Hill, Rick Hit Key N.Y. County

rep. rick lazio campaigns upstate in erie county aug. 20, 2000
The candidates vying to be the next U.S. Senator from New York campaigned for votes Sunday in an upstate county likely to be critical to their success.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democrat trying to claim the seat being vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio both attended festivities at the Polish American Arts Festival in this Buffalo suburb in Erie County.

Come November, the friends each made out of the tens of thousands who attended could become crucial votes, especially for Lazio, county politicians said.

The event, billed as the biggest for Polish-American community in upstate New York, has drawn such political heavyweights as John F. Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford, according to organizer Brian Rusk, president of the General Pulaski Association of the Niagara Frontier.

"Cheektowaga is the most important out-of-city grouping of Democrats in Erie County," said Steven Pigeon, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. "Every elected official (in Cheektowaga) is a Democrat but statewide, it's a bit more (of a) swing."

A powerful showing by Clinton could lock up Erie County for the first lady while even a good showing by Lazio would be viewed as a victory for the Republican, Pigeon said.

"It's working class, Polish, Catholic and many senior citizens ... your Reagan Democrats," he said. "If she wins big here and in the city of Buffalo, she'll win Erie County. Lazio doesn't have to win here, just make it close."

Support for Lazio was strong during a 1 p.m. parade honoring Revolutionary War Gen. Kazimierz Pulaski. There was a smattering of Clinton signs, especially near the start of the parade, but Lazio signs, both the campaign's printed signs and handmade signs, were clearly more dominant.

Clinton, who spent Friday and Saturday in Lake Placid with President Clinton and daughter Chelsea, stayed in Lake Placid early Sunday and flew in to the festival after the parade.

"I think the focus today should be on General Pulaski, his contributions to freedom, to the American war effort and frankly, to celebrate the contributions of Polish-Americans," Lazio said. "And I can't speak for Mrs. Clinton, I can only say this: I was proud to celebrate General Pulaski today and to march in the parade."

Lazio saw some Clinton supporters near the start of the parade and he said laughingly to a parade watcher who was grousing about their presence, "they've got two months to convert."

There were already some conversions happening. Larry Colucci, a Republican member of the Erie County Democrats and Friends for Lazio, said the group signed up 50 new members during the parade.

Lazio was heartened by the crowd he saw during the parade.

"If this today is any indication of the level of support that we have in a county that has a Democratic registration edge, we are going to dvery well," Lazio said.

But there was an air of mistrust for the Long Island congressman among some who worried that he'll just do the bidding for Long Island and New York City.

"I've always felt that these people who run out of New York City get our money," said Lee Hilliker, a Democrat from Amherst. "I think Hillary's a chance for western New York to finally get something, too."

"It's where the candidates stand on the issues now that suggests to me where the person may stand in the future," added Leonard Williams, a 56-year-old taxi driver. "And I certainly want somebody who's going to protect my interests. (Republicans) may be very nice people, but they're not looking out for the kind of collective needs ... that the country has."

At an event in the town park later, Clinton supporters outnumbered backers of Lazio although one vocal critic of the first lady created a stir when he displayed a blue dress with a prominent stain on it, a satire of the Monica Lewinsky scandal that continues to dog President Clinton.

The dress, held aloft by Houston trucker Cliff Gon, bore the message: "Mrs. Clinton, the right wing conspiracy made him do it."

The sign brought boos and jeers from the mostly white-haired crowd. Chants of "Take it down" and "Cut your hair" rang out from the large group of senior citizens who sat on lawn chairs and bleachers.

"I didn't risk my life in World War II for that kind of free speech," said Benny Constantiano. "She's her own woman who's been through a lot."

As police approached Gon, the crowd yelled "Throw him from the park," while a few onlookers called for police to respect Gon's First Amendment rights. Gon was allowed to stay but a police officer stood next to him during the first lady's brief speech where she spoke of her four trips to Poland and told the crowd she "came to see some polka and eat some kielbasa."

A group of Lazio supporters booed the first lady for the duration of her brief remarks, drawing criticism of some who applauded Clinton's polka skills after she and Chelsea danced on stage.

"She showed a lot of respect for polish people up there, which is more than I can say some of our Cheektowaga residents did for her," said Michael Zalentic.

After dancing, Clinton donned an apron and rubber gloves and served polish sausages and pierogis to a few customers. When the caterer loaded up a plate to go, Chelsea asked for just pierogi no sausage for the vegetarian first daughter.

Lazio will take his "Mainstream Express" campaign to Jamestown Monday. Clinton will be in Yonkers and Purchase.