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Collins, Keane amass campaign cash In race depicted as haves versus have-nots, contributions soar

For Christopher C. Collins, this year's contest for county executive has spawned hefty returns from tony neighborhoods like Spaulding Lake, East Amherst and Nottingham Terrace.

James P. Keane, meanwhile, has proved the darling of labor, even as some public employee unions contributing to his cause prepare to face him across a negotiating table. He, too, enjoys generous support from companies, lawyers and his share of the country club set.

Still, a computer analysis of campaign finance records for October conducted by The Buffalo News says much about the supporters of both candidates. Among those findings:

*Keane, a Democrat, has established a far broader base of support, raising $1.5 million.

*Partly because of his union support, Keane has almost twice as many $10,000-or-more donors than Collins, with the biggest contribution of $42,000 coming from Nicholas Stracick, a retiree from Derby.

*Unions so far have shelled out slightly more than $115,000 to Keane. Buffalo firefighters gave the most, slightly more than $25,000; health care unions donated $20,000; while locals and councils of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- some of which represent county and city employees -- gave $21,000. Several other unions represent employees of firms doing business with the county.

*Collins, a Republican, again is personally responsible for about 40 percent of his total. His latest loan of $50,000 brings the sum of his personal and corporate contributions to $410,500 out of about $1 million raised.

*Collins' contributors tended to write bigger checks, averaging $530. The average gift to Keane, meanwhile, was just shy of $390.

*A third of the Collins' contributors live in homes with tax assessments of at least $300,000. Half of his donors -- 71 -- live in homes assessed at $170,000 or more, according to Erie County's Real Property Tax Services Department records. Only 29 live in homes assessed at less than $100,000.

*In Keane's case, among a sample of 140 October donors, only 25 lived in homes assessed at $170,000 or more, while slightly more than half lived in homes assessed at less than $100,000.

*Those who live in the more expensive homes gave Collins the most. Almost two-thirds of the $101,000 Collins raised in individual contributions and reported in the latest full report stemmed from those living in homes with assessments of at least $300,000.

In many ways, the numbers portray two candidates working opposite ends of the financial spectrum. Keane proudly points to his blue-collar roots while railing against Collins and the companies he says made him rich off government contracts and incentives.

"I represent average people, approaching 4,000 individual donors from all over Erie County," Keane said. "He represents wealth, pomp and circumstance. It's a huge difference."

But Keane also received the biggest contribution from an individual donor -- $42,000 from Stracick, the retiree from Derby.

"None of us knew who he was," said Donald Van Every, Keane's spokesman. "Jim had no idea he was a multimillionaire."

Stracick could not be reached. Van Every said Stracick told the campaign he was declining interview requests and wants the contribution to "speak for itself."

His donation comes close to the maximum the law allows.

In 2000, Stracick and a Canadian associate won a $240 million verdict against Walt Disney Co. for stealing their idea for a sports complex.

Keane's public comments and television ads claim that Collins has made money off government contracts or government incentives for the 11 companies in which he holds significant stock. In the Oct. 18 broadcast debate, he referred to Collins' home in the Spaulding Lake development in Clarence and said his hefty campaign donations and the addresses from which they spring typify the Collins approach.

Collins says his opponent has centered his whole campaign around pitting classes and political parties against each other.

Collins, nevertheless, raises his own questions about some of Keane's money -- especially the hefty sums Keane collected from unions. He claims Keane will be beholden to them.

"It says they're looking to Jim Keane to help them maintain an unaffordable level of benefits," he said. "Clearly, they want to negotiate the next contract with Jim Keane and not Chris Collins."

Keane has maintained all along that union contributions will not prevent him from being a tough and fair negotiator. He said he never considered not accepting union donations, explaining the county's financial problems were not caused by union workers but by the administration of County Executive Joel A. Giambra.

"Unfortunately, they have to be part of the solution, and they know it," Keane said.

Still, polling data from the Zogby International survey conducted by The News and WGRZ-TV Channel 2 in early October show more divisions.

Collins led Keane 37 percent to 28 percent among high school graduates and 42 percent to 25 percent among college graduates.

Keane was preferred by those making less than $25,000 annually -- 46 percent to 15 percent, while Collins led 39 percent to 21 percent among those who earn $25,000 to $35,000.

But in a dramatic spike, those earning $50,000 to $75,000 supported Collins 52 percent to 17 percent.

He also led 46 percent to 19 percent among those making $75,000 to $100,000 a year and 43 percent to 37 percent among those earning more than $100,000 -- although the margin for error, which was plus or minus 5 percentage points for the total survey of 400 people, rises significantly in these subsets.

News Staff Reporters Mary Pasciak and Susan Schulman contributed to this report.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com and plakamp@buffnews.com

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