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LAFALCE FINDS THAT FAMILIARITY OF 11 TERMS BREEDS BIG SUPPORT

Rep. John J. LaFalce was strolling down Pine Avenue the other day, meeting and greeting as if everyone in sight was a chum from the old neighborhood.

Not quite. But after 22 years in Congress, LaFalce can almost make the claim.

At Latina's Market, in the City Market, and at the Como Restaurant, practically every passer-by grabs LaFalce's hand to recall how far back they go.

The congressman doesn't bother introducing himself on this rainy campaign morning -- everyone recognizes him. There's no campaign literature -- most voters around these parts know where he stands. He doesn't even hear complaints -- the majority seem comfortable with someone they've known for so long.

"These are the advantages of incumbency," he says in a candid moment.

Indeed, the Democratic congressman from the Town of Tonawanda has been through this before. He knows how to raise money, how to spend it in campaigns and how to defend a record he says reflects a diverse district stretching from Buffalo to Rochester.

"The president is trying to sound presidential in his re-election campaign; my campaign is similar," he said. "I'm just trying to be a good congressman and going out to activities as a candidate."

As he faces Orleans County Legislator David B. Callard in a low-key effort, LaFalce knows that this is not the campaign that was taking shape last spring. Erie County Comptroller Nancy A. Naples had announced a Republican challenge but then withdrew in the face of Callard's primary threat and illness in her family.

Now, LaFalce is conducting his own version of a Rose Garden campaign, barely dipping into a campaign account last reported at almost $600,000. Television is an option if needed, he says, but this year may mark the first since 1990 that he won't saturate the airwaves.

"It's the type of campaign I had most of my years, from 1976 to 1990," he said. "Then in 1992, he came at me."

"He" is William E. Miller Jr., the son of the late Lockport congressman who mounted serious challenges to LaFalce in 1992 and 1994. LaFalce beat Miller by only 9 percent in the last election, prompting the speculation about the chances of a truly serious challenger.

But LaFalce has been busy. He played a key role in keeping Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base open, shoring up Niagara County support -- never as strong as his Buffalo and Erie County power base.

He scored points by announcing a federal program to help clean up toxic-waste dumps along the Niagara River in the Town of Tonawanda, though Tonawanda Supervisor (and onetime potential challenger) Carl J. Calabrese complained that it was a long time in coming.

Most of all, however, LaFalce has fortified his "Democrat" label. He was an early and loud opponent of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and his Republican revolution, opposed President Clinton's approval of the welfare-reform bill, and remains an ardent supporter of the kind of health-care reform that fizzled early in the Clinton administration.

Although even some Democrats now deride the Clinton health-care initiative as an example of big government, LaFalce remains disappointed that it never came to fruition.

"I was absolutely delighted (in the Clinton proposals) because it was something I feel passionately about," he said. "There are still 40 million Americans without health care."

Like Miller before him, Callard constantly emphasizes LaFalce's 22 years in Congress with a familiar "he's been there too long" refrain. But LaFalce contends that his experience makes him Western New York's top man in a system still dominated by seniority.

He won't talk about it, but many Washington observers say he could emerge as chairman of the powerful Banking Committee should the Democrats regain control of the House.

"It all depends on the curse of complacency," he says about the Democrats' chances. "I think we've got to get a better turnout from blacks and Hispanics."

LaFalce points to 1994 election results showing strength (55 percent) in a district where the top of the ticket (then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo) ran at only 35 percent. With the stronger Clinton leading the Democrats this year, LaFalce hopes that the "Pine Avenue approach" will work in a year when he faces a challenge he has heard before.

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