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From discontent to apathy at the polls Despite Erie County's woes, a low number of voters left many scratching their heads by sticking with status quo.

Multimillion-dollar budget gaps, library closings and the prospect of a double-digit tax increase didn't stop Erie County voters from sticking with the status quo on primary day.

So what happened to the tax revolt of 2005?

What happened to the "toss the bums out" attitude that seemed so prevalent just a few months ago?

It never materialized, at least not on primary day.

In the end, most, if not all, of the county legislators seeking re-election won their party's primaries.

And one of the biggest reasons was the small number of people, Democratic and Republican, who turned out to vote.

In most legislative districts, turnout was less than 25 percent of eligible voters. And in two of them, it fell below 20 percent.

"Those are extraordinarily low numbers," said County Legislator Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo, who is not seeking re-election. "That almost represents apathy, which is the last thing you would expect this year."

Of the six lawmakers facing opposition Tuesday, at least five won their races, some of them easily.

"I was surprised by the outcome, I really was," said Donald O. Allen, who took on Legislature Chairman George A. Holt Jr. but lost.

Holt, who benefited from a crowded field of six challengers, wasn't the only incumbent to survive the county's fiscal meltdown.

"For a challenger to win, you need a big turnout," said Paul V. Sullivan, the Democrat who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Legislator Timothy M. Kennedy. "I think people are just disgusted."

In Kennedy's district, which includes South Buffalo and Lovejoy, 23 percent of the registered Democrats turned out to vote.

In Holt's East Side district, the number was even lower -- 19 percent.

Joseph Kennedy, the Democrat who lost to Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli in the Town of Tonawanda, said he was shocked by the low turnout.

While going door-to-door, he found voters angry about the state of county government and, more specifically, the presence of not one, but two, state-run control boards in Erie County.

Despite that discontent, less than 25 percent of the Democrats in his district turned out to vote.

"It's absolutely insane to have that kind of turnout, but the people have spoken," said Kennedy, who ran as part of an anti-incumbency group called Primary Challenge.

Democrat Gregory B. Olma, a former county legislator who ran again this year but lost, said he was amazed by the large number of voters he encountered who didn't even know who was running for the County Legislature.

"You have about a quarter of the people deciding things for everyone else," Olma said. "What's that old saying -- people get the representation they deserve."

Unfortunately for challengers, low turnouts historically have benefited incumbents or candidates endorsed and supported by the two major political parties.

And that's exactly what happened in Buffalo, where all four Democratic-endorsed candidates -- Holt, Kennedy, incumbent Demone A. Smith and challenger Maria Whyte -- won primary races.

"The standard line is that low turnout brings out the party faithful," said DeBenedetti.

Kennedy said he saw it firsthand in his race against Marinelli, who had the backing of the Erie County Democratic Party.

"I went up against the machine," he said. "They've got the army, so they can buy and sell me 100 times."

The only incumbent who seems at risk of losing is one-term Democrat Timothy M. Wroblewski of West Seneca. With a large number of paper ballots still to be counted, fellow Democrat Cynthia E. Locklear was leading Wroblewski by 134 votes, 361-227.

Even though Locklear is ahead, she wonders why more voters didn't turn out for the Legislature races. She said the turnout in south Cheektowaga was less than 10 percent.

"That's abysmally low," said Locklear.

Given the large number of paper ballots used in West Seneca, where Wroblewski served on the Town Board, it's possible he could win his race against Locklear.

If he does, all six incumbent legislators -- five Democrats and one Republican -- will have won their primary races.

And they will have done it at time when county government is in distress, maybe worse.

"It seems most of the public's animosity is directed at the county executive," said DeBenedetti of Republican Joel A. Giambra. "Or maybe the public isn't as upset as some people claim it is."

If voter turnout is any indication, he may be right.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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