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Defying the odds, Erik Bohen captures 142nd District Assembly race

Erik T. Bohen defied all the odds Tuesday and posted a close – but solid – special election victory for the 142nd Assembly District as a Democrat running on Republican and Conservative lines, defeating Democrat Patrick B. Burke.

Bohen, 35, a Buffalo special education teacher, beat Burke – an Erie County legislator – 52 to 48 percent (5,831 to 5,293 votes) with 100 percent of the vote counted and amid extremely light turnout – about 15 percent.

He claimed the seat vacated in November by Democrat Michael P. Kearns, who was elected Erie County clerk and resigned from the Assembly.

Now Bohen follows to Albany the same path established by Kearns in 2012, who back then won his own special election to a vacant seat by running as a Democrat on the Republican and Conservative lines.

Bohen distributed literature throughout the district touting support from Kearns, and appealed to a still-strong conservative tendency in South Buffalo and the suburbs.

Even though he gained intense support from the Erie County GOP, Bohen has promised to caucus with Assembly Democrats when he heads to Albany within the next few days. He has also promised to support Carl E. Heastie for speaker.

And though Burke had been considered the favorite via support from the Democratic organization and a host of unions, few in the district had counted out Bohen from the beginning. His family is well known in South Buffalo, and he had his own cadre of union support stemming from his father, William Bohen, the recently retired business agent for Ironworkers Local 6.

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It is now expected, however, that another bruising election lies ahead in the September Democratic primary.

Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said late Tuesday night that Burke wants to run again in the primary, as does Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski.

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But Tuesday night belonged to Bohen, who said he was always confident of victory because of "my friends, my family and what I've done in the community."

"I've been active in the community for 20 years and they know me," he told The Buffalo News.

And he labeled "very significant" his victory on the Republican and Conservative lines.

"Because my own union went after me," he said, referring to the Buffalo Teachers Federation. "I'm a teacher and the union went after me. But the teachers know me, and they voted for me."

The win provides new bragging rights to Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, who along with Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo claimed another victory in the 2 to 1 Democratic district. With another Democrat going to the Assembly on the GOP/Conservative lines, they have engineered another improbable victory – even if Bohen has promised to caucus with Democrats.

For Democrats and teachers unions that lined up solidly with expensive mailers backing Burke, however, the Bohen victory is especially stinging.

"With such an extremely low turnout, anything could happen, and it did," said Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner, one of Burke's main supporters. "You can throw out everything at 15 percent turnout, including trends and enrollment."

Zellner added he did not believe the 592 absentee ballots yet to be counted would make a difference in Tuesday's outcome.

The election was called earlier this year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to fill the seat vacated by Kearns when he was elected county clerk. And even though special elections historically generate little enthusiasm, officials from both parties used words like dismal to describe the turnout Tuesday.

Both sides had mobilized all their forces for Western New York’s only special election this year.

Burke, 33, particularly enjoyed the advantages of support from the Democratic Party, which saw its loyalists knocking on doors and making phone calls on his behalf throughout Election Day.

“I don’t think Pat could have done anything more,” Zellner said. “He had strong labor support knocking on doors.”

Indeed, mailers had circulated throughout the 142nd District in recent days sponsored by groups with teacher union ties. Some blasted Bohen for his family friendship with Carl P. Paladino, a South Buffalo resident and former Buffalo Board of Education member considered an archenemy of teacher unions.

That move was viewed in some quarters as risky, however, since Paladino has traditionally enjoyed support in Democratic South Buffalo and the suburbs, including in 2010 when he was the Republican candidate for governor.

Bohen, meanwhile, had been blanketing the district with mailers directly aiming at Cuomo.

“The theme was ‘Erik Bohen will stand up to Andrew Cuomo,’” Langworthy noted.

The 142nd District includes Lackawanna, Orchard Park, West Seneca and parts of Buffalo.

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