Six Reasons Why There Won’t Be a Serious Contest for Erie County Executive in 2015

In Erie County this year there will be 153 offices on various election ballots. All members of the County Legislature will be elected this year, as well as all members of the Buffalo Common Council. Supervisors will be selected in Cheektowaga, Lancaster, Tonawanda, West Seneca and other towns. A mayor will be elected in Lackawanna. Two seats on the Erie County Court, a new Family Court seat and two Supreme Court justices for this district will be selected. The major contest in the county, however, should be for Erie County Executive.

The Erie County Executive prepares and administers an annual budget of more than $1.4 billion dollars. The county has a work force of more than 4,000 people, making it one of the top 10 employers in the county. The county executive appoints scores of officials in positions high and low in the county government.

The office will be on the ballot on November 3. But there will not be a seriously contested election. Mark Poloncarz will be re-elected county executive.

The Republican party in Erie County holds the offices of county clerk, comptroller, and sheriff. Frank Sedita was elected District Attorney with bi-partisan support. The Republican/Conservative/Independent coalition controls the county legislature. The party has controlled the office of county executive for 39 of the 55 years that there has been a county executive. But they will not win the office in 2015.

Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw and County Clerk Chris Jacobs have taken themselves out the race. Party leadership has settled on Assemblyman Ray Walter as their candidate. Mr. Walter became a member of the Erie County Legislature in 2009, and was elected to the State Assembly from Amherst in 2011.

Having experienced a few county executive campaigns over the years (is there anyone but me who remembers the ditty, “Dillon will do it, Mike will get it done…”), I can say with some authority that the best thing Ray Walter can do at this time is to download a countdown app on his phone or tablet that counts the days until election day, November 3rd. It’s going to be a long and mostly not-fun time. Here’s why:

  1. Mark Poloncarz has presided over the preparation and management of three county budgets so far. The budgets have been balanced and have produced small surpluses. The fund balance is healthy. Taxes are down a little from where they were four years ago. Walter will tell people that Poloncarz tried to raise taxes in 2013 and the legislature beat that back. It’s true, but frankly that’s inside baseball. The public won’t focus on that any more than they will on the tax cut that the legislature approved for 2015. I don’t know how you as a reader of this blog made out on your county taxes this year, but I can tell you that our county tax cut wasn’t enough to buy a pizza.
  2. The Bills. Poloncarz, with help from Albany, negotiated a new lease that pretty much keeps the team here for ten years. The Pegulas’ purchase of the team solidified that. Poloncarz also stood up to the NFL owners when they tried to tell Erie County that a new stadium is needed. The stadium question will probably get serious before the end of the new county executive term, which begins next January 1, but for now, things are cool with the Bills.
  3. Making sure the trains run on time. Okay, that expression is not exactly relevant for Erie County. The correct analogy is making sure the snow is plowed. We have had some major weather events here over the past couple of winters. While the folks in the town of Boston may not agree, the general consensus has been that Poloncarz did an excellent job of getting the snow plowed and keeping the public informed about what they needed to know to get through it.
  4. There have been no scandals in Erie County Hall. That’s the way it’s mostly been over the years, and so perhaps the routine doesn’t merit much attention. It’s just good to know.
  5. When I worked on the 1979 campaign of Frank McGuire for county executive, my friend Steve Banko and I were assigned to produce the economic development position paper for the campaign. We labored long and hard (actually one or two evenings) and came up with a report that the Courier printed in toto – an entire page. But when Steve and I took a look at what we produced we concluded that we had prepared was a list of 49 action verbs – “create, develop, produce, encourage, initiate, lead, organize, grow, etc., etc., etc.” My point here is that Poloncarz will claim that he helped improve the economy around here. There is less unemployment and lots of construction going on. But no county executive can have any major impact on the economy. It’s just not in the power of that office. But the fact that employment is better and there are cranes in the sky creates a positive feeling in the community, and to some degree an incumbent officeholder benefits from that.
  6. Poloncarz is not a great political fundraiser, but he has a good amount in the bank. Walter does not, and raising money for a campaign that is perceived as simply a placeholder is very difficult.

Over the past forty years there has been more than one occasion in Erie County when the incumbent administration overplayed their hand in a re-election campaign, when they were holding a substantial lead. Games were played with the budget to try to make themselves look better politically.  It really didn’t matter to the election result, but major problems developed after the election.   (I think I may still have a “Don’t blame me, I voted for Swarts” bumper sticker from 1984.)  There is value to the community, therefore, for a challenger to hold the incumbent’s feet to the fire.  Doing so tests the incumbent, who might be tempted to do things that he doesn’t really need to do.

The election for Erie County Executive this year will probably be boring. The results, for all practical purposes, are in. Political junkies will need to find something else to watch in 2015.  Hey, the Bills are looking pretty good!

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