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Corwin is tops in amassing wealth

People have long accused industrialist Jack Davis of trying to buy a congressional seat with his own money -- but this time around he's facing an opponent who appears to be at least twice as rich.

Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin reported assets of between $58.3 million and $158.8 million in the personal financial disclosure statement she filed recently with the Clerk of the House.

In contrast, Davis, a former Democrat now running on the Tea Party line, is worth somewhere between $18.2 million and $83.4 million -- and he's adding to that wealth through big investments in oil company stocks.

Both Corwin and Davis have invested at least $1 million of their own money in their campaigns, but Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, the Democratic candidate, has not -- and her financial disclosure statement shows why.

Hochul is the pauper of the candidates vying in the May 24 special election in New York's 26th Congressional District. Not that she's really a pauper: she reported assets of between $780,004 and $1.6 million.

Those figures are approximate because under federal law, candidates don't have to specify what their assets are worth.

Corwin's wealth, accumulated largely through her family's "Talking Phone Book" business and now split up in a complex but conservative set of investments, raises a question.

Can someone worth at least $58.3 million relate to the problems of a district filled with struggling farms and industrial towns as well as wealthy suburbs?

Corwin says she can.

"I grew up with no special privileges, no silver spoon," said the Clarence Republican. "We were able to be successful and live the American dream. I look at my experience, and I think that's something that everybody should have the opportunity for."

While making low taxes and small government central messages in her campaign, Corwin said she was "absolutely not" in politics to protect the wealthy.

Instead, she said she's focused on restoring the nation's fiscal discipline and economic health so that more people will have the chance to start a small business and become a success.

"I'm concerned that my kids and other people's children won't be able to do that," she said.

Corwin's father, Wilbur Lewis, a onetime Yellow Pages ad salesman, founded Talking Phone Book in the late 1960s, but Corwin stressed it was not an immediate success. In fact, while in college, she had to transfer from Ithaca College to the University at Albany just because of family cost concerns, she said.

"At one point in the early 1980s, we almost lost our home because the bank pulled the bank loan and our home was the collateral on it," she added.

All that changed, though, when Lewis' children took over the business upon their father's retirement in 1987 and expanded in other states.

By the time the family sold the company to Hearst Corp. in 2004, it had 56 directories in 11 states and annual sales of $125 million.

While the sales price was not disclosed, industry analysts estimated at the time that Talking Phone Book sold for upwards of $400 million, making Corwin and her siblings wealthy.

Now she's investing that money in dozens of ways. Her largest investments include more than $1 million each in New York State Thruway Bonds, a commodity fund, several stock funds and Corwin Holdings, which, she said, owns real estate in New Jersey. It's a widely diversified investment portfolio, and Corwin said she doesn't see it posing a conflict of interest with the duties of a member of Congress. If her investments run afoul of any rules, though, she said she would adjust her portfolio.

As for Davis, of Clarence, his ownership of I Squared R Element, a heating element manufacturer, appears to be his central asset.

But Davis' personal financial disclosure statement shows his largest investments to include at least $1 million worth of stock each in Arch Coal, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, Exxon Mobil, Hess, Occidental Petroleum, Peabody Energy, Royal Dutch Shell and Total, a huge French oil company.

Running for Congress for a fourth time and once again stressing the idea that free trade has destroyed the nation's economy, Davis said: "I saw what was happening a long time ago, so why would I have any manufacturing stocks?"

Still, Davis' oil-company investments might not sit well with voters stung by high gasoline prices.

Asked what he would say to voters who thought he was getting richer as gas prices skyrocket, Davis said: "I'd say they're all screwed up."

Instead of blaming the oil companies, Davis said voters should blame the federal government for limiting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off the east and west coasts. "Instead, we're importing the oil from Muslim countries that hate us," he said. "It's the government -- that's why I want to go to Washington and straighten things out."

Davis' financial disclosure statement also shows that his wife, Barbara, has certificates of deposit in several financial institutions -- including at least $15,000 in the Bank of China.

Asked why his wife would have money in a bank from a country that he frequently criticizes, Davis said: "Look, she doesn't ask me what to do with her money."

Compared to the size of Corwin's portfolio and the make-up of Davis' investments, Hochul's investments seem rather small and dull.

The largest of them are bank accounts. She and her husband, U.S. Attorney William Hochul, have at least $250,000 in M&T Bank and at least $500,000 in HSBC Bank.

Hochul drew some positives from the comparatively small size of her portfolio, saying it will never pose a conflict of interest and that her own experiences leave her well-equipped to understand what average voters are going though. She cited her work as Hamburg town supervisor and now as county clerk.

"I know that every dollar matters," she said. "I can empathize with people who struggle."

She said that's especially true regarding Medicare, the health care for seniors that Republicans such as Corwin want to convert into a voucher program rather than a guaranteed government benefit.

"Republicans think that having seniors pay more of their own money for health care is not a problem, but I do," she said. "I know that will hurt people."

By most peoples' standards, the Hochuls aren't hurting, but her lack of immense wealth is a handicap in a race against two multimillionaires.

As of March 31, Hochul raised about $350,000 for her campaign -- about a third as much as Corwin and Davis each have given to their own efforts.

"I'm proud of the support I've received," Hochul said. "I can't write a check and buy the election."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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