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Amherst race illustrates the dilemma of ‘positive’ campaigning

An interesting campaign battle is shaping up in Amherst between two men vying for a seat on the Erie County Legislature. Their campaigns are wrestling with the question: When is it a good time to go negative?

Consider incumbent County Legislator Tom Loughran. For 10 years, the owner of the popular Loughran’s Bar and Restaurant in Snyder has kept his seat as the 5th District representative for Amherst’s oldest and most heavily populated neighborhoods.

Republicans have repeatedly tried to unseat him, putting up candidates who have outspent him by tens of thousands of dollars and attacked his record.

They all lost.

Enter Guy Marlette, the Republican Amherst council member who said he doesn’t plan on spending any of his $85,000 in campaign money – a huge sum for a County Legislature race – “going negative” on Loughran. He’s not taking that position from a purely moral standpoint. He sees this as a practical matter.

He pointed to Shelly Schratz, the former Amherst Council Member, and Robert Anderson, former Amherst Highway superintendent. Those two Republican candidates spent three to four times as much money as Loughran in 2009, 2011 and 2013, and they didn’t shy away from hit pieces, Marlette noted. But they both lost.

“I think they focused mostly on beating up Tom rather than focusing on Bob’s record or Shelly’s record,” Marlette said.

But if Marlette intends to pursue purely positive pieces online, through the mail and on TV between now and Election Day, he will be at odds with some members of his own party who say that negative messages exist for a reason – they highlight what makes you the better candidate.

Marlette – widely considered the toughest candidate Loughran has ever faced – recalled the conversation he had with Republican party leaders on this topic.

“There was a discussion that they felt for sure that Loughran was doing some hit pieces trying to counteract all the work I’ve done,” Marlette said. “I said, ‘You know, my position is to keep this campaign positive, focus on what I’ve done.’ They shook their heads and moved on to another topic.”

Erie County Legislature Republican Chairman Nicholas Langworthy acknowledges that he and Marlette don’t see eye to eye on what he euphemistically refers to as “definition pieces.” He believes Marlette’s position is strategically shortsighted. And he went on to say that he had just gotten off the phone with a radio ad sales rep warning him that Loughran may have some negative radio spots preparing to air.

“I’m not going to let my candidate get attacked unanswered,” he said. “We don’t start the fights. If they’re going to start them, then we’re going to finish them.”

Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner, meanwhile, acknowledged that Loughran has a radio spot airing and a mail piece going to voters that will portray Marlette as being in the pocket of wealthy developers. It also will highlight the thousands of dollars developers contributed in his run for the county office.

“The ad is going to be a comparison piece talking about why voters should be supporting Tom Loughran instead of Guy Marlette,” Zellner said.

Like Republican leaders, Democratic leaders don’t call these anti-candidate pieces “negative.” They call them “legitimate criticism based on fact.”

Voters will start noticing these “comparison” or “definition” pieces about now, in the last few days leading up to Election Tuesday. That’s typical in many competitive campaigns, both sides said. The race between Marlette and Loughran could determine which party will hold control over the Erie County Legislature.

Until now, the 5th District race has been an issues-oriented campaign. As of Friday, all Amherst residents have had their mailboxes flooded with pretty, four-color mailers featuring smiling images of Loughran and Marlette. The two men might disagree in debate, but they hadn’t yet mentioned each other in their printed pieces.

“It has struck me as odd, quite frankly,” said Marshall Wood, who served as Amherst’s Republican Party chairman for eight years until 2012.

He recalled the many attack ads that marked the town’s past County Legislature races.

“All in all, this has been a very mild campaign. I’m stunned,” he said.

Like Marlette, Wood said that in practical terms, running negative pieces against Loughran is a hard to do successfully.

“Tom has not done anything wrong,” Wood said. “He has no skeletons in his closet. I don’t think Tom’s been the greatest legislator in terms of the things he’s proposed, but he hasn’t made anybody mad either. If anything is going to get Tom, it’s his shelf life.”

As of Friday, voters have received five Loughran mailers focusing on his votes to hold the line on taxes, his advocacy of Erie Community College North and the expansion of the University at Buffalo, and his support for a variety of environmental issues. His literature also states he’s running on the Democratic, Conservative and Working Families lines.

Marlette, meanwhile, has sent half a dozen glossy pieces referring to his three-point Legislature reform agenda, his fight against traffic congestion on Niagara Falls Boulevard, his record of property tax relief, support of veterans and youth, and consolidation of government departments. None of his pieces promote his party endorsements.

Political observers note that Amherst residents are known for being educated and discerning when it comes to casting ballots. That means party labels don’t carry the same weight there as in other places.

“Amherst has a tradition of ticket splitting more than anyone else in the county,” Langworthy said. “They want to hear about issues.”

But while Loughran has pursued a traditional campaign that includes signs, mailers and staff walking door-to-door to promote his candidacy, Marlette continues to meet with community groups and work on projects in his role as a town councilman. He said he’s walking his district every day, including five- to six-hour stints on the weekends.

A powerhouse fundraiser, Marlette also has the money to air a 30-second television commercial on cable and network TV – the first Erie County Legislature candidate to do so. He’s also taken advantage of social media, pushing online video spots and keeping an active Facebook account, unlike Loughran.

Zellner said the Democratic Party will ramp up its efforts in support of Loughran this weekend through Election Day. The party will have an “army of volunteers” who will be walking the district this weekend on Loughran’s behalf, as well as staffing phone banks.

“It’s important in campaigns to discuss both candidates,” he said, “at some point.”