The contest for Amherst supervisor cost the two major candidates more than half a million dollars, making it the most expensive suburban race in memory, political observers say.
From Jan. 13 to Dec. 2, Susan J. Grelick spent more than $355,000 in her losing bid for re-election, while the winner, Satish B. Mohan, exceeded $184,000, according to campaign finance reports.
The total, which surpassed $539,000, means upstate's most populous town also has the most expensive politics, at least in the race for its top job, which pays $75,100 this year.
Joseph Crangle, former chairman of the county Democratic Party, described the spending as "unprecedented," adding, "It certainly is for a town office."
"It reflects what it costs to run a campaign in the Town of Amherst," Grelick said.
Amherst is not quite in Buffalo's league yet -- at least in terms of election spending. Mayor-elect Byron W. Brown and Kevin Helfer, his main opponent, spend a combined total of more than $1 million on that race, according to campaign disclosure forms.
But the two Amherst candidates -- particularly Grelick -- ran a suburban campaign that at times resembled a city or countywide race, using tools such as broadcast advertising and polling, while still employing traditional mass mailings and lawn signs.
In addition to laying out how much the candidates spent, the financial disclosure statements reveal who paid for it all and what that means for local politics.
Grelick and Mohan funded their own campaigns, reaching into their personal funds to pay most of their bills.
Since July, Grelick has made more than $316,000 in personal loans to her campaign, records show, while Mohan loaned his campaign almost $125,000.
"I'm very fortunate [because] I do not have to rely on special interests," Grelick said.
Mohan has said he used equity in his East Amherst home to fund his campaign.
After the election, many candidates write off these "loans," reporting them as contributions. But the fact remains that the cost of running for town office in Amherst is rapidly growing.
Critics, including Mohan, a newcomer to politics, call the trend troubling. "We need to discuss the cost of this democracy," he said last week.
Campaign spending in other Erie County suburbs has not reached Amherst levels, records show. In Hamburg and Orchard Park, two other towns with hotly contested supervisor races, Democratic candidates each spent about $40,000 in the final two months of the race, a period when Grelick spent more than than $200,000.
The campaign filings show that Grelick's spending went for consultants, pollsters, radio and television advertising and mailings to Amherst residents. Mohan concentrated on large newspaper ads and mass mailings.
With those kinds of numbers, only the very wealthy can afford to run for town office, critics say.
"New people face a problem," said Mohan. "We had to carry the word to the people, and to do that takes money. Name recognition itself is a problem."
Blair Horner, a spokesman for the New York Public Interest Research Group, agreed.
"His point about democracy is right on," Horner said. "It's getting so the average person gets squeezed out of politics."
Others also expressed shock about the campaign spending.
"That is astronomical. I don't recall a race in Erie County at a town level having this magnitude of spending," said Ralph Mohr, Erie County's Republican election commissioner.
He noted that, in State Supreme Court races, which require campaigning in eight counties, the typical candidate spends about $120,000.
Dennis Ward, Mohr's Democratic counterpart, said he considers the spending trend "a bad thing."
"The only ones who can compete are the wealthy," Ward said. "Then we have excluded people."
And Town Council Member William L. Kindel, who lost to Grelick in supervisor contests in 1997 and 2001, said he was shocked by the numbers.
"It's out of control," he said. "When I ran, I spent $25,000. Maybe that's why I lost."
When he started his uphill battle, Mohan said he would not attempt to match Grelick's campaign spending.
But he ended up spending more than he expected.
"I was told by a professor of management that you have to send three messages to voters before it makes a dent because they tend to forget or it doesn't matter to them," Mohan said.
"Following that principle, I sent three letters before the primary election and two letters after the primary."