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The Lej roundup: power and possibilities

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Everything is up for grabs. Everything in the CountyLegislature, that is.

In theory.

Ordinarily, only half the seats in the county's lawmaking body come open in any election (other than once a decade, after redistricting). But this year a term-limits law takes effect, clearing out lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who've been longtime fixtures. The result is that all 29 seats of the legislature are up for election.

Theoretically, that opens up infinite possibilities. But in reality, most of the seats will remain in the hands of the party that now holds them. In the city, that's the Democrats; in most of the suburbs, it's the Republicans. Still, just enough seats are in play --- and more than enough is power at stake --- for this campaign to be well worth watching.

Sally Brown, of the League of Women Voters and the Rochester Voters Alliance, hopes that's true.

"We feel it's enormously important," she says of the CountyLegislature election, "and nobody's paying attention to it. They're the ones who decide where the money goes."

As it stands, the Republicans hold a 17-12 majority. That means they can --- and do --- control the county's legislative agenda. If they want a law, they can pass it. If they don't, they can kill it. What they cannot do alone, however, is approve bonding issues --- borrowing money by selling county bonds. That requires approval by at least two-thirds of the legislators.

Currently, Democrats have enough seats to prevent bonding. Earlier this year, they used that power to block the controversial purchase of a parking lot near the airport from developer (and former Republican legislator) Peter Formicola.

With a handful of races shaping up to be competitive, the possibilities range from the Democrats taking a slim majority to the Republicans solidifying their control over power, winning enough seats to be able to issue bonds without a single Democratic vote.

Here's the how electoral math stacks up.

Seats the Dems could pick up

The Democrats are almost certain to regain control of the 21st legislative district on the city's east side. Democrat Carrie Andrews, a labor relations specialist with the state teachers' union, faces Republican Phil Zuber, a bus driver and landscaper.

The Dems have a clear enrollment advantage and lost the seat only when the current legislator --- Chris Wilmot, who was elected as a Democrat --- switched parties.

Democrats also have a shot (albeit a slim one) at unseating Majority Leader Bill Smith in District 10 (part of Pittsford and East Rochester). Challenging the powerful legislator is former businessman and teacher Ted Nixon, who's run a visible campaign.

It helps Nixon that Pittsford has drifted toward the center in recent years. John Kerry carried the village in last fall's presidential election, and this past spring Democratic candidates for the village board ran credible races, barely losing. Still, Nixon will have to overcome a significant registration disadvantage. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the 10th district, 6,851 to 4493.

The Dems also think they have a chance in the 8th district (Webster), where Chris Gorman, who works for the local painters union, faces Republican incumbent Dave Malta, owner of Dave Malta Realty. This is a repeat of last year's special election, but the Dems are optimistic because this year Gorman will be on the Independence Party line. Malta won his seat last year by 458 votes, the narrowest margin of any sitting legislator.

Republican targets

Among the seats the Democrats could lose, the most interesting is the 6th district (in Greece and part of Charlotte). That seat is currently held by term-limited Fred Amato, one of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus.

Hoping to trade on the Amato name, a well-respected one in Greece, the Dems have put up Pat Amato, Fred's wife. Against her the GOP is running Ray DiRaddo, an attorney, town justice, and former town board member. The 6th also has a serious third-party candidate: the Greens' Chris Hilderbrant. Director of advocacy at the Center for Disability Rights, Hilderbrant is an articulate advocate and is well known both among governmental circles and in his own district. Dems are worried that he might be a spoiler for Amato's campaign.

The other race the Dems could easily lose is the 26th. The seat is now held by Steve Eckel, who was appointed earlier this year after Mitch Rowe stepped down. The district encompasses part of the city, parts of Irondequoit and Gates, and one large district in Greece, and it's one of the few very competitive races. Rowe says he won the seat by just 250 votes out of about 5,000 cast. If you look at registration numbers for just prime voters, he says, "it's almost a dead heat."

Eckel's Republican opponent is Tom Ferraro, who founded Foodlink and is its executive director.

The Dems will also face real challenges for both of the Irondequoit seats they hold, though they're expected to keep both. In the 17th district Ted O'Brien, who like Eckel was appointed to his seat, is an attorney and past chair of the Monroe Democratic Party. He faces businessman Phil Miglioratti.

Stephanie Aldersley, the legislator for Irondequoit's other district, the 18th, is the legislature minority leader. Like her Republican counterpart Bill Smith, she's the favorite in her district. But though she's said she not worried, she's taking no chances, running an all-out campaign. She faces Lydia Dzus, a town board member and former town clerk.

The most likely scenario is that all or most of the races play out according to the numbers. If that happens, the status quo --- a Republican majority that needs Democrats only for bonding issues --- would be preserved intact. The dearth of interest these races have generated so far (and the low voter turnout that could lead to) dictate that will probably happen.

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