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2002, A POLITICAL ODYSSEY

It may prove a stretch to ask even political junkies on Jan. 30, 2000, to consider the election of 2002. With Hillary and Rudy ready to kick off the Mother of All Campaigns, another 2000 race featuring New York as a presidential battleground, and some local sizzlers set for 2001, the next round of statewide contests seems far off indeed.

But that's the nature of campaigns and elections these days. Candidates must begin years before Election Day to lay the groundwork by reaching out to friends, building networks of supporters and, most important -- raising money.

That's why Buffalo and upstate New York began seeing some 2002 activity over the past few days. Assembly Minority Leader John Faso, thinking about a run for comptroller, did it the old-fashioned way with two area visits over the past few days to schmooze with party leaders and editorial boards.

And two potential rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination of 2002 -- Comptroller Carl McCall and HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo -- made their presence known in the most unconventional venues.

McCall displayed a little-known side as he preached over passages from Exodus and Luke in Mount Olive Baptist Church on East Delevan Avenue. An ordained minister for most of his 65 years, McCall thundered from the pulpit about things he considers fundamentally unfair in New York State -- such as more money spent for incarcerating children than for educating them, and the "economic injustice" of Wall Street types earning fabulous wealth while upstate poor folks struggle to find jobs.

And Cuomo found himself a long way from Queens as he hunted pheasants last weekend on the private Wayne County preserve of mall developer Robert Congel. He is expected to make his presence known in the New York campaigns of Vice President Gore and Hillary Clinton, with an eye toward 2002. Local sources say the secretary's people are already calling into Erie County to talk about ways to block the McCall initiatives.

McCall, meanwhile, spoke with conviction about the possibility of running for governor in 2002 -- much more conviction than with his 1998 dalliance. Back then, Republican Gov. George E. Pataki's poll numbers and campaign coffers were both bulging, and the comptroller backed off.

"The last time, the governor had a lot of money, and people had a good feeling about the economy," McCall said following Mount Olive services. "But today I think people -- particularly upstate -- don't have that good feeling. They expected more from the governor than they received." He believes the lagging upstate economy and the need to improve the quality of the state's educational system will provide the platform that really wasn't there in 1998.

"I'm very seriously considering it," he said. "I'm receiving very strong encouragement from people all over the state."

Yes, it's early, McCall acknowledged. But early is also necessary. "You do need time to raise the money," he said, adding that his early activity is meant to let others (like Cuomo) know that he is serious.

McCall says the money will be there, especially from the national base of support he expects to build. Part of that national network is already beginning to take shape. And the scope of McCall's organization is evident when you consider that his first gubernatorial fund-raiser is slated for February -- in California.

A few other items picked up along the campaign trail:

Count McCall among those statewide officials concerned about the local Democratic infighting that just about everybody feels will only get worse.

"Erie County ought to be a strong Democratic county," he said. "It ought to be a place to win every office, and it's not happening. And when Erie County is divided, it's a real problem for the party statewide. You can't avoid (the problem); it's like an elephant in the middle of the room."

That Democratic discord became official a few days ago when County Clerk Dave Swarts officially declared his candidacy to become the next Erie County Democratic chairman. That leaves Amherst Chairman Dennis Ward as the only other local Democrat still out there expressing interest in becoming chairman in a challenge against incumbent Steve Pigeon.

At this point, he's not endorsing anyone.

"Right now I'm just going to sit back and help with the process," Ward said. "If the process ultimately determines that Dave is the candidate, I will be supporting him."

Just when you thought those oh-so-everything-is-hunky-dory Republicans were basking in unity, it's almost refreshing to see even a germ of discord on that side. Several sources confirm that traditional elements of the party are stewing over the top-level jobs going to outsiders in the new administration of County Executive Joel Giambra.

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