At a United Auto Workers regional meeting a few days ago, Amalgamated 686 trustee Sal Pusateri couldn't hide his enthusiasm for fellow union leader Thomas M. Fricano.
"If Tom Fricano gets in, he'll be for the working man and woman," Pusateri said. "He'll be for the kids and parents and grandparents of this district."
But two days later, at an Eastman Kodak headquarters meeting in Rochester, Rep. Bill Paxon -- Fricano's Republican opponent -- fielded concerns about labor's influence in the 1996 congressional elections from the top officials of his district's largest employer.
"And this isn't even a union town," said Sandra Taylor, a Kodak official.
The divergent views neatly summarize the congressional contest between Paxon and Fricano, with Fricano's status as UAW regional director emerging as a major campaign issue.
Paxon repeatedly refers to Fricano as a tool of "big labor" or as a "labor boss" fueling his campaign with union money, while Fricano portrays himself as a working man who has "walked in the shoes" of working people.
Harold Stanley, chairman of the political science department at the University of Rochester, said Paxon's relentless effort to
link Fricano and labor is calculated to raise doubts in a conservative, Republican district.
"It causes bad vibes with voters," he said. "He's trying to get across the idea that the candidate is beholden, to a certain extent, to labor interests."
But there were no bad vibes Wednesday evening when union members gathered at the Hearthstone Manor in Depew at a rally for Fricano and other Democratic candidates as part of an extensive get-out-the-vote effort.
"Bill Paxon is devoid of principle and destitute of any honor whatsoever," said Edward Cleary, president of the New York State AFL-CIO. "Tom Fricano has spent a lifetime serving America's greatest asset, the working people. This nation wasn't made great by tinhorn politicians like Paxon."
Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, called Fricano a labor leader of the caliber of the late Walter Reuther and his successor, Leonard Woodcock.
Fricano told cheering unionists that he is the union boss Paxon has been talking about.
"Why did I decide to run against him? If he was a relatively moderate person who didn't hate the labor movement, that would be all right," he said. "But he says, 'My opponent is a die-hard union man.' This guy is a phony."
For Paxon, however, Fricano's association with such union activities makes him fair game. Union means "liberal" to the incumbent congressman, and he says liberal doesn't fly in the 27th Congressional District.
Money -- union money -- has emerged as Paxon's major objection to Fricano's labor roots.
Paxon points to the $35 million national campaign the AFL-CIO is waging around the country on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates. Though none of that fund has been spent on Fricano's effort, Paxon objects to any money his opponent receives from union political action committees.
"I think the labor bosses over the last 20 years have taken the unions to a point antithetical to the values of working folks," Paxon said. "Twenty years ago, the UAW was working Congress in favor of tax relief. Now they're fighting welfare reform, immigration reform, affirmative action reform, and they support some of the most outrageous social policies like same-sex marriages."
Paxon claims Fricano makes $120,000 a year as one of the UAW's top leaders (Fricano insists he makes $85,000).
Fricano is proud of his union background and takes offense at Paxon's attempts to cast a pall on his labor leader role.
"His portrayal of me as this 'union boss' really gets me upset," he said. "There is no democracy in this world that doesn't have some type of free-trade union movement. Labor's interests are the interests of America."
Though some political observers speculate the AFL-CIO has not supported the Fricano race financially because it is not as competitive as others, Fricano said the absence stems from an attempt to downplay his high union profile.
He says his union PAC donations represent the contributions of union people, while more than half of his $600,000 campaign fund comes from individuals.
"That's not special interests, that's money from hard-working people," Fricano said. "Special interests is his (Paxon's) money. He had 22 pages of PAC contributions (in his financial report). He gets it from oil, chemicals, tobacco, casinos and investment bankers. To me that's special interests."
Fricano said he will not apologize for a career spanning 35 years -- one that has taken him to the top echelons of the labor movement. Though union ranks have decreased drastically across the nation in recent years, and most voters in the district are not union members, he still feels his point of view represents 95 percent of those who will vote Tuesday.