An anti-Albany assemblyman and a former newsman – both with mixed political histories – are spending more than $250,000 combined in their race for an administrative job that processes motor vehicle, real estate and pistol permit transactions.
The TV commercials for the Erie County clerk's race this fall may offer the best back-to-back contrast to how the two candidates are trying to connect with voters in the waning days of the campaign.
The commercial for Steven J. Cichon features him talking with people, exuding friendliness and accommodation, and emphasizing his private-sector experience as a non-politician.
"I learned about the issues as the news director at WBEN radio, where I held politicians accountable," Cichon says. "We simply don't need another career politician in the clerk's office."
The commercial for Assemblyman Michael "Mickey" P. Kearns recounts his fights against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
"I work for you, the taxpayers," he vows, as he stands alone in a dimly lit boxing ring looking intently into the camera. "I'm Mickey Kearns, and as your Erie County clerk, I'll never stop fighting for Western New York."
Cichon, the candidate on the Democratic line, has focused his message on the desire to make residents' many interactions with the Clerk's Office as pleasant, responsive, comfortable and convenient as possible as a non-politician.
"I want to build bridges," Cichon said. "I think people are sick of screaming and fighting."
Though Cichon is a registered Democrat, he was a registered Republican and remained one throughout his time at WBEN. A short time after he left his position as director of the news and conservative talk radio network in 2013, he changed his affiliation to Democrat. He briefly inquired about filling the vacated Delaware District Common Council seat of Michael LoCurto in 2015.
Through his many encounters with people as a journalist, he said, his world view changed.
Kearns has focused his message on representing residents as an independent voice, addressing derelict properties and cleaning up neighborhoods through the foreclosure process, and making all offices more accessible.
"The reason I chose a boxing ring is because I'm a fighter," Kearns said. "I'm always going to be the people's corner."
Though Kearns is a registered Democrat, he is running on the Republican Party line in this election. He said his only loyalty is to the community, not to one political party. This has aggravated Democratic leaders, who have endorsed him in the past but now take issue with his conservative positions, including his anti-abortion stance.
"I'm beholden to nobody," Kearns responded. "Everybody knows that."
Cichon, 40, majored in English at the University at Buffalo and spent the last 25 years in journalism, he said. That includes 10 years as news director of WBEN. He's worked as an adjunct professor at Medaille College, authored five books, and written numerous freelance articles for The Buffalo News.
He cites as his top platform agenda items: creating a local website that will allow residents to renew their drivers license and vehicle registrations online, allowing the county to keep a portion of the renewal fees, shortening the extended wait times for pistol permits, expanding electronic filing for legal documents and being a leading voice in community affairs, especially those important to the driving public.
His goal, he said, is to create more efficiency without great cost. As someone who hasn't previously run for office, he said he will bring a more collaborative approach to the office and roll up his sleeves to do his share of the work.
"The way to solve a problem is to bring people together and talk it through and try to get a solution," he said.
Kearns, 48, majored in political science at Canisius College and spent 14 years in the private sector, working as a paralegal and doing fundraising consulting, he said. He served in the Buffalo Common Council from 2006 to 2012, ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2009 and was elected to the State Assembly in 2012.
He represents the 142nd Assembly District, which includes South Buffalo, Lackawanna, West Seneca and Orchard Park. He lists his platform priorities as holding banks responsible for "zombie" properties through the foreclosure process, providing high quality customer service for all residents, and improving public accessibility, particularly for those for disabilities.
He said he's had a long history of integrity and political independence, such as advocating for the removal of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat. He also cited his work to address zombie homes.
"I don't think I am a career politician," Kearns said. "I'm someone who works for the people. I believe we need someone who has the experience to do the job."
Cichon questioned how Kearns' political battles translate into county clerk skills. He said Kearns spends more time talking about political fights than offering specifics on how he will make the Clerk's Office a more inviting place for residents.
"Sheldon Silver is not going to be at the Clerk's Office," Cichon said.
Kearns questioned how Cichon can claim to be independent when he has accepted campaign contributions from County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who recently donated $25,000 to his campaign, and $65,000 from the Erie County Democratic Party.
"He's bought and paid for," Kearns said.
Cichon said no one has asked him to pledge jobs in exchange for their support.
"That conversation has never happened," he said.
Cichon has criticized Kearns for accepting $2,500 from Carl Paladino, who has been denounced for making offensive and racist remarks. Paladino also hosted a recent fundraiser for Kearns, which Kearns said probably raised between $7,000 and $8,000.
Kearns said that Paladino's support for him has never been a secret, and that he's received support from him for every seat Kearns has ever run for.
He also said if anyone should be criticized for receiving campaign contributions, it should be Cichon, who has accepted contributions from party bosses.
"There's a hypocrisy there I just don't understand," he said.
Cichon said that TV commercials are a necessity for winning any countywide office, which is why he needs Democratic support. He and his family members have also poured more than $8,000 toward his campaign, which has generated more than $147,000, according to financial disclosure reports.
He's endorsed by the Democratic, Working Families and Women's Equality parties, as well as five unions and the Stonewall Democrats.
Kearns has raised more than $100,000. In addition, he's also been able to shore up his campaign war chest with $15,500 transferred from his Assembly campaign accounts.
He's endorsed by the Republican, Conservative, Independence and Reform parties, as well as 14 local unions and organizations, including the Good Government Club.