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County's fiscal crisis makes race for comptroller highly charged affair

Erie County voters usually treat comptroller elections as ho-hum affairs, hardly reacting to the candidates and their plans for debits and credits.

But the ongoing county fiscal crisis is presenting a far different picture this year in anticipation of Tuesday's Democratic primary. With the county wallowing in red ink and interest sharpened on all matters financial, the post of chief fiscal watchdog and who occupies it is gaining unusual attention.

That's why three Democrats -- Robert E. Whelan, Mark C. Poloncarz and Richard C. Pawarski -- are all vying for the right to face Republican John J. Canavan in November. Each brings his own ideas and backgrounds.

Whelan, 62, is best known of the three candidates and is considered by many political observers the man to beat. A former Buffalo comptroller and State Supreme Court justice, Whelan has long been a fixture of the Erie County political scene.

After Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan denied him renomination to Supreme Court in 2003 -- citing his alleged close ties to Republican County Executive Joel A. Giambra -- Whelan was thought to have exited local politics. But he resurfaced earlier this year and has waged an aggressive campaign to return the comptroller's office to Democratic hands for the first time since Henry J. Nowak left for Congress in 1974.

Whelan emphasizes he needs no on-the-job training, after presiding over Buffalo's fiscal affairs for 14 years. He says he can immediately plunge into a job that he says has drifted too much into setting policy and too far from its intended oversight function.

But Whelan has had to fend off Poloncarz charges that he is too close to the county executive. While Whelan runs positive ads on the airwaves, Poloncarz attempts to emphasize a 30-year friendship between Whelan and Giambra.

Whelan does not dismiss that relationship but acknowledges the hopes he had for Giambra's administration have "been completely dashed."

An attorney with the downtown firm of Kavinoky and Cook, Poloncarz, 37, doesn't accept that explanation.

"He's trying to run away from that," Poloncarz said. "But you can't just break away and say you're independent. If Mr. Whelan is running on his experience, then his experience indicates a long-standing relationship with Mr. Giambra."

He points to the substantial financial support lent to Whelan by Hormoz Mansouri, an Amherst businessman with close ties to Giambra, as another example of a Whelan-Giambra relationship.

That prompts Whelan to point to Poloncarz's contributions from Lenihan, whose nonparty political funds have dumped almost $15,000 into the Poloncarz campaign. Another $10,000 came in a loan from Dennis Mehiel, a major New York City fund-raiser who ran for lieutenant governor in 2002.

Against this backdrop is Pawarski, who emphasizes his long experience in City Hall as city auditor and deputy comptroller. At 48, Pawarski is making his third run for office (he ran for Buffalo comptroller and Family Court judge previously) and stressing his experience.

He is a certified public accountant and attorney who says his current occupation is taking online courses for a master's degree in business administration. And while Whelan and Poloncarz attack each other's sources of campaign funds, Pawarski said he is largely self-financing his approximately $17,000 effort.

"I haven't solicited contributions from anyone," he said. "As soon as you take an endorsement, they're going to want something in return.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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