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IN PRESIDENTIAL YEAR, TWO HOUSE RACES HOLD LOCAL INTEREST

It's a presidential year, in case you haven't noticed.

That means a heightened interest in all things political -- even if the big Clinton-Dole faceoff doesn't exactly rank as a barnburner.

But because turnouts in presidential years are traditionally higher, a host of legislative, judicial and other contestants are also vying extra hard this year for the attention -- and votes -- of Western New Yorkers.

With little attention focused on the predicted Clinton landslide in New York State, most voters are watching some key congressional contests seen as referendums on the national agenda of Washington's new Republican majority.

Chief among those races is the rough battle between incumbent Republican Jack F. Quinn of Hamburg and Democrat Francis J. Pordum of Blasdell in the 30th Congressional District. It is overwhelmingly Democratic turf, where Quinn faces his toughest challenge since winning the open seat in a 1992 contest against County Executive Gorski.

The seat is the subject of endless television commercials as both men claim the soul of a district with urban, suburban and rural components. While Quinn claims his "moderate" Republican stance reflects the wishes and needs of his district, Pordum links Quinn to the "extremist" agenda of Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Much of the same theme is played out in Amherst Republican Rep. Bill Paxon's neighboring 27th District, where United Auto Worker Regional Director Thomas M. Fricano of Clarence has provided the incumbent with his first real test since 1988.

And while Fricano is expected to attract as much as $600,000 in contributions to fund his effort, he still faces a Republican enrollment advantage of almost 60,000 voters. Still, Fricano has proven relentless in advancing an "anti-Newt" message similar to Pordum's, with Paxon responding with a passionate defense of Gingrich, the Contract with America, and his generally conservative outlook.

Two other local congressional contests are not attracting as much attention. Orleans County Legislator David B. Callard is waging an aggressive but underfinanced effort against 11-term incumbent Democrat John J. LaFalce of the Town of Tonawanda, as is Democrat Bruce H. MacBain against five-term incumbent Republican Amo Houghton of Corning.

On the usually placid state legislative front -- where local incumbents have scored an almost 99 percent re-election rate over the last two decades -- three Assembly races are generating the most interest.

Tops is the feisty contest between Amherst Republican Richard R. Anderson and Democratic newcomer Susan Y. Peimer. It serves as a replay of the 1992 contest between Anderson and Democrat Elinor Weiss, when Anderson pointed to his opponent's "New York City" funding.

He has done the same this year, while Mrs. Peimer has hammered at his votes to cut SUNY funding and directing tax cuts to the "state's wealthiest families."

Other major Assembly contests include Republican Robert Daly (son of the transportation commissioner and former Lewiston state senator) against longtime Democratic incumbent Joseph T. Pillittere of Lewiston.

And in the South Towns, former Buffalo Bill Justin Cross has mounted a major effort against incumbent Democrat Richard J. Keane of South Buffalo.

Judicially, voters throughout the eight counties of Western New York face only one choice for State Supreme Court, although two slots will be filled. Erie County District Attorney Kevin M. Dillon has been endorsed by all major parties, guaranteeing his election to the bench. But a spirited contest is under way between Buffalo City Judge Eugene M. Fahey and incumbent Justice Glenn R. Morton, a former Genesee County jurist appointed to Supreme Court earlier this year by Gov. Pataki.

In Erie County, voters will choose between incumbent Democrat Michael L. D'Amico and Republican Jacqueline C. Mattina for County Court. The two waged one of the nastiest judicial contests in area history last summer in primary elections, with D'Amico's 1994 arrest and conviction on disorderly conduct charges and questions about Ms. Mattina's qualifications figuring heavily in the debate.

But the campaign has proven extremely low-key since then after a negative backlash against the initial effort.

D'Amico also occupies the Independence line, while Ms. Mattina will also appear on the Conservative.

The other major countywide race -- for district attorney -- pits Frank J. Clark, the first deputy district attorney, against former federal prosecutor Russell P. Buscaglia. Both men have emphasized their records as prosecutors, with Buscaglia launching an aggressive television campaign in recent days linking Clark to the district attorney's alleged refusal to prosecute certain crimes, turning them over to federal prosecutors instead.

Clark, as well as DA Dillon, have refuted those charges, claiming those decisions were reached jointly with the U.S. Attorney's Office after it was determined which office could better handle the cases.

Some local races are also gaining attention in a year dominated by politics at the top of the ticket. In the Town of Tonawanda and some parts of North Buffalo, the area's only County Legislature contest features Gorski administration official Lynn M. Marinelli, a Democrat, against Republican-Conservative Brian O'Bannon.

Both are waging aggressive campaigns to fill the seat of former Legislature Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan, a Democrat who resigned earlier this year to serve as Gorski's personnel commissioner. Ms. Marinelli won an equally spirited Democratic primary in September against appointed Legislator James C. DeMarco III.

The November contest, with almost equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans in the 11th Legislative District, is rated a toss-up.

And Erie County's largest town -- Amherst -- is also on board this year with a special election for supervisor following the resignation of Thomas Ahearn. The race features two of the town's best known figures -- longtime Republican County Legislator William A. Pauly (who also has Independence and Conservative backing) against Democratic Town Clerk Susan J. Grelick.

Both can capitalize on their already established identification with Amherst voters, and both can count on well stocked campaign coffers.

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