ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. (WIVB) — As the primary is fast approaching and the two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for Erie County Clerk, incumbent Michael Kearns and challenger Melissa Hartman are squaring off in more ways than one.

The Democratic Primary is less than two weeks away and voters will see some sharp differences between Kearns, who has served in the Clerk’s office since 2017 after Rep. Chris Jacobs left the seat to run for State Senate. The incumbent was not endorsed by the Democratic Party, even though he says he has been a lifelong Democrat. Hartman, who currently serves as Eden Town Supervisor, says she has received the party’s endorsement.

Kearns opposes a gun buyback program recently introduced by his opponent. The policy according to a news release from the Melissa Hartman campaign would let residents drop off guns at any Clerk location, including Auto Bureaus.

“Not only was I dismayed and shocked, it is one of the most reckless proposals that I’ve ever heard of in 18 years of public service,” Kearns said.

Hartman introduced the policy on June 9, according to her Facebook page, alongside County Legislators Howard Johnson and Lisa Chimera.

“This would be something that would be a safe location determined by the County Sheriff’s Office, the County Executive’s Office in conjunction with the County Clerk’s Office,” Hartman said.

She criticized her opponent for promoting a family member to First Deputy Clerk, which is the second-highest office in the Clerk’s office. Kelvin Linder is Kearns’ cousin and Hartman has called for an ethical review of the hire.

“It is the position right next to the Clerk. Anyone who in government, [knows] its called nepotism,” Hartman said.

Kearns says he has been transparent about this hire.

“After interviewing a number of different people we decided that Mr. Linder was not only the best qualified, he checked all of the boxes in a positive way,” Kearns said.

The party affiliation of the two candidates is fluid. Hartman was a lifelong Republican while Eden Town Supervisor but switched to Democrat this year.

“She switched parties. A lifelong Republican became a Democrat,” Kearns said.

Kearns says he is a lifelong Democrat but ran for this office under the Republican Party endorsement in 2017 for the special election and in 2018.

“My parents were registered Republican that’s probably why I was,” Hartman said. “In this primary, it’s important that you elect a Democrat, not an endorsed Republican and Conservative.”

Tara Lynch is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as a reporter in 2022. She previously worked at WETM in Elmira, N.Y., a sister station of News 4. You can follow Tara on Facebook and Twitter and find more of her work here.