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One-party rule is now the rule in the Northtowns

Joseph Spino is an endangered political species in the Northtowns.

Assuming his 48-vote lead over his Democratic opponent holds up after absentee ballots are counted, Spino would join the Amherst Town Board as its only Republican.

Amherst would have the only town board with a dissenting voice in the most populated of Erie County's northern suburbs.

In Tuesday's elections, the Town of Tonawanda and Village of Kenmore boards remained fully Democratic. Clarence's Town Board remained all-Republican and Grand Island saw Republicans take full control of the Town Board.

Besides Spino, the only other exception to the rule is Thomas Newman, who won his Tonawanda Common Council race without facing real opposition. Democrats went from 3-2 to 4-1 control on the council.

Granted, town and citywide candidates of another party can win in a community where the other party dominates the council. And, except for Democrats in Cheektowaga and Lackawanna, this absolute partisan divide isn't the case in the other large suburbs to the east and south of Buffalo.

But one-party rule is, more than ever, the rule in the Northtowns.

"It's striking. You move from one community to the next, and it can go from one whole party to the next," said Matthew Braun, Republican chairman in the Town of Tonawanda.

Voter registration shifts

Shifts in voter enrollment are driving changes on the elected boards and councils.

The Buffalo News analyzed registration data from the Erie County Board of Elections from 1979 and this year. The towns of Tonawanda and Amherst have shown the biggest change in enrollment over that period of time.

In 1979, Republicans had a 54% to 38% enrollment advantage over Democrats in the Town of Tonawanda. By this year, enrollment nearly reversed itself, with Democrats holding a 45% to 28% advantage. Over those 40 years, Democrats added more than 5,000 registered voters while Republicans lost nearly 11,000 in the town.

Tonawanda's Republican Party had an iron grip on the Town Board and the supervisor's job for decades.

Braun said the registration numbers switched to the favor of Democrats for the first time around 2000. Soon after that, Democrat Dan Crangle gained a toehold on the Town Board.

By 2007, Democrats held every seat, and they haven't lost a race since, including Tuesday when Democratic Supervisor Joe Emminger beat a Republican challenger who didn't actively campaign and two Democrats won an open Town Board seat and the seat recently vacated by a member who went to the Erie County Legislature.

Amherst also was a reliably Republican town, with the GOP holding a formidable 53% to 34% edge in 1979. Forty years later, Republicans had gained just 378 voters while Democrats added more than 17,000, giving them a solid 41% to 31% margin.

Republicans traditionally held the supervisor's seat and outright control of the Town Board. By the 1990s, Democrats, including Dan Ward, were breaking through. However, as recently as 2013, Mark Manna was the only Democrat on the Town Board.

Over the 2013, 2015 and 2017 elections, Democrats gained ground to the point they took full control of the Town Board two years ago.

What happened to Amherst's Republicans?

Tuesday continues trend

Tuesday's elections for the most part solidified one-party rule, even in communities where Democrats have made gains.

In Clarence, Democrats didn't challenge Republican Supervisor Patrick Casilio or two Republican Town Board members seeking re-election. Clarence Democratic Chairwoman Rebecca Bylewski, whose husband, Scott, also a Democrat, previously served as town supervisor, did not respond to a message seeking comment Friday.

Republicans maintain a sizable enrollment edge in Clarence – 45% to 28% over Democrats – but their voter registration lead has shrunk since 1979, when they held an overwhelming 64% to 24% advantage while the town was less populated.

Republicans in Kenmore didn't challenge Mayor Patrick Mang and two other village trustees seeking re-election this fall, so the Village Board will remain all-Democratic. Speaking before the election, Mang, who has only faced one challenger during his four campaigns for mayor, said he wonders if the country's bitter partisan divide scares away potential office seekers.

Grand Island saw the biggest change in Tuesday's elections in the Northtowns. Republicans had held a 3-2 advantage, with Democratic Supervisor Nate McMurray and Independent Councilwoman Beverly Kinney holding the other seats.

Republican John Whitney won a three-way race for supervisor and Republican incumbent Michael Madigan and challenger Thomas Digati won the Town Board seats up for grabs, giving them 5-0 control of the board. This Republican sweep took place even though Democrats have closed the gap in the historically red town, from a 51% to 36% deficit to a narrow 36% to 34% Republican lead.

There were a pair of exceptions to the growth of one-party rule in the northern suburbs.

Democrats in the City of Tonawanda gained an extra seat on the Common Council when Sean Rautenstrauch won a seat held by Republican Michael Young, who did not seek re-election. Democrats have a 42% to 28% enrollment advantage in the city.

Republican Thomas Newman won re-election to the council after his opponent stopped campaigning and moved to Clarence, the Twin Cities Sun reported.

In Amherst, Democratic Councilwoman Deborah Bruch Bucki was the top Town Board vote-getter Tuesday, but the race for the second seat was a tight one. Spino leads Democrat Mike Szukala by 12,838 votes to 12,790 votes, with absentee ballots likely to settle the race.

Issues affect races

Spino succeeded in a town where Democrats have an extra 8,000 voters because he made the case that Democrats have raised taxes, dithered on deciding the future of the former Westwood Country Club site and backed a costly plan to expand Metro Rail into the town, said Amherst Republican Chairman Brian Rusk.

"People are sick and tired of one-party rule," at least in Amherst, Rusk said. Spino also got a boost from the Conservative Party line, which provided him 2,767 votes.

Bucki defended the board's work in recent years, noting she didn't always go along with her fellow Democrats.

"The town is well-served by a Town Board of all Democrats when board members can have open dialogue about matters of public policy and disagree when necessary without being disagreeable," she said before the election.

Republicans were less successful in making their anti-Democratic message stick in the Town of Tonawanda.

GOP candidates emphasized the need for change, but Democrats swept the Town Board races. Braun, the GOP chairman, said Republican candidates can take pride in their effort considering they started off with a hefty enrollment disadvantage and saw Democrats outraise and outspend them by a considerable margin as well.

"We're up against tough odds, but we're not discouraged," Braun said.

GOP seeks to break Democratic lock in Tonawanda

Emminger and other Democratic candidates emphasized their economic development efforts and their ability to manage the loss of revenue from the town's largest taxpayer, the former Huntley generating station, without a decline in town services.

In a Facebook post the morning after the election, Emminger congratulated everyone who ran for office in the area and encouraged those who lost to continue to "fight on for your cause."

Editors' Picks

Local issues and personalities play a role, as well. Opponents of the previous plan for a massive mixed-use development at the Westwood site, a project that now has stalled, worked diligently on behalf of Amherst Democrats in the 2015 and 2017 elections.

On Grand Island, two large potential developments, one a mixed-use project with senior and traditional housing and one a potential Amazon distribution center, have drawn the attention of residents who worry about traffic and loss of green space on the island.

All candidates for Grand Island Town Board said they would approach new developments cautiously, but Democratic supervisor candidate James R. Sharpe said he believes his campaign was hurt by the publicity and questions surrounding the prospective projects, particularly the Southpointe housing plan.

"That became very polarizing," he said.

Republicans also came out to support GOP county executive candidate Lynne Dixon, who did well on the island, Sharpe said.

Are voters in this part of Erie County supporting one party across the board more frequently? Partisan labels at the federal level have come to mean more today.

A.J. Baynes, president and CEO of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce and a former aide to a Republican state senator, said he believes voters still weigh the pros and cons of each candidate for local office.

"People still vote for individuals," Baynes said, especially as once all-powerful county party committees cede more control and responsibility to the candidates themselves.

Does this make a difference when the members of these boards move on from the elections to the task of governing? Candidates for office and even some good-government groups say the public isn't well-served by one-party rule.

Baynes didn't go that far, but said it's up to the same people who put one party in full control to keep an eye on what they do in office.

"It's on the electorate to hold the party in power accountable," he said.

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