy is opposed by Dr. Barry Weinstein, a Republican who has been spending a lot of money on his campaign.

In West Seneca, where Legislator John W. Greenan, a Republican, is challenged by Democrat Kathleen Higgins-Greeley.

"There are some really great candidates out there that have worked very hard and have raised significant interest of voters," Swanick said.

Swanick also thinks that the Amherst race between Legislator Michael H. Ranzenhofer, a Republican, and Barbara Guida, his Democratic challenger, may be close. "She's just worked very hard," Swanick said.

Two newcomers to the Legislature are facing strong opposition: Legisla
tor Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, is opposed by Cindy Vastola, a Republican who gave a good run in 1995, and Legislator Jeanne Z. Chase, R-Evans, faces Francis J. Pordum, a former Democratic assemblyman.

DeBenedetti, for his part, said a one-vote change in party balance would make a big difference to Democratic leaders. If the Democratic majority dropped to 10, he said, Swanick would be two votes short for re-election.

"If one Republican wins, it's a new world," DeBenedetti said. "It's unlikely myself or Greg would vote for Chuck Swanick. If a Democrat not committed to Chuck gets elected, he's in trouble."

DeBenedetti also said he has voted against Gorski and Swanick on key issues involving the budget or the Buffalo Bills and may do so again.

"For the most part," DeBenedetti said, "I don't have any respect for my fellow elected Democratic officials at the Legislature."

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