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Hochul wins county clerk race amid license controversy After expensive, hard-fought campaign, incumbent easily defeats O'Loughlin

The same governor who made Kathleen C. Hochul the Erie County clerk also made it tough for her to keep the job.

Riding through a storm of controversy over Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's plan to make drivers' licenses available to illegal immigrants, Hochul won re-election by a large margin Tuesday.

With nearly three-quarters of the county's election districts reporting, the Democrat held a substantial lead -- 67 percent to 33 percent -- over her Republican challenger, William A. O'Loughlin.

Both candidates wound up spending far more money than they expected on a hard-fought campaign that focused heavily on the immigration issue. Political observers said they don't remember another county clerk's race that attracted nearly so much publicity.

Spitzer, right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh and CNN's Lou Dobbs were among the nationally known figures who weighed in on the issue.

"I'm thrilled," Hochul said. "But I never thought I'd spend 90 percent of the county clerk campaign talking about illegal aliens. I'm just appreciative that the voters looked at all the issues, including my experience and the things I've accomplished in the office."

O'Laughlin, 69, an Amherst town councilman, investment counselor and former radio talk show host, was disappointed with the outcome. But he said he had no regrets about his aggressive campaign.

He spent more than $330,000 on the campaign, and Hochul spent nearly $300,000. According to a study by the New York Public Interest Research Group, O'Laughlin's spending was the ninth-highest among more than 4,000 candidates in local elections throughout the state.

"I know my campaign touched a nerve in Erie County," O'Laughlin said. "I loved spending my summer talking to the voters."

Both candidates were against Spitzer's proposal on licenses for illegal immigrants. The main disagreement between the two rivals was O'Laughlin's contention that he would go to jail before he would allow the state to force him to give licenses to illegals.

Hochul -- whose husband is a federal prosecutor of terrorism cases -- also strongly disagreed with the governor's plan. But she said she would follow the law if she had to.

"On the plus side, my name recognition numbers have gone way up," Hochul said. "The last time I saw the governor, I thanked him for making me a household name."

The controversy created some awkward moments for Hochul, who owed Spitzer her job. In April, the governor named her to take over the county clerk's post after elevating her predecessor, David J. Swarts, to commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Hochul had been Swarts' deputy.

Does Hochul think she would have won if she had enthusiastically supported Spitzer's proposal for illegal alien drivers' licenses?

"That's a good question, but there's no way I would have done that," she said. "I'm not stupid."

"I'm honored and appreciative that the governor picked me, but I don't work for the governor," Hochul added. "I couldn't support him on that proposal."

Hochul is the county's highest-ranking female elected official. Many in her party view her as a potential candidate for a higher office in the future.

She said she regrets that she could not spend more time during the campaign talking about her efforts to improve her office, including shortening waiting lines for auto bureau customers and a plan to save taxpayers $1 million over five years by moving the downtown auto bureau into the county's Rath Building.

A lawyer and former Hamburg Town Board member who lives in Hamburg, the 49-year-old Hochul and her husband, William, have a son and daughter, both of whom are college students.

As county clerk, she is the county's record keeper. Her office maintains official records such as mortgages and liens. It also runs the county auto bureaus, where drivers' licenses and auto registrations are issued.

Hochul has more than 145 employees and her job pays $79,000 annually.


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