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ERIE COUNTY VOTERS are being treated to a race for district attorney this fall between two excellent candidates -- Republican Russell P. Buscaglia, on leave from the office of State Attorney General Dennis Vacco, and Frank J. Clark III, the top deputy of current District Attorney Kevin Dillon.

With Dillon leaving the DA's position after eight years to run for a seat on the State Supreme Court, this has become an open race with fierce competition.

Whether Buscaglia, 46, or Clark, 53, wins, Erie County won't lose. Voters must make a choice, however, and The News gives preference to Clark principally because of his greater administrative experience in this key law-enforcement agency.

Buscaglia and Clark are both respected lawyers. Both have served under Erie County district attorneys and U.S. attorneys here. Both are skilled prosecutors who have amply demonstrated their courtroom abilities.

Buscaglia successfully prosecuted Robert Delano in the the Buffalo parks department scandal. Clark prosecuted off-duty police officers responsible in the beating death of Richard Long.

Clark defends the generally professional operation of the DA's office. But he also calls for more innovation in use of existing resources; improved coordination between staffs of the DA and U.S. attorney, especially in narcotics cases; additional minority-member representation among staff attorneys; and more staff outreach to break down communication barriers in the community.

Buscaglia would reaffirm much of this, including the unquestioned need for greater minority representation on the DA's staff. But he also wants to serve as a spokesman for law enforcement in the community and promises to prosecute high-profile cases personally.

That pledge, while dramatic, has a sharp double edge. District attorneys in Erie County must manage a staff of more than 90 attorneys, organized under 15 bureau chiefs. They cope with some 45,000 cases a year. Personally prosecuting even a few high-profile cases would seriously drain a DA's time.

Buscaglia may have a point in his concern over the Dillon operation's level of aggressiveness in prosecuting some exceptional cases.

Clark has a solid rebuttal, however, in citing a conviction rate of about 90 percent, roughly comparable to other large counties in New York State. And, he adds, the Erie County DA's office tries 15 percent of its cases -- notably higher than an 8 percent state average.

Frank Clark's strength lies in day-to-day operation of this complex office. He has been second to Dillon for the DA's office for the last eight years. He knows the department. He can step quickly into the job and act decisively.

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