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POLITICS TURN PERSONAL IN REMATCH FOR HIGHWAY CHIEF

The heat is rising in suburban politics.

Campaigns are under way to oust supervisors in Lancaster and West Seneca, as is a battle to control Amherst government. And a bitter Cheektowaga contest is sure to stir up more dirt before Election Day.

But perhaps the suburban race with the highest profile -- and so far highest spending -- is a rematch, of sorts, for what some would consider back-breaking work.

What's the job?

Plowing snow on Amherst's streets in the winter.

Picking up the town's leaves in the fall.

Filling potholes in the spring and killing mosquitoes in the summer.

Thomas J. Wik, 47, a Republican, and Patrick G. Lucey, 66, a Democrat, are candidates for Amherst highway superintendent -- a position that involves far more than the $61,000-a-year paycheck.

It's personal.

You may, in fact, remember Wik and Lucey turning a traditionally mundane race for a rather obscure political office into a knock-down, drag-out contest in 1995 that brought a highway superintendent's race to new levels. Some would say low levels.

It's time for Round 2.

"He is intent on staying in office," Lucey said. "And I'm just as intent on removing him."

A brief history for those coming in late.

Heading into the 1995 election, Lucey had been Amherst's highway superintendent for 22 years. For 14 years, no one even challenged him until Wik, a licensed engineer running Amherst's compost facility, took him on.

The race was bitter -- at times wacky -- the result, in part, of the use of radio ads, a rare campaign tool for such a local race.

Wik charged Lucey with nepotism and cutting down a 9-year-old boy's tree house.

Lucey criticized Wik for the stench at the compost facility.

Wik claimed Lucey ordered hundreds of gallons of paint and paint thinner dumped behind the town's highway garage.

Wik eventually won by 358 votes in a race so close that it wasn't decided until days after the election.

Most people probably don't know, or care, who serves as highway superintendent, as long as the job gets done, admits Dennis E. Ward, chairman of Amherst's Democratic town committee.

But it is a powerful position for the political parties, Ward said.

The Amherst Highway Department -- consisting of about 160 full-time employees -- is one of the last great bastions for patronage jobs, enabling either Amherst Republicans or Democrats to build a power base to help keep their own in office, Ward said.

"I see that as soon as the primary was over, their signs started sprouting up everywhere," Ward said. "I assume it's going to be a pretty hard-fought race."

It could be quite a melee if money is any indication.

As of two months ago, Wik had raised more than $56,000 for his race against Lucey. So far, that's more money amassed this year by any candidate running for any elected office in Erie County's suburbs.

Lucey, meanwhile, had raised more than $11,000 and estimates spending $25,000 to $30,000 total by the time his campaign is over.

To put it in perspective, look at some of the recent suburban races.

Heading into their vicious primary this month, Cheektowaga Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak and his challenger, William P. Rogowski, had raised a total of about $30,000.

Amherst Supervisor Susan J. Grelick and her challenger, Council Member William L. Kindel, spent a total of $67,917 in the 1997 supervisor's race.

Between Lucey and Wik, political observers say, this year's spending could reach the $100,000 mark.

"That's an awful lot of money," said Joseph F. Crangle, former Erie County Democratic chairman and a longtime observer of local politics.

So far, Wik -- who was slinging mud with the best of them last time around -- has been mum.

Wik walked around the highway garage on North Forest Road one day last week, pointing out where he has saved the town money and how he will cut highway taxes next year.

But he dodges questions about his opponent or takes long, thoughtful pauses before answering.

"I'm just running a positive campaign based on my accomplishments and qualifications I brought to the Highway Department," Wik recited more than once.

Robert J. Gilmour, chairman of the Amherst Republican Party, predicts the race will be tame compared to the 1995 contest.

"That's where the hype for this race is coming from. People remember four years ago," Gilmour said.

"I'm not sure you're going to see that this time," Gilmour added. "I think people are starting to realize when you play hardball, you have to be very careful how you deal with it."

But Lucey may have other ideas.

Wik spread lies in 1995, Lucey claims, specifically about paint buried behind the highway garage, a claim that, after a lengthy $150,000 investigation, proved unfounded.

Now, Lucey -- who said he was persuaded to run by residents and highway employees -- has been going door-to-door, trying to expose Wik's four years at the helm.

The snowplowing has been sloppy, Lucey said. The tree trimming isn't being done, Lucey claims. He questions Wik's management and leadership.

Wik even naps at Town Board meetings, claims Lucey, who has passed around a snapshot to back up his charge.

Some say Lucey's just out for revenge.

"I wasn't ready to retire, I'll admit that. But this isn't sour grapes," said Lucey, a longtime employee of Westinghouse Electric Corp. before being elected highway superintendent in 1974. "The main thrust of my campaign is that he's not doing the job."

Wik isn't biting.

"We've gotten many positive comments about the snowplowing and the leaf pickup," Wik said. "We've made a lot of improvements in the service."

"It's just sour grapes," Wik said. "That's all it is."

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