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The roadblocks are huge. Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1. A Republican hasn't won citywide since 1970. Democrats always raise and spend a lot more money.

So why would Kevin Helfer, a registered Conservative of all things, run as a Republican for city comptroller?

He thinks he can beat Democrat Anthony Nanula, and he's not alone.

Don't look now, but there's a competitive, general election race for citywide office, a reason for Buffalo voters to go to the polls in November.

It's also a race of contrasts.

One is a self-made small business owner, a longtime city resident who got elected by a fluke to the Common Council. He's a white politician who's immensely popular in his Democratic and African-American district.

The other is from a family of wealth, a Niagara County native who moved to Buffalo five years ago and came out of nowhere to win a state Senate seat and overnight become a candidate for statewide office. He won a tough Democratic primary and benefits greatly from his close ties to the party's top boss.

It's a David vs. Goliath type race, with Helfer playing the role of underdog.

To win, he needs voters such as Clarence E. Jackson Sr., a registered Democrat he met going door-to-door last week.

"He's got a tough hill to climb," said Jackson of 701 Eggert Ave. "I'm a Democrat with an independent philosophy. I don't have a problem with Nanula, but I like Helfer. He's always been there when we needed him."

Even among Democratic activists, Helfer is seen as a formidable foe, a well-respected lawmaker known for his independence, hard work and new ideas.

"It's the first real Republican-Democratic election in Buffalo in years," said Dennis Ward, chairman of the Amherst Democratic Committee and a close follower of city politics.

"It's hard to start out with a 5-to-1 enrollment edge and say that Anthony is at a disadvantage. But Kevin, unlike other Republican candidates, has the stature of being an elected official. He's not just some guy carrying the party flag."

On paper, Nanula seems like a shoo-in. He has lots of money, an ethnic heritage, a record of winning close races and a credible plan for reforming Buffalo's top fiscal office.

But Nanula also has hurdles of his own.

He refuses to rule out a run for state comptroller before his city term would end and is seen by many, Democrats and Republicans alike, as carrying political baggage brought on by his close ties to party Chairman G. Steven Pigeon.

It's a race filled with wild cards, from the potential for coattail effects from the county executive's race to who will spend more money on TV, radio and direct-mail advertising.

Nanula is clearly the favorite. But Democrats see Helfer as a credible threat, a candidate capable of becoming the first non-Democrat to hold citywide office since former Council Member Alfreda Slominski.

"He has demonstrated his electability in an overwhelmingly Democratic district," said Joseph F. Crangle, former state and county Democratic Party Chairman. "It's also a district that's predominantly black."

The city comptroller's job is held by Joel A. Giambra, a Democrat turned Republican who's now running for county executive. It pays $88,000 a year.

As City Hall's top fiscal officer, the comptroller is responsible for investing millions of dollars in city funds. He also acts as a watchdog with the authority to audit city departments.

Not surprisingly, both candidates claim to be
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Comptroller: Both candidates likely to stress independence and commitment
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the most qualified for the job.

Nanula comes from a background in business, notably as former president of Nanco Development, a local real estate and investment company, and Essex Homes, one of the area's premier home builders.

He entered politics as a Democratic Party fund-raiser and, at the age of 27, got elected to the State Senate seat vacated by Anthony Masiello, when he ran for mayor. Viewed as bright and ambitious, Nanula quickly set his eyes on state comptroller, an office he still covets.

Then why would Nanula run for citywide office?

"I don't view it as a step down," he said. "I have the kind of experience that is unmatched at City Hall. I'm not part of the gang. I bring a real dynamic government and private sector background to the equation."

Helfer also started in business, the owner of a small landscaping business, a political unknown who snuck onto the Council in 1993 after the incumbent pleaded guilty to election fraud and withdrew from the race.

Almost overnight, he emerged as one of the Council's most respected members.

Community leaders, in a survey by The Buffalo News earlier this year, rated him higher than any other Council member. He finished first in all but two of the 16 categories used in the survey. And in those two, he finished among the top four.

Despite all that, Helfer knows it's an uphill battle. Yes, the huge Democratic enrollment works against him, but he plans to use his minority status as a selling point to voters.

"Of all the offices you want to be independent and nonpolitical, this is the office," he said. "It's good to have two different parties, it's good for checks and balances. I'm one. How can I not be independent?"

Independence and commitment. Look for both candidates to use that as their mantra in the coming weeks.

Helfer will question Nanula's close ties to Pigeon and the party. He also plans to take issue with his opponent's interest in statewide office.

"We'll fulfill the four-year term," he said. "I've been in Buffalo 24 years. My passion is here. I don't want to go anywhere else."

Nanula refuses to rule out a run for state comptroller but says he's committed to a full term at City Hall. He counters by noting that Helfer once toyed with the idea of running for mayor and may do so again.

To hear Nanula talk, Helfer is part of the problem, not the solution. He suggests that his opponent's achievements as a legislator are minimal.

"Kevin Helfer has been in city government for six years," Nanula said. "Voters have to ask themselves: 'Do they want the status quo or someone with a fresh perspective?' "

Pigeon said Helfer can call himself an independent, but he's as close to Rep. Thomas Reynolds, a Republican party leader, as Nanula is to him.

"He's exceptionally close to Tom Reynolds, who's the boss of bosses," Pigeon said. "It's laughable for him to suggest he's more independent than Anthony. Let's not get into the pot calling the kettle black."

Republican leaders claim Helfer has, to their frustration, kept the party at bay when it comes to city government.

"He's not political at all, take my word for it, I know," said Dennis Ryan, chairman of the city Republican Committee. "He's totally concerned about the city and totally concerned about his constituents."

One thing is certain: For the first time in years, Buffalo has a citywide horse race in November.

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