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COMPTROLLER RACE STARTING TO HEAT UP

In the long history of Erie County politics, electing the county comptroller has never really fired up the masses. Torches and pitchforks don't dominate comptroller contests.

Oh, Democrat Brian Higgins and Republican Nancy Naples slugged it out back in 1993. And Democrat Jeff Swiatek made it interesting in 2001. But the wonderful world of debits and credits normally equates with major yawners.

That was then, however, and this is now. The 2005 fiscal meltdown in county government has refocused attention on the Rath Building and all that transpires there. And that's why along with 15 races in the County Legislature, the showdown over comptroller -- and Erie County's finances -- will attract major attention this year.

Incumbent Republican Nancy Naples appears to be already sitting atop the lightning rod. Once considered indestructible, she came as close as you can get in her rematch against Higgins last year for Congress -- and in an overwhelmingly Democratic district.

Losing that election probably didn't hurt her political standing at all. Her campaign was more than credible -- maybe even stellar. And in January she indicated she had every intention of running for comptroller again this fall.

But she has been hedging lately, and for good reason. Whatever or whomever is to blame for Erie County financial troubles, the mere fact that she is a three-term incumbent presiding over Erie County's money looms as a challenge. Add to that controversies over her failure to pay property taxes on time and her awarding most county bond business to a politically connected Wall Streeter, and the problems continue.

"There is concern," said one Republican insider.

Enter Mark Poloncarz, the Lackawanna native and downtown attorney who has been creeping into the Democratic scene for the past two years. At 37, he considered running against former Rep. Jack Quinn Jr. last year until Quinn bowed out, and then headed John Kerry's presidential campaign in Western New York. He has become a favorite at Democratic Headquarters, and can expect fund-raising help from one of the best -- attorney Arnold Gardner, a partner in Poloncarz's law firm of Kavinoky and Cook.

"I'm not a career politician," Poloncarz said last week. "I am someone who can come in and restore integrity and do what needs to be done in County Hall."

Former city auditor and perennial candidate Rick Pawarski is hanging around the race. But the really interesting name popping up now is Bob Whelan, the former State Supreme Court justice who was once the Buffalo comptroller. After his run-in two years ago with Erie County Democratic Chairman Len Lenihan, when he was denied renomination for Supreme Court, Whelan's name continues to surface. If he is to resurrect in local politics, it appears it will be for this race.

"Some people say it's a natural in these times for someone of my caliber, and I'm deeply flattered," he said.

Whelan's name has appeared on local ballots for three decades. He is associated with money guys like businessman Hormoz Mansouri and former Democratic Chairman Steve Pigeon, as well as with political kingpins like Conservative Chairman Ralph Lorigo. In addition, he remains a close friend of County Executive Joel Giambra, who may wield more influence among Democrats these days than with his own Republicans.

The judge has been in Florida all winter and has not begun his efforts in earnest. But he plans to return to Buffalo at the end of this month. If it is going to happen, it will happen then.

Though Whelan says he harbors no ill will against Lenihan for denying him renomination to the bench in 2003, it's a good bet Lenihan's Dems will go with Poloncarz at endorsement time. Whether he faces Whelan in the primary or Naples in the general, the little known Poloncarz will need that help.

Both have been playing in the big leagues for a long time.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com