By just two percentage points in a race that changed leads as more votes were counted, incumbent Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard claimed victory over Bernie Tolbert shortly after midnight Wednesday. However, Democratic leaders say they're not conceding this race just yet.
With 99 percent of districts reporting as of the early morning hours, Howard led Tolbert by 3,850 votes. Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Jeremy Zellner said there are many more absentee ballots that must still be counted.
"I think there's about 11,000 absentees, just over 7,000 returned as of this point," he said at Democratic Party headquarters inside Statler City in downtown Buffalo. "There's still numbers being dumped in, so I don't think anybody's ready to do any conceding anytime soon."
Just three blocks away, inside the Avant at Delaware Avenue and West Huron Street, Republicans were celebrating victory. Erie County GOP Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy announced that the people had chosen a law enforcer over a community organizer.
"I thank you all for keeping an open mind and for doing your own thinking," Howard said. "No one should let other people do their thinking for them. I love honorable people. I love those that believe in personal responsibility. I don't care what political party you come from. I don't care about your race, your religion, your marital status or your sexual preference or natural origin. My commitment remains equal to protect your safety."
The sheriff had come under fire during the campaign for issues including the number of inmate deaths at the Erie County Holding Center since he took office in 2005, as well as a recent sex discrimination lawsuit filed against him by a now-retired Holding Center officer. Howard, while named in that lawsuit, was not accused directly of any wrongdoing.
He also came under fire for his appearance at an April 1 political rally in support or President Trump, during which he wore his uniform. Critics took exception to the presence of Confederate flags waving nearby as he spoke to a politically right-leaning crowd.
Howard addressed the personnel within his office and other law enforcement agencies, apologizing for what he suggested was their work being sullied by election politics aimed at defeating his campaign.
"The people that risk their lives on a daily basis for the good of their community, I am truly and deeply sorry that so many of you had your good work undermined in an attempt to get at me," Howard said.
Tolbert's campaign, meanwhile, was targeted by negative campaign advertising recalling alleged sexist remarks made while he worked for the National Basketball Association.
The challenger appeared at Statler City and, after giving interviews to a couple television stations, quickly left. WBFO was unable to secure an interview on site.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said he didn't blame Tolbert for not conceding early Wednesday morning, stating the race was "too close to call." He, like the candidate, felt upbeat earlier in the day.
"We had really good, positive vibes all day," Poloncarz said. "We felt comfortable that at least it was going to be a close race. We knew we were in it. We did not feel like this was something we could not win."
Howard ended his victory speech with a comment that drew cheers within the Avant but would likely cause those three blocks away in the Statler to cringe.
"I have to say that sneaking into our country does not make you an immigrant. It makes you an illegal alien," he said.