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LINED UP FOR RE-ELECTION <br> THANKS TO DISTRICT BOUNDARIES CAREFULLY REDRAWN BY LAWMAKERS IN 2002, STATE LEGISLATURE INCUMBENTS ENJOY A HUGE ADVANTAGE IN THEIR RACES

Election Day may be Nov. 2, but the fate of nearly every one of the 212 members of the State Legislature was decided April 11, 2002.

That's the day the Legislature approved a new set of district boundary lines -- drawn up by legislators -- as part of the once-a-decade reapportionment process.

With the help of state-of-the-art mapping software, lawmakers devised district lines that zigged and zagged through city streets, took hard turns at certain town borders and stretched far and wide in some cases across county lines in search of the incumbent friendly voters. The end result was boundaries that all but ensured incumbents' survival, critics say.

The redrawing proved itself successful -- for incumbents, anyway --in the 2002 elections, and there's no reason to think it's not about to happen again next month.

In six Western New York State Senate races in 2002, the incumbents won with an average victory level of 84 percent.

In 13 Assembly races in the region, the average portion of the vote incumbents received was 79 percent.

In fact, in the past 22 years, 99 percent of Legislature incumbents have won re-election in New York.

"It's a daunting task," said Frank Longo, a Democrat running against State Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, who won in 2002 with nearly 78 percent of the vote. "If you're an incumbent -- you have to go out of your way to lose." In the 61st Senate District, Longo is running in an area with 87,000 registered Republicans and 74,000 Democrats. And that's one of the fairer partisan margins in the region. He's also facing an incumbentwho has barely spent any time fund raising and has one of the smallest bankrolls of an incumbent: $57,000 on hand.

Longo's campaign kitty: $1,335.

He's not alone.

In Buffalo, Democratic Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who narrowly won his primary race, is running in the general election in a district with 50,000 Democrats and 18,000 Republicans.

Hoyt has $182,000 in his campaign bank, according to a recent state Board of Elections filing. His opponent, Republican David Penna, has $1,200.

"I understand the deficit I'm in, but I believe the ideas are good and need to be put forward," Penna said.

Penna talks of having to rely on free -- and extremely limited -- public access television to get the word out. As he goes door-to-door, he bumps into people who tell him how Hoyt was able to get member item money -- otherwise known as pork barrel spending -- for projects they care about.

Still, Penna, like the other challengers, insists that he is exposing new ideas about state government. And, despite the incumbent-friendly district boundary lines and big campaign cash disadvantage, he senses he may be able to dent Hoyt more than he did when he ran against the Democrat in 2002 -- a race in which Hoyt won with 72 percent of the vote.

"I believe people are really fed up with what's going on in Albany. One day they won't vote along the party line," he said.

The incumbency machine is running into some opposition this year. Challengers in races across New York are trying to tie incumbents to Albany's dysfunction.

In Rochester, the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper recently said it will not, for the first time in its 171-year history, endorse anyone in state legislative races.

And earlier this week, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership said it won't be endorsing any incumbents running for the Senate or Assembly this fall. The business group cited the "flawed system" in Albany and said the current officeholders have voted to "perpetuate the current system."

But history would suggest otherwise. Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, notes that, in the last 22 years, only 30 state legislative incumbents lost in a general election -- a 99 percent re-election rate for incumbents.

In 2002, the new boundary lines created just 32 districts out of 212 that could ever be considered possibly competitive because of somewhat close party enrollment figures.

In fact, barring any surprises, there is only one genuine race this fall among 19 state legislative contests in Western New York. Why? It features no incumbent.

The race, among Patrick Hoak, Francis Pordum and Jack F. Quinn III, is to replace the retiring Richard Smith, D-Hamburg. Of the 18 other races, 20 percent feature incumbents with no opponents.

With most races decided already, it helps explain sour turnout numbers.

"Just like in a game, if you know who's going to win, people tend not to play," Horner said.

One answer, reform groups say, is letting an independent panel decide district lines. They also want restrictions on campaign finance rules that presently favor incumbents.

Incumbents put a different spin on their re-election powers. One lawmaker, in office since 1978, said incumbency advantages come from the fact that voters have already decided they wanted them in office.

"It is not so much an advantage of incumbency as the patter of previous choices that gets carried forward," said Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore.

Despite criticism over redistricting, Schimminger notes he lost 20,000 constituents in Democratic-heavy North Buffalo that he represented before 2002.

In fact, while he gained 30,000 people in North Tonawanda to make up for the Buffalo losses, the enrollment edge by Democrats in his district dipped only slightly from his previous district. But Schimminger said portions of his new district are more inconsistent about voting for Democrats than North Buffalo.

"Reapportionment didn't help me. It hurt me," he said. "I lost Democrats who would vote for a monkey."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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