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It's one of the state's biggest unions, but you wouldn't know it by election turnout figures.

The Civil Service Employees Association represents 210,000 workers in state and local government, but usually less than 20 percent of them vote in union elections. Those who do vote tend to favor the incumbent or his anointed successor.

That could change this year, as a contract impasse with the state adds spice to the race. At least, that's the hope of candidates vying to unseat Daniel Donohue, the two-term statewide president.

"The more people that vote . . . will be against (incumbents)," said Patrick Ellis, an Albany-area candidate for CSEA president.

Workers for the state -- the largest CSEA employer -- have been without a contract for nearly 10 months after shooting down a tentative agreement.

There are about 36,000 CSEA members in the union's Western region, which includes Western New York and Rochester. Ballots in the mail-in election were sent to members Jan. 18 and will be counted Feb. 8.

Ellis ran in 1997, losing with 37 percent of the vote to Donohue's 63 percent. Turnout in that election was about 15 percent of members.

In this year's three-way rematch, Ellis faces Donohue again plus another candidate for statewide president, Bill Walsh, head of CSEA Local 852 on Long Island.

Things have changed since the last go-round, Ellis contends. State workers, who make up 77,000 of CSEA members, rejected a proposed four-year pact with an 11 percent raise.

The rejection of the proposal is one sign that membership is looking for change, Donohue's opponents said. Another sign is a recent "sick-out" by snowplow drivers on Long Island, who disregarded the union's urging to drop the illegal strike.

"I think the way in which we've come to the impasse shows (members) feel let down by the leaders," said Walsh.

Donohue didn't respond to a request for an interview. But his backers aren't letting opponents' claims go unchallenged.

"People have a tendency to vote with their pocketbook, so any time you don't have a contract in place, it can be a detriment to the incumbent," said Mike Bogulski, president of CSEA Local 815 in Erie County. "But people working to support Donohue are making it clear that the real enemy in this process is the governor."

Bogulski, a Donohue supporter, is running for president of the union's Western Region unit against two other contenders. His Local 815 represents about 6,000 local government workers in Erie County.

Since April, Donohue has taken Pataki to task for raising staff salaries while rejecting raises for the CSEA, whose average member earns $28,000, the union says.

While Donohue's opponents attempt to pin contract woes on him, they are aiming blasts at each other as well.

Ellis called Walsh a spoiler whose candidacy will split the independent vote. Walsh counters that Ellis has no leadership experience within the union.

"He's never held an office, never sat on a committee," Walsh said. "He's just sitting out there saying what's wrong with things."

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