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Bitter campaign waged for county clerk Hochul, O'Loughlin clash on license issue

The campaign for Erie County clerk has been anything but a dull, dry affair. The race between Amherst Council Member William A. O'Loughlin and County Clerk Kathleen C. Hochul has been filled with money, drama and contentious issues.

Between them, the candidates have invested more than half a million dollars in campaign contributions and loans, an astronomical amount for a county clerk seat.

O'Loughlin said he had raised more than $54,000 in this race and loaned himself another $280,000. Hochul said she had raised $125,000, not including a $100,000 loan from family members.

Both candidates also have made headlines since Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer rolled out his plan to make driver's licenses available to illegal immigrants, a plan that both oppose.

O'Loughlin said he had raised more than $54,000 in this race and loaned himself another $280,000. Hochul said she had raised $125,000, not including a $100,000 loan from family members.

Both candidates also have made headlines since Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer rolled out his plan to make driver's licenses available to illegal immigrants, a plan that both oppose.

Hochul, the Democratic candidate, has focused on her accomplishments since her appointment as clerk six months ago to succeed David J. Swarts, who became state commissioner of motor vehicles.

A Hamburg native and lawyer, Hochul became a Hamburg councilwoman in 1994 and first deputy county clerk in 2003, holding both positions until her appointment as county clerk.

She said she has instituted a system that no longer limits closings on home sales to the county clerk's office, expanded Auto Bureau locations for drivers and allowed lawyers to commence lawsuits online.

Her platform includes a cost-saving proposal to locate the downtown Auto Bureau in the Rath County Office Building and to renovate the space to provide a comfortable seating area and ticket system that will end the need to stand in lines.

As a Spitzer appointee, Hochul, 49, has taken hits from O'Loughlin, among others, on her initial position on the governor's driver's license proposal for illegal immigrants.

She initially abstained in a vote by county clerks across the state that publicly condemned the plan, stating that she hadn't seen the resolution. But she later said she opposed the idea and had sent Spitzer a letter the day before the clerks' vote, expressing her opposition.

Hochul said she would work with law enforcement agencies if illegal immigrants attempt to apply for licenses through the clerk's office.

"I've staked out a very legal position that I'm comfortable with, that I think residents are comfortable with," she said.
O'Loughlin, the Republican candidate, has made driver's licenses for those in the country illegally a central campaign issue, saying he would resist Spitzer's plan to the bitter end, even if it means going to jail.

"I was honorably discharged and served as a nuclear-weapons officer," the Army veteran said, "and that's why I am so keenly sensitive to the security risk of giving illegal aliens a driver's license. I've been strong on this since Day One."

A financial adviser with the O'Loughlin Financial Group, he has been an Amherst Town Board member since 2004 and touts his career in business. His term will end in December.

As a Town Board member, O'Loughlin lists his accomplishments as never voting for a tax increase, leading the charge to restore the Amherst Police Department to full strength and fighting to reduce town spending while maintaining services.

O'Loughlin also said he wants to eliminate patronage from the county clerk's office, where, he maintained, the number of politically connected personnel has grown significantly in recent years.

"I'd clean out that political patronage pit, and that's exactly what it is," he said. "This is exactly what the voters fear in open government."

He also said he would make the clerk's office more convenient by increasing weekend and evening hours, and promoting higher use of online services.

While pouring more money than Hochul into his heavily self-financed campaign, O'Loughlin has not been as successful in public fundraising. While Hochul has had to fend off accusations as a career politician, O'Loughlin has faced attacks on his character.

In the past month, an embarrassing answering machine message has surfaced in which O'Loughlin is heard berating a couple for pestering him at his country club.

He also refers to how he "pulled a lot of markers" to have the couple's water-retention pond cleaned out to help them with their flooding issues and how the couple had not been appropriately grateful.

Two other Town Board members -- Shelly D. Schratz, a Republican, and Daniel J. Ward, a Democrat, have signed a letter asking the town's Board of Ethics to investigate.

O'Loughlin told The Buffalo News the incident occurred two years ago and involved repeated antagonism on the part of the couple. He said he used some words he shouldn't have, but he wanted to make sure the couple never bothered him again.

The retention pond is a town maintenance responsibility, O'Loughlin said, adding that all he did was call the town highway superintendent to see if he could expedite the cleanup.

As for his comment about "markers," O'Loughlin said, "It was nothing but a figure of speech to indicate the hustle and urgency to clean out the retention pond drain pipe before it overflowed into his basement.

"I would never suggest, imply or infer that anyone ever contribute [to my campaign] for something I did to help them as a councilman," he said. "I find that appalling to behave in a manner like that."
e-mail: stan@buffnews.com1

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