Erie County Clerk David J. Swarts became the first Western New Yorker to earn a major position in the new administration of Gov.-elect Eliot L. Spitzer Thursday when he was named to head the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Spitzer made the announcement during a Manhattan news conference.
Swarts, who has been a fixture in local Democratic politics for almost 30 years, will head one of state government's most far-flung bureaucracies and serve in Spitzer's cabinet. The post has often been assigned to upstate residents, and Swarts will succeed another Erie County resident -- former County Comptroller Nancy A. Naples.
Swarts, who attended the announcement ceremony at Spitzer's attorney general office in New York, said he believes his 20 years of experience in administering auto bureaus in Erie County makes his new job a "perfect fit."
"I'm honored and overwhelmed," he said. "And an opportunity to work in an Eliot Spitzer administration where there is so much promise to change the way things are done in Albany is exciting."
Swarts' departure from County Hall means the new governor will appoint a replacement in the new year, though party officials say they are not sure how long the new appointee will serve.
Most speculation on a replacement, who will be recommended by Erie County Democrats, centers around Deputy County Clerk Kathleen C. Hochul (also a Hamburg Council member), and Kevin P. Gaughan, an attorney involved in community affairs who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Buffalo in 2005.
"I've expressed my strong interest in carrying on the stellar legacy of Dave Swarts," said Hochul, who will serve as interim clerk. "I have my own ideas as well, and want to take the office to the next level."
Gaughan said he has expressed interest in the post to Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan, who is expected to play a key role in recommending a successor to Spitzer.
"I am a candidate for the office," he said. "I think it would be a wonderful chance to contribute."
Gaughan has run unsuccessfully for several public offices over the years but caught the attention of many Democrats when he withdrew from the State Senate primary field last year to support Lenihan's candidate -- Marc A. Coppola. Several observers say the move served as a significant deference to Lenihan, who could now repay him with a recommendation.
Swarts, 59, became one of the most recognizable faces in local politics over the years and had even launched a preliminary effort to capture the Democratic nomination for county executive in 2007. The appointment, which must be confirmed by the State Senate, now takes him out of the running for that post and leaves the Democratic county executive field to former Deputy County Executive James P. Keane, West Seneca Supervisor Paul T. Clark, Amherst Council Member Daniel J. Ward and County Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli.
Swarts has been county clerk since 1987, administering local motor vehicle functions in upstate New York's busiest auto bureau.
He ran unsuccessfully for county executive in 1983, as well as in the Democratic primary for county executive in 1995. He also ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1988. A former clerk of the Erie County Legislature, he also unsuccessfully sought the chairmanship of the Erie County Democratic Committee in 2002.
But he has been a potent political force as clerk, winning five elections for the post. He noted to a Democratic forum for county executive candidates on Dec. 12 that he won every city, town and Council district in his November victory over Amherst Council Member Shelly Schratz.
His appointment drew immediate fire Thursday from Erie County Republican Chairman James P. Domagalski, who criticized Swarts for running for a four-year term as clerk while refusing to discuss the possibility of an appointment.
"Voters in Erie County deserve candidates who will serve in the job they are running for, not candidates who run for re-election as a backup plan," Domagalski said.
Other top nominations announced by Spitzer Thursday include:
* Carol Ash as commissioner of parks, recreation and historic preservation. Ash has served as executive director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission since 1999.
* Gladys Carrion as commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services. Carrion joined United Way of New York City in 2005 as the senior vice president for community investment.
* Brian Fischer as commissioner of correctional services. Fischer has been supervising superintendent of the New York State Department of Correctional Services since 1991.
* Kumiki Gibson as commissioner of the Division of Human Rights. Gibson has served as senior vice president for administration and governance officer and counselor to the president at the National Urban League since 2005.
* David A. Hansell as commissioner of the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. He is chief of staff at the New York City Human Resources Administration.
* Laura Anglin as first deputy budget director. She was appointed deputy comptroller of the Division of Retirement Services in January 2003.
* Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez as secretary of state. She is vice president of government and public affairs at Cablevision Systems Corp.
* Richard Rifkin as special counsel.