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COMPETITION AN ILLUSION IN STATE RACES

Meet Frank Longo. He is a lost cause, a token, a better-than-nobody. He is a sacrificial lamb on the altar of Albany dysfunction, a symbol of a broken system.

In another state, Frank Longo -- who is running for State Senate -- would have a chance. He is 64, protects forgotten kids as a legal aid guardian, went to law school at 50 and spent years working with troubled youth. He's a thoughtful guy with a worthy background.

But this is New York. Which means Longo is merely Election Day road kill for Mary Lou Rath, the five-term Republican state senator, who, barring a mammoth upset Tuesday, will get a sixth go-round.

Longo -- and everybody else challenging an Albany legislator -- is a bit player in a tired charade, part of the illusion of democracy in New York's three-man dictatorship.

The names change, the story stays the same: New York has the nation's most anti-democratic government, yet incumbent politicians rig the system so they won't get voted out. If one of them died in office, there's a decent chance his corpse would win.

People say if we don't like the three-man rule of the governor and two party bosses, we should vote out the politicians who make it possible. The trouble is, the 212 legislators who bow to the three kings have that one covered. They long ago immunized themselves against Election Day fever.

They self-protect against democracy with competition-safe districts. The districts are drawn every 10 years, not by some impartial third party. That would make too much sense. Instead, they're drawn by the lawmakers themselves. Part of their reward for going along with three-man rule is a district stuffed with partisan voters -- sometimes two or three times as many Democrats as Republicans, or vice-versa.

Because most people vote along party lines -- Democratic lawmaker Robin Schimminger recently said his loyalists would "vote for a monkey" -- the overstuffed districts are a re-election guarantee.

If that's not enough, follow-the-leader lawmakers are annually rewarded with tens of thousands of dollars to hand out to community groups and causes, usually in return for political support. Add party money for incumbents' campaigns, and it's no surprise they're re-elected more than 98 percent of the time.

Tuesday is Coronation Day.

Longo knows his role in this tawdry theater. He's running as a favor to Len Lenihan, the Democratic Party chairman. Longo's name on the line spares the party the embarrasment of not having a candidate, of not offering even the illusion of choice. It's the same party favor any Republican running against a Democratic state legislator is doing.

That's what it's about, in race after race: a token challenger against an invulnerable incumbent. Longo has raised $3,600, less than a tenth of what Rath has. He admits his chances are "remote" -- and he's one of the better challengers.

Four of our 18 incumbent Albany lawmakers don't have anyone running against them. Other challengers include a college kid, an unemployed nursing home worker, a retiree and candidates in name only -- they haven't knocked on a door or collected a campaign dollar.

It'd be better if none of them ran. Their names on the ballot give the illusion of competition where there is none. The races were decided long ago -- when districts were shaped and rules made to give what amounts to life terms to legislators.

Frank Longo is a good guy. But he and the others aren't challengers. They're sacrifices.

The game is as rigged as a carnival ring toss. The sooner we stop fooling ourselves, the sooner we'll stop looking like fools.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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