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Erie County Clerk issues driver's licenses, but the campaign topic is abortion

Bars and coffee shops across Erie County are not exactly buzzing this election season over the county clerk contest and who can best issue driver’s licenses.

But an unlikely and highly charged topic – abortion rights – is surfacing in the race between Democrat Steven J. Cichon and Michael P. Kearns, a Democratic assemblyman running on the Republican line. Both acknowledge that abortion is unlikely to ever cross the county clerk’s desk, but they are sniping at each other over a subject bound to capture attention.

Cichon, a former WBEN Radio newsman who is now a freelance writer, raised the controversy last week when he promised to make his management team at least half female and ensure pay equity. His news release criticized Kearns for voting against equal pay laws in the Assembly and as someone who “touts his anti-choice voting record on campaign literature.”

“Kearns has a record of voting against marginalized populations: women, the LGBTQ community, refugees and immigrants,” Cichon said.

That ignited a fiery response from Kearns, who has run for the Assembly with GOP backing since 2012 and opted not to face Cichon for clerk in the September Democratic primary. Though he rejects some party tenets such as abortion rights, he says he will remain a Democrat should he prevail on Nov. 7.

Kearns noted he voted with fellow Democrats in the Assembly for paid family leave and hiking the minimum wage, but parts company with the party over abortion.

“I believe in the traditional values of my parents,” he said, explaining the pro-life views he has espoused thoughout his career in the Common Council and Assembly.

“I don’t think it’s germane to being clerk,” he added. “But I believe people perceive many issues as relevant. I’m pro-life, and the Democrats have made it an issue.”

Cichon says he sees no reason for controversy – he’s pro-choice and always has been, adding he could write a “300-word report” on all the nuances of his feelings.

“If this is an issue, it’s not by my choice,” he said. “He’s the one who brought it up in his campaign literature.”

Kearns, though, points out that while Cichon accepted the nomination of the Women’s Equality Party that supports abortion rights, he participated in a 2014 pro-life radio show sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.

Democrats to endorse Cichon for clerk following Curry's withdrawal

“I’ve remained consistent on how I represent my constituents,” said Kearns, who is also Catholic. “His stand is hypocrisy. He claims to be pro-life but runs on the Women’s Equality ticket.”

While Cichon has participated in many activities of the Catholic Church, which opposes abortion, he says Kearns’ efforts to label him as “pro-life” are incorrect. Cichon acknowledged his role as lector, Eucharistic minister and former Parish Council president at St. Mark Catholic Church in Buffalo’s Parkside neighborhood. He also has been a member of the diocesan Public Policy Committee and in 2014 participated in a panel featuring pro-life advocates on Catholic radio discussing the state Women’s Equality Act and its unsuccessful “10th plank” expanding access to abortion.

But he emphasized he served only as “moderator” of the radio discussion and was chosen because of his radio background and because he is Catholic.

“I’m the guy who’s the sacristan at our church – I’ve got the keys,” he said. “For someone to question all that in the course of a political campaign just to make political hay – I don’t take kindly to that.”

Cichon added he could criticize Kearns in the context of Catholic doctrine for his stands on issues like restricting immigration.

“I don’t have my catechism in front of me, but I could assume I could find many positions and thoughts of Assemblyman Kearns that fail to line up with the American council of bishops,” he said.

Cichon also has criticized Kearns for aligning himself with Conservative Party Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo, but he also attempted to write in for the nomination of the pro-life Conservative Party during the September primary.

The Conservative chairman criticized Cichon’s “height of hypocrisy” for declining an invitation to consider the line and then pursuing an organized write-in campaign. Local Democrats and Conservatives have grown increasingly adversarial in recent months after many years of relative cooperation.

Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner, one of Cichon’s top backers, has consistently lambasted Kearns for being out of touch with Democratic voters and labews him “tricky Mickey.” Last spring, Zellner noted that his Democratic Party does not exclude pro-life candidates, pointing to Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger of Kenmore as a pro-life Democrat who consistently gains the party nod.

Kearns, a Democrat, once again gains support of GOP. This time for county clerk

But he acknowledged Kearns’ stands on some issues do not help his cause when seeking party support.

“He has been against Democratic principles and policies for a long time,” Zellner said in April. “I believe his issues are inconsistent with standing up for the LGBT community and his pro-life views do not reflect our views on a woman’s right to choice. He’s the most consistent anti-choice person in the Legislature.”

Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy seems ready to take on the Democrats, accusing them of waging a “culture war.”

“What you see with the local leadership of Mark Poloncarz and Jerry Zellner is taking the mantra of the national Democratic Party and making it a primary issue,” he said of abortion rights. “They shut the door on right-to-life Democrats.”

Langworthy said his GOP poses no “litmus test” for its members and candidates on the issue except for requiring opposition to late-term abortions.

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