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Control of County Legislature at Stake on Election Day

By Eileen Buckley

Buffalo, NY – For the first time in 20 years, the Erie County Legislature will be downsized from 17 to 15 districts, bringing an end to the weighted voting system. The realignment begins to take shape after winners emerge from next Tuesday's general elections. One of the most watched races is in the 10th legislative district.

Over the last 23 years, Charles Swanick managed to maintain his district seat, serving as a Democrat. But no longer is he a "shoe-in." Swanick abruptly switched to the Republican Party earlier this year. At the time, a court imposed weighted voting system gave Republicans a majority that assured him the chairmanship. But it's a move that apparently has damaged his long-time political career. Swanick lost the republican primary to Kevin Hardwick, a political science professor at Canisius College. Hardwick says it is no longer business as usually for the career politician.

"I think as it turned out, Chuck may have committed political suicide," Hardwick said. "However, if it weren't for me standing up, he would have been on the fast track and in the driver's seat. He had everything he wanted. Obviously this was a calculated decision on his part. The only thing that didn't bargain on was me."

Swanick has decided to stay in the race, running on the Independence and Conservative Party lines. He faces a three-way race. Democrat Patricia Ryan-Dudek is also vying for the seat. But Swanick says he won't make any pre-election predictions.

"I think, on this one, the coin is up in the air. I think everybody does what they think is necessary to get elected," Swanick said. "I don't think anyone can forecast the outcome of the 10th legislative district."

Dudek is a registered nurse who has worked for Women and Children's hospital for the past 20 years. Dudek says she has all the right abilities to serve county residents.

"We work until we drop. We are good problem solvers. We can set priorities and we have good judgement. I have always seen my roll as a patient advocate. And I think this would be the ultimate patient advocate role," Dudek said.

Dudek is not completely new to politics. She served as a former village of Kenmore trustee and once ran for State Senate. Dudek says many district voters, especially senior citizens, are dissatisfied with Swanick's party change.

"They usually bring it up to me that they are really disgusted," Dudek said. "They really can't believe he did that after supporting him all those years. He switched parties, and now they say they can't vote for him again."

But Swanick says he stands by his party switch. He says he did it to stop the impasse in the Legislature last January.

"It is a real difference of opinion as an elected official to cover the political route or step out and get things done," Swanick said. "This is a real watershed for all of us this year. We will see what happens. But in my heart, to break the impasse, to break that divide and get going, to me that was what I had to do."

Some believe that Swanick and Hardwick will only end up splitting the republican vote, giving Dudek a strong edge among democratic voters. But Hardwick says he doesn't expect that will happen.

"Honestly I don't think there is a realistic chance of that," Hardwick said. "I think more likely that not people are going to perceive Chuck Swanick as a Democrat and he will split that vote with Pat Dudek."

Reapportionment changes mean a return to "majority rule" -- the party with the most representatives gains control. Dudek is among seven new female candidates running for the legislature this election season. Five of them are Democrats. Minority Leader George Holt says the Democrats are hoping to capture another seat and possibly regain the majority in the Legislature.

"Whoever is victorious, hopefully we will be successful in making a determination of who will be our leader in the Democratic caucus and then prepare for the upcoming 2004 year," Holt said.

The Republican incumbents in the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th districts also face opposition this year. But Republican Majority Leader Michael Ranzenhoffer says he remains "cautiously optimistic" about maintaining a majority.

"I think the public likes the work the Republican Legislature has done, starting with the downsizing of county government, the services we have provided, and making sure the tax cut remains in effect," Ranzenhofer said.

Ranzenhoffer says no matter the outcome, Republicans will move forward to work for county residents. That is something Hardwick, Dudek and Swanick all agree they are ready to do.

"My message is resonating," Hardwick said. "I'm talking about reform, fundamental reform on the County Legislature, beginning with having the intellectual honesty to admit this is a part time job."

"I think people like me should run for office," Dudek said. "I think a lot of people believe it is unattainable. It really isn't. When you see some of the decision that are being made, I can make better decisions than that"

"We are struggling here, and every day that goes by there ought to be some accomplishments," Swanick said. "That is the way I viewed it then, and still view to this day -- that at the end of the day for me, when I sit down at night, I think about what we got done and what we didn't get done. I want to make sure the ledger is very much on the side of accomplishments."

Voters in the 10th district will make the final decision Tuesday -- and there is plenty for them to digest from the candidates.