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WEST SIDE STORY IS TOLD IN NASTY WORDS

In this sensitive era, Citizens Against Nick Bonifacio could almost make a passer-by pass out.

The building at Grant and Potomac bears neatly painted messages with one mission: to dis Niagara Council Member Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr.

"No More Hand-Picked, Party-Controlled Italians," says one.

"He speaks with a fork tongue, that's why he can eat so much spaghetti," declares another.

Who gets away with this stuff these days?

Clarence Carnahan does. The Citizens Against Nick Bonifacio is, really, just one citizen with a sign shop. Asked how many citizens against Bonifacio there are, Carnahan says simply: "I don't know."

A baseball bat leans by the door of his chilly workroom. His huge old Rottweiler, Bucky, growls faintly under a table. "Give him a treat," he says, offering me a biscuit.

The building used to say, "Exclusively Neon and Signs," but two years ago he launched his sign campaign.

His troubles began, he says, when he backed Bonifacio's foe in a Common Council race. After that, he says, thugs broke his windows repeatedly, kept him from bidding on jobs and beat him badly outside the nearby community center. When he called the cops, he adds, they arrested him, not his attackers.

It would take weeks to sort out his other grievances. But Carnahan has one victory. Though his offensive signs raise questions about where freedom of speech ends and prejudice begins, their survival in this politically correct era is a miracle -- and suggests that certain civil liberties are alive and well.

"I'm not prejudiced," Carnahan declares. "My father was Irish. My mother was Italian."

Bonifacio, in his sunny City Hall office, isn't so sure.

"He claims he's half Italian," he says.

Carnahan, in a Sunset Bay sweat shirt, seems the exact opposite of Bonifacio's reserve.

Yet both are Democrats, raised on the West Side. Carnahan calls me "honey." Bonifacio's assistants are "girls."

Both come from hardy Italian stock. Carnahan says his grandfather, born in Calabria, lived to be 101. Bonifacio's mother is 90.

Neither fears a fight. "The only time I got mad was when he called my girls 'b's,' " Bonifacio says, unwilling to repeat the expletive. "I put on my coat and went down there. He kept saying, 'It's not you, it's not you.' "

It does seem that, to Carnahan, Bonifacio is just a symbol for Buffalo's tyrannical leadership. But that doesn't stop the sign maker from calling him constantly. The latest call, at 6 that morning, made Bonifacio mad.

"The early part is fine. He's ranting and berating me for raising taxes. Which is fine," Bonifacio says.

He hits "Play." There's Carnahan's rapid voice, unidentified, decrying the garbage fee hike. "This is all fine," Bonifacio says. "But then . . . ." His face darkens.

"I'm glad I didn't go to Catholic schools," Carnahan is saying on the machine. "But the pope was a good man. I'm sorry he's dead. I wonder what he'd think of your politics, Nick."

Such religious references bug Bonifacio. The signs about spaghetti and mama's cooking are a low blow, too. "I live at home with my mother," he says.

Still, he tries to be philosophical about his outspoken critic.

"People would ask me, 'How can you allow that?' " he says. "But I'd say, listen, I'm in a public line of work. People have freedom of speech."

For better or worse, that freedom is alive on Grant Street.

"People say that in other parts of the city they would have burned his place down in three days," Bonifacio says. "But the West Side is more accepting."

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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