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DEMOCRATS HOPE TO FIX WHAT'S NOT BROKEN IN SPECIAL ELECTION

To see what many consider the best-oiled political machine in suburban Erie County, look at the special election for supervisor and one council seat in the Town of Tonawanda.

Not only have the Republicans planned to outspend the Democrats, they have all the resources of town government and its services behind them. It is something the party has done for generations as it retained control of the all-Republican Town Board.

And it does not hurt the incumbent party that the public is generally pleased with the services town government provides.

Even Susan Lichtblau and Daniel A. Crangle -- the Democrats seeking to replace Supervisor Ronald H. Moline and Councilman Stephen W. Stirling -- acknowledge the garbage gets picked up, the streets are plowed and kept in good repair and -- thanks to a high industrial tax base and the fact that the town is built-out and needs no new infrastructure -- residential property taxes are remarkably low.

But they believe that the town is run behind closed doors, that the Town Board appears to be a rubber-stamp organization and residents are patronized when they ask reasonable questions.

"It's almost as if the town fathers tell us: 'Don't worry we are doing what's best for you,' " Lichtblau says, "Even if that were true, taxpayers deserve to know what goes on behind closed doors."

"I don't want to see long and contentious Town Board meetings, but it would be nice to be told why things are being done."

Beyond that, Lichtblau criticizes the town government for not being more proactive in encouraging young families to move to town, and she questions some town recreation policies.

"The Town Board will not do anything that does not turn a profit," she said. "That's fine, but it can price some people out of recreation, for example. Yes, we have golf and a wonderful fitness center, but it costs a lot to use those facilities, even for residents.

"Our neighborhood parks, which don't charge anything, are not in great shape. And was closing the pools three weeks before school started because the summer was so rainy and cool they did not generate enough revenue? I cannot believe that all the lifeguards had to return to college then."

It is no secret that in local races, at least, Tonawanda Democrats run uphill despite having more registered voters.

The Ken-Ton GOP has an edge -- and not just in available campaign funding.

Town Republican Chairman Paul Pfeiffer says he will spend $50,000 on mailings, ads and posters, all financed by his local organization.

The two Democrats expect to spend less than half that amount.

"If I raise $10,000, I'll be lucky," Crangle said. "Each mailing to every home in town costs about $3,500, so you can see I won't do a lot of that."

GOP incumbents have this going for them, too: As a Town Board member, Stirling serves on all committees, so when a flier goes out about urban renewal, he is included. If there is news about any town department, he can be featured there, too.

Two weeks ago, he and Moline spent some time being photographed at a variety of town venues.

The first press release from that session showed Stirling with a new paving machine. Since he is chairman of the board's highway committee, the press release on town stationery was perfectly legal, but it still infuriates Town Democratic Chairman John Crangle, Dan's brother.

Their only counterpunch is canvassing: Both Crangle and Lichtblau say their pavement-pounding showed that recreation, the perception of an "old-boy network" and the dominating political machine are issues in the town.

But the Republicans say there really are no "issues" and suggest that the town's well-developed infrastructure and an industrial base that is the envy of its neighbors -- General Motors, the Huntley Generating Station, Dunlop, Praxair and Du Pont -- has kept at bay some of the "development pressures" that plague other suburbs.

The town is only now drafting a master plan and zoning codes to replace the 1950 ordinances. That, Moline says, is positive.

"We have no issues, just challenges to provide the best services at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers. And the forethought in our master plan was amazing to have lasted a half-century."

Last fall, Moline was named to replace Supervisor Carl A. Calabrese, who became deputy county executive. If Moline wins the post that pays more than $70,000 -- including a stipend for being budget officer -- he will stand for re-election again in three years.

If Stirling, a longtime Republican volunteer who was named to Moline's former $19,123 Town Board seat, wins, that term will be up next fall.

"The funny thing is," Stirling said, "the only time a Democrat has gotten elected here was during a special election in a Presidential election year, so I'm worried."

Stirling is a former Kiwanis president and GOP committeeman who served on the town's environmental commission.

Crangle, who comes from a political family and has been a Democratic worker-bee for years, is best known for his work with youth, including 30 years as a coach in the Tonawanda Football Association, which he now heads.

Moline took an early retirement from the Buffalo school system to return to local politics. He has served as supervisor before and is known as a hands-on administrator.

Lichtblau is executive director of Clearview Clinic in the City of Tonawanda and president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas.

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