The race for Erie County comptroller may not sound terribly sexy, but voters should definitely mark it down as one to watch.
The race pits an Army reservist and former town clerk against a well-known television news personality and public relations spokesman.
Appointed Democratic incumbent David J. Shenk has touted his fiscal experience, in-house accomplishments and long military service, while Republican Stefan Mychajliw has promoted his working-class origins, investigative reporting work and commitment to political independence.
Both are getting their message out to voters through TV commercials and aggressive ground-level campaigning. They’ve each worn through multiple pairs of shoes and said they are devoting every spare minute to meeting residents.
Shenk, 42, served as Boston town clerk from 1992 until this past February, when he was appointed comptroller to fill the vacancy created when then-County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz was elected county executive. Shenk has raised about $51,000 as of the last campaign finance report, and also lent money to his own campaign.
He has been endorsed by the Good Government Club and a dozen unions, and hopes to capitalize on the county’s Democratic enrollment edge in this presidential election year, which traditionally leads to high turnout.
But Mychajliw, 38, poses a serious threat.
He enjoys huge name recognition as a former reporter for WKBW, then for WGRZ from 2001 to 2007. He’s co-founder of a public relations firm and has stayed in the news as a spokesman previously representing the Buffalo Public Schools and then-County Executive Chris Collins. He has raised about $76,000 as of his last filing and is likely to outspend Shenk as he works toward a campaign goal of $150,000 by Election Day.
Mychajliw said he’s particularly proud of his daily hours of door-to-door campaigning, and he recounted his visit to a trailer home in Hamburg where a resident had an Obama sticker on his car.
“He had this look of shock on his face,” Mychajliw said. “He said, ‘You know, I’ve lived in this trailer park for 20 years, and nobody has ever knocked on my door and asked for my vote.’ He said, ‘I’m an Obama Democrat. I’m going to vote for our president, but I’m also going to vote for you.’ ”
Drawing on his past career as an investigative reporter and his coverage of the county’s red/green budget crisis, Mychajliw said he’ll continue the fight for accountability and against the patronage culture in County Hall.
Shenk has his own advantages in this campaign.
He has a bachelor’s degree in management and is a sergeant in the Army Reserve, serving since 1998. He has been deployed three times, most recently to Afghanistan from November 2010 to November 2011 as a hospital administrator tracking the care and movement of patients.
Shenk said his military leadership training and duties as a town clerk and collector of taxes provide experience that sets him apart from his opponent.
“I’ve been tested under extreme conditions,” he said. “I’m better prepared to hold this office.”
As comptroller, he said, he has conducted audits of the County Clerk’s Office, the county’s Medicaid transportation provider, and the Sheriff’s Office. The audits have saved the county hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
His office is conducting the first comprehensive audit of the Erie County Water Authority in more than a decade, he said, an example of how there are no “sacred cows” in his approach.
If elected, Shenk said, he would continue to investigate waste, fraud and abuse; put more guidelines in place to safeguard the county’s minimum fund balance, and focus on improving the county’s credit ratings.
Mychajliw described Shenk as a political appointee beholden to Democratic party bosses for his job, making Shenk incapable of being a true independent watchdog when it comes to the Democratic county executive.
He called the current situation a case of “the fox guarding the henhouse.”
Mychajliw also criticized Shenk for supporting Poloncarz’s decision to borrow county money without going through the county’s state-appointed financial control board, which could borrow more cheaply.
In response, Shenk pointed to letters he has written raising concerns about Poloncarz’s midyear budget report, long-term fiscal plan and proposed 2013 budget.
“I know I’ve been more against him than with him in the time that I’ve been here,” Shenk said. “He and I are not cozy.”
He also noted that Mychajliw was campaign spokesman in Collins’ failed re-election bid for county executive last year, and described him as a man with an ax to grind and a weak financial background who is more interested in “sound bites” than solutions.
Mychajliw said he’ll hire “the best and the brightest” fiscal minds – not “political hacks” – to keep county government in check.
He repeatedly mentioned his roots as the child of frugal, hardworking Polish and Ukrainian immigrants. A broadcast journalism graduate from Syracuse University, Mychajliw said he knows the value of a dollar and referred to his 1999 Oldsmobile, which is pushing 140,000 miles.
If elected, Mychajliw said, he will use audits to hold politicians accountable, save taxpayers money by encouraging borrowing through the control board, and propose ways to build up county reserves by cutting government spending.
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