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TWO ISSUES EMERGE AFTER PRIMARY <br> FOCUS IS ON REAPPORTIONMENT, POSSIBILITY OF POWER SHIFT

As the dust settled on primary elections Wednesday, the focus in Erie County shifted to two looming issues in the County Legislature:

The fate of the county's controversial reapportionment plan -- and the powerful position of Legislature chairman.

Both are up in the air following primary results Tuesday that could shift the balance of power in the Legislature to a razor-thin working majority of Republicans and one Democrat allied with Republican County Executive Joel A. Giambra, effective Jan. 1.

Political insiders and lawmakers foresee a whole new ballgame in the Legislature.

"I don't know of a darker day for the Democratic Party," said Joseph F. Crangle, political analyst and former Erie County Democratic Party chairman. "This means major ramifications -- not just ripples."

That's ridiculous, replied Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon. He said the projected "working majority" -- a bare 8.502 of 17 votes under a court-imposed weighted voting system -- will never stand up legally.

"That 8.502 means nothing. You cannot control a board without a majority vote, and nine votes is a majority. All this means is more court cases," said Pigeon, who predicted Democrats will win at least one additional seat in November, making the question of weighted voting moot.

But others said the first serious ramification could be the job of Legislature chairman, currently held by Kenmore Democrat Charles M. Swanick. Swanick did not return phone calls Wednesday.

The angling for the chairmanship has already begun, with Republican Minority Leader John W. Greenan and Giambra-allied Democrat Albert DeBenedetti expressing interest.

"I'm looking at the world today from the catbird seat," said DeBenedetti, who could end up as the key swing vote in the nearly evenly balanced Legislature.

But before legislators choose a new chairman, the general election in November could create key changes in the way votes stack up among the 17 members. Upsets are possible, insiders said, among key races that include:

The matchup between Republican incumbent Steven P. McCarville and Democrat David J. Shenk in the Southtowns. McCarville was appointed to the 13th District seat to fill a vacancy earlier this year and could face a tough contest from Shenk, the well-known Boston town clerk. In an inconclusive indicator, in the Independence Party primary, McCarville led Shenk, 101-97, with nine absentee ballots to be counted.

Judith P. Fisher's race in the 4th District against Republican challenger Lucy Tretiak Caruso. Fisher, a Democrat, scraped together 44 percent of the vote to fight off two opponents, but remains vulnerable.

The challenge to Swanick, the chairman, by Republican Kevin R. Hardwick in the 10th District, comprising Kenmore and the Tonawandas. Swanick is usually very successful in his district -- but college professor Hardwick could become formidable if he corrals money and support from the Giambra camp.

The 14th District in Amherst, where primary winner Elise Swiantek Cusack will face off against incumbent William A. Pauly, who has the Independence and Right to Life lines, and Democrat George F. Hasiotis. The vote could split in interesting ways.

Many key figures in Erie County -- including Giambra and Pigeon -- said it's too early to get comfortable with the idea of a new majority at the first of the year.

The focus has to be on November, both men said.

Pigeon said Democrats stand a good chance at capturing a number of key seats in the Legislature in the general election.

But others said that the key moments came during the primaries, and the general election probably will not change much in the way Legislature votes stack up.

The Legislature's system of weighted voting is also on a temporary life span, due to expire March 15. Weighted voting is a system of calculating each legislator's vote based on the number of residents in that district, so that some districts are worth slightly more than one vote, some slightly less. The votes still total 17.

Under a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge John T. Elfvin in August, the Legislature must use weighted voting until it adopts a new reapportionment plan. He set a deadline of March 15 for a new plan, and said he will step in if a plan is not adopted by then.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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