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Race for Erie County executive under way Democrats gather to make their case

On the Democratic side, five prospective candidates for county executive gathered in Depew on Tuesday evening to make their case for reclaiming the Rath County Office Building next November.

On the Republican side, Amherst Council Member William A. O'Loughlin said he will become the first declared GOP candidate when he officially announces Thursday.

And by Tuesday's end, there was no question the starting gun on Erie County's next big political race had already sounded.

The main event took place in the Hearthstone Manor in Depew, where Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan convened several hundred party faithful to kick off the race. Addressing the crowd were Amherst Council Member Daniel J. Ward, West Seneca Supervisor Paul T. Clark, County Clerk David J. Swarts, former Deputy County Executive James P. Keane and Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli.

One of the five, all well known and seasoned Democrats, is expected to emerge from the pack in the effort to succeed retiring Republican Joel A. Giambra. But all first want the coveted party endorsement, and most said they were willing to wage a primary to snare it.

"They're all great Democrats; we know them all, and all of them are qualified," Lenihan said. "At the end of the road, we'll have an outstanding candidate for county executive."

Ward, who ran a surprisingly close race against Giambra in 2003 despite being overwhelmed in finances and organization, said, "We told you so" could very well serve as his 2007 campaign slogan.

"There was a fiscal train wreck coming, and we all knew it," he said.

Ward sounded many of his 2003 themes in his bid for a rematch, promising to return government to local roots and end Giambra's regionalism drive.

"I believe government should be driven to the lowest level it can be on an economical basis," he said. "We don't need to see a county executive on the front page of the paper with a million, billion flighty ideas."

Clark acknowledged that he fits the stereotype of a certified public accountant with his low-key manner and devotion to balancing the books. But he said that's exactly what the county needs after a fiscal crisis that led to imposition of a financial control board.

"I have the vital skills needed to restore confidence in county government," he said. "And jobs and economic development will be my top priorities for Erie County."

And he said his private-sector experience -- rather than a career politician -- will prove key against a Republican opponent who could spring from the business community.

Swarts, meanwhile, emphasized the 20 years he has served as clerk and quipped that every 12 years he gets the "itch" to run for county executive. He ran unsuccessfully against Republican incumbent Edward J. Rutkowski in 1983 and in the Democratic primary against incumbent Dennis T. Gorski in 1995.

He said he has seen his share of good and bad politicians and thinks he has enough experience to restore confidence in county government. He didn't hesitate to remind the party faithful that he has run 10 times for office in Erie County, with six landslide victories.

"In 2006, I won with almost 72 percent of the vote," he said. "I won by 104,000 votes, winning every city, town, ward and Council district. The public knows me."

Keane next addressed the Democrats and dwelled on his role as operations manager of a Gorski administration he described as highly effective.

"We must be the party of change, and I will be that agent of change," he said, adding that he already has raised more than $100,000 for a race most experts believe will cost more than $1 million.

Marinelli said she wants to end the control board and thinks the Legislature has crafted a responsible and on-time budget. She said she has always prided herself on keeping in direct touch with voters, will raise the necessary money and will never duck the media.

"I believe I have brought a lot to our party and have a lot to give," she said, adding she would pay special attention to enhancing "quality-of-life" services in county government.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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