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'05 finds legislators running scared

From the looks of campaign signs across Erie County, the scarcest word in the local political lexicon this campaign season may be "incumbent."

The second scarcest may be "re-elect."

In the aftermath of the political meltdown gripping county government since late 2004, those running for re-election to the County Legislature no longer rely on the advantages of incumbency.

"I haven't ever seen anything like this," observed Victor N. Farley, former Erie County Republican chairman. "I don't know when Republicans and Democrats alike don't want to talk about what they did the year before."

A number of developments point to a rare defensive mode for those who have been around for a while. They include:

* Seven incumbents -- almost half of the 15-member Legislature -- opted not to seek re-election following the 2004-05 fiscal crisis.

* Fifty-four candidates filed to run for Legislature seats this year, more than any other in memory.

* Ten contests for Legislature will greet voters in Tuesday's primary election, also an unusually high amount.

* Even the normally staid Republicans have two primaries slated for Tuesday, including one against the incumbent minority leader, Michael H. Ranzenhofer of Clarence.

Incumbent legislators like Lynn M. Marinelli, a Democrat from the Town of Tonawanda and the Legislature's majority leader, acknowledge the campaign has proved a rough one this year. Door-to-door territory she used to cover in three hours now takes 10 hours; 20 minutes per stop on the average.

"In past years -- and I don't think this is just me -- you got the polite response, you gave them the palm card, said thank you, and went on your way," she said. "This year, I've done a lot of sitting in living rooms and on front porches answering questions about how we got here and where we're going."

Marinelli is challenged by fellow Democrat Joseph Kennedy, and she acknowledged the constant exposure she received on television during the height of the fiscal crisis has not proved helpful. That's a "new dynamic" spawned by the electronic media's sudden concentration on county government, she said.

"The image portrayed by that institution is that we were all at each other's throats," she said. "In reality, a lot more was involved."

Challengers are quick to point to their inexperience in government. Most are proud of their lack of political experience, while several candidates boast they are not backed by any party organizations.

William A. Delmont, the Conservative Party leader, said Conservative leadership settled on Democrat Thomas J. Jackson for the seat held by the retiring Edward J. Kuwik because his resume contained no political entries.

"I told him that was his best asset; no political background, no political obligations," Delmont said.

Not every politician agrees that the trend will benefit taxpayers.

Legislator Charles M. Swanick, a Kenmore Democrat retiring after 26 years in County Hall, says he looks at all the pledges made by new candidates and fears what lies ahead.

Simple arithmetic dictates that new taxes must be part of the county's recovery, he said, despite the pledges of so many not to raise them. And he believes the campaign stands offer little understanding of government and its mission, and little potential for compromise an art he deems essential to governing.

"Their platforms are very narrow in nature," he said. "I don't see any teamwork; no cohesive effort. It will be every man or woman for themselves."

Some challengers don't buy the concept that incumbents are vulnerable.

John Schrock, who is challenging an incumbent Republican for the first time in anyone's memory, says Ranzenhofer still holds all the advantages.

"If the election were held in May or June, he would have been out," he said. "But all the media attention now is on hurricane relief efforts. People now are just, like, it's going to happen."

He acknowledges, however, that the mere fact that an incumbent Republican is subjected to a rare intraparty challenge is significant.

"Democrats always run primaries, and Republicans don't," he said. "But I'm going against the grain, and that's ruffling a lot of feathers."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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