Erie County voters handed County Executive Joel A. Giambra a potential working majority in the County Legislature on Tuesday, but his primary election victory is clouded by "ifs."
Giambra supporters will rule the Legislature in 2002 only if court-imposed weighted voting stands, and only if Giambra can sustain his success in the November general election.
Voters defeated two high-profile incumbents -- Republican William A. Pauly and Democrat Gregory B. Olma -- and retained five others, a result that should change the makeup of the 17-member Legislature and give Giambra a slight edge under a new system of court-ordered weighted voting. But a November general election could change that, too.
"It's a very exciting night for change," said Giambra, who celebrated Elise Swiantek Cusack's key primary victory over Pauly at a victory party in Amherst.
Giambra's forces won a smashing Republican primary victory in Amherst, where newcomer Cusack demolished 26-year veteran Pauly 2,689 to 1,040 (with 96 percent of the vote counted) -- a 72 to 28 percent margin -- far more than even the most optimistic of Giambra's insiders ever dreamed.
Although Pauly is a Republican, he has voted consistently with Democrats in the Legislature.
Though the county executive invested most of his political capital in the Cusack candidacy, those overwhelming numbers were tempered by the Democratic primary defeat of Olma, who votes consistently with Republicans in Legislature.
Attorney David Dale, buttressed by strong support from the organization of Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon, pulled out an easy 58 to 42 percent victory -- 2,194 to 1,561 votes.
While the ouster of the two incumbents appear to cancel out each other, the weighted vote system that a federal judge imposed on the Legislature this summer will result in more voting power from the seat currently occupied by Pauly.
That lineup should give the county executive the margin he needs to form a supportive majority where many of his proposals have been defeated, though some Democrats have talked about an appeal of the weighted vote decision.
"It's a very exciting night for change," Giambra said. "Taxpayers should understand that we have a chance now to implement our agenda."
The county executive said he anticipates a "working majority" of slightly more than 8.502 weighted votes in the 17-member Legislature -- under the new voting system -- provided there are no major changes in November.
"It's close," Giambra said of the thin majority. "I guess we all better get our calculators out."
But Democrats also noted there's another election in November, and the message for November will be about the independence of the County Legislature.
"I want Joel Giambra to succeed because that means our county succeeds," Pigeon said late Tuesday. "But there are two branches of government, and the Legislature must be independent and not a rubber stamp. That will be the equation for November."
Cusack emerged as the night's big winner, however, and she interpreted the vote in her district as nothing short of an overwhelming approval of Giambra's policies.
"Joel came in on a mandate for change," she said. "Voters demanded that again today."
Pauly blamed his loss on a Republican machine financed and supported by Giambra, but said he is not quitting. He has Independence, Right to Life and possibly one or two other minor-party lines, and promised to wage a strong campaign.
Olma, meanwhile, reflected the bitterness that marked the nasty campaign between him and Dale.
"I had very little money. I was never able to raise the money," said Olma. "I don't feel like I lost. I feel like I got ripped off. I was the poster boy for Steve Pigeon's campaign of lies."
It was also a night marked by several close contests, with the makeup of the Legislature hanging until it became clear that incumbent Albert DeBenedetti had defeated challenger Jack O'Donnell by a 2,626 to 2,228 tally -- 54 to 46 percent.
That gave Giambra enough breathing room to head into November, because DeBenedetti is a Democrat who has consistently voted in support of Giambra's proposal and is expected to help the county executive form the working majority he energetically sought in this primary election.
Another key contest took place in the 4th District, where veteran incumbent Judith P. Fisher staved off a tough challenge by Joseph G. Giambra, a retired Buffalo police detective. Fisher garnered 44 percent (2,038 votes) to Giambra's 33 percent (1,543 votes); a third entry, Gerhardt J. Yaskow, finished with 22 percent (1,014 votes).
Though the county executive was not directly involved in this Democratic primary the way he was in the Cusack-Pauly contest in the GOP, he made it clear that he would not mind seeing Fisher go into retirement. Joseph G. Giambra is not related to Joel Giambra.
Still, the county executive is now expected to make a major push for the Republican candidate, Lucy Tretiak-Caruso. Fisher defeated Tretiak-Caruso by one vote in the Independence Party primary, although absentee ballots could change that outcome.
In other races, Giambra had been hoping for an upset in the 1st District, where he had been tacitly supporting Democrat Elissa Morganti Banas. But the veteran Kuwik used his Lackawanna base to roll over Banas by a 72 to 28 percent margin -- 3,610 to 1,381 votes.
In the 3rd District based on Buffalo's East Side, challenger Michael A. Darby's spirited effort fell far short of ousting incumbent George A. Holt Jr. in the Democratic primary. Holt (2,824 votes) defeated Darby (1,346 votes) 57 to 27 percent, while John E. Hemphill had 9 percent (441 votes) and Robert J. Carr posted 6 percent (317 votes).
Meanwhile, Mark J.F. Schroeder tallied a huge win in the seat being vacated by the retiring Michael A. Fitzpatrick. He defeated Joseph F. Kelly, 71 percent to 29 percent -- 4,322 to 1,722 votes.
In the 7th District, Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples had no trouble with a challenge from Michael A. Robinson, brushing him aside by an 81 to 19 percent margin -- 4,642 to 1,108 votes.
Other significant primaries in the Independence Party included Democratic Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick's 56 to 44 percent 10th District victory over Kevin R. Hardwick , his Republican opponent in November. That percentage translated into a 122 to 97 vote victory for Swanick, and is considered an early and significant sign of strength for him.