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A mandate for change or just a political blip?

No matter the answer, the Republican leader of the State Senate was quick to push the reform button Wednesday, one day after the GOP lost two seats and is at risk of losing two additional contests.

"We got the message loud and clear. The people want change," said Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican whose political shine faded a bit following Tuesday's results.

The Republican margin in the Senate, now at 37-24, could dip to 33-28 if all four seats are lost after ballots are recounted and likely court challenges are concluded.

As of Wednesday, the Republicans lost two seats in New York City and are in jeopardy of losing races in Westchester and Onondaga counties.

In addition, the Republicans lost all of the contests in their efforts to wrestle away Democratic seats. The Republicans spent more than $6.5 million on the contests, compared with about $1 million by the Democrats.

When asked how the Democrats would instigate reforms, David Patterson of Harlem, the Senate Democratic leader, said, "I think we just did." He said that his goal is now to re-take the Senate by 2008.

The "reform Albany" theme popped up in a number of state legislative races around New York.

In the end, only three incumbents -- not including the undecided Senate races -- lost. Two of those were Assembly Republicans, meaning the overwhelming Democratic stronghold in the Assembly only got bigger to a likely 104-46 margin.

The two Republicans were Robert Prentiss, from the Albany area, and Robert Warner, from the Binghamton area. The third loser, Bronx Sen. Olga Mendez, a Democrat-turned-Republican, lost by a whopping 81 percent to 18 percent margin to a Democrat, Jose Serrano.

The only real contest for the State Legislature in Western New York -- the race to fill the seat of retiring Assemblyman Richard A. Smith of Hamburg -- was won by Republican Jack Quinn III, son of retiring Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr.

Earlier this year, Assemblyman Roger Green, D-Brooklyn, was forced to resign after pleading guilty to padding his state expense account. Tuesday, he won back the seat with the support of 95 percent of voters.

The Senate results left Bruno already calling for a constitutional convention, a unicameral Legislature and giving voters the power of initiative and referendum at the ballot box.

After delaying for months, he was set to deliver a bill to Gov. George E. Pataki to reform the state's budget process. Pataki, who has criticized the bill, now has 10 days to sign or veto it.

Bruno said the Senate will lead the way to creating more "openness" in Albany.

"We recognize and fully understood for years that the system in New York is dysfunctional," he said.

But then Bruno slipped back into defending the Senate and the way it conducts business, blaming -- as he often does -- Assembly Democrats for Albany's problems.

Patterson said reforms must include reducing the power of legislative leaders, including himself. He said Albany's system of threats and rewards dictates that "everybody shuts up and does what the leader says."

Senate races too close to call as of Wednesday include the Westchester seat held by veteran Republican Sen. Nicholas Spano, who held a slight lead over Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins in incomplete counting; voting machines were impounded amid various charges by Democrats of suspicious voting irregularities.

In Onondaga County, current vote totals show Republican Sen. Nancy Larrraine Hoffmann trailing Democrat David Valesky; a recount is under way.

Besides Mendez's loss, Republicans also lost the race to fill a Bronx seat held until earlier this year by Sen. Guy Velella; he went to jail on bribery charges. Democrat Jeff Klein won the seat Tuesday.


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