Some facts, observations and heard-on-the-streets

Aside from the election for Erie County Executive, the 2019 local elections were generally no-drama events. So enjoy your upcoming Christmas and New Year holidays, because, politically speaking, we are all in for one hell of a ride in 2020.

Here are some facts, observations and heard-on-the-streets:

  • Candidates for office in 2019 and their political committees were required to submit the last reports for the year on December 2nd. We’ll look here at the numbers for the race for Erie County Executive.
  • Incumbent Democrat Mark Poloncarz over the course of 2019 raised $698,318 and spent $1,020,499. He had $73,536 left in his campaign account after the election.
  • Republican candidate Lynne Dixon raised $598,347 and spent $604,600, leaving her just $8,376.
  • Talk on the street is that Dixon will join County Clerk Michael Kearns’ staff after her term as a county legislator ends on December 31.
  • The voter turnout, countywide, was 35 percent, which was up about 10 percent over 2015. Buffalo turnout, once again, was considerably lower than the numbers in suburban and rural areas.
  • 12.6 percent of the total vote came from early voting. Substantially more early voters were Democrats than Republicans. The majority of the early voters were women. More than half the early voters were 65 years-old or older. The vast majority of early voters were regular voters.
  • For the most part the early voting system in Erie County, which was much more substantial than anywhere else in the state, worked very well. Some of the 37 sites could have been better placed, and perhaps the number of sites could be reduced a bit in low potential voter total areas. Regardless, look for much greater use of the early voting system in 2020.
  • Reporting on some other campaign contributions of note, the Republican State Committee during the fall received huge contributions from two donors.   On September 6th Benjamin Landa contributed $107,300 to the State Committee. On October 10th Judith Landa contributed $107,300 to the Committee.
  • The contributions from Benjamin and Judith Landa were among the largest received by the State Committee in 2019. The only contribution bigger than theirs was $200,000 from then State Chairman Edward Cox last March. Nick Langworthy became Chairman in July. The contributions of Benjamin and Judith Landa were near the maximum amount permitted by law. Party or constituted committees may receive no more than $117,300 from any individual contributor in a calendar year; Cox’s contribution was to the Party’s “Housekeeping” account.
  • The Landas were past investors in the Emerald South Nursing Home, which was closed in January after being placed under receivership by the state Department of Health. Mark Poloncarz in the summer of 2018 criticized the operation of that facility.
  • Judith Landa in November of this year sued Mark Poloncarz and his Chief of Staff Jennifer Hibit for slander and libel concerning statements of Poloncarz criticizing the operation of the now-closed nursing home.
  • Robin Schimminger’s decision to retire after he completes his term as Assemblyman for the 140th District at the end of 2020 creates an open seat in a district that is overwhelmingly Democratic by registration.
  • At this time the favorite for the Democratic designation is Democratic County Chairman and Board of Elections Commissioner Jeremy Zellner. Perennial candidate Kevin Stocker, now a Democrat, pretty much guarantees that there will be a Democratic primary for the seat. But there are others being mentioned. The list includes Kenmore Mayor Pat Mang, Tonawanda Town Councilmen John Bargnesi and Bill Conrad, and County Legislator Kevin Hardwick. There could be others from the City of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda. Traditionally, Democratic Assembly nominations are settled by a vote of the party committee members in the district.
  • Zellner says that he will resign as Commissioner of the Board of Elections when he becomes a candidate. That will, in turn, require the selection of a new Democratic Commissioner. Mark Poloncarz’s chief of staff and recent campaign manager, Jennifer Hibit, is considered by some as the likely choice.
  • Michael Ranzenhofer’s decision to forgo re-election in the 61st Senate District will create an open seat that has more Democrats than Republicans. County Legislator Ed Rath will be at the top of most lists for the Republican nomination.

The Public Campaign Financing Commission issues its report

The rule in politics and government always is, if you have something to announce that does not look or smell too good, you drop it on Friday evening or around a holiday. That’s what was expected from the state Public Campaign Financing Commission which originally said that it would issue their report on the day before after Thanksgiving.  But that didn’t happen.  Nor was it released on Thanksgiving or on the weekend after.  It arrived, finally, late on Sunday, December first.

The Commission, composed of seven Democratic appointees and two Republicans, has recommended a system for the public financing of statewide and state legislative campaigns beginning with the 2024 elections, recommendations, it says, “which have the force of law.”

It also recommended that the threshold of votes for a political party to have automatic access to state and local ballots will be raised from the current 50,000 gubernatorial votes every four years to a new arrangement. A party’s candidate for governor or for president must now receive a minimum of 130,000 votes or two percent of the total number of votes in the election, whichever is higher in order to qualify as a recognized party.  Party status will be re-calculated every two years, beginning in 2020.

The new threshold vote requirements, if they were in effect in 2018, would have meant that the only minor party that would have achieved official ballot status would have been the Conservatives; five other parties, including the Working Families Party, would not qualify. That seems like a strange result from a Commission that was controlled by Democratic appointees.  Despite that, the higher threshold makes sense.  The current 50,000 gubernatorial votes stardard was created over 80 years ago, when the state population and the number of voters was much smaller.

The recommendations, “which will have the force of law,” will essentially create parallel state election laws, one actually adopted by the Legislature and approved by the Governor, and another created by this Commission.

The public financing part of the recommendations of the Commission will work like this:

  • Candidates for governor who accept public financing will be eligible to receive up to $3.5 million for a primary election and another $3.5 million for the general election.
  • Candidates for lieutenant governor can receive up to $3.5 million for a primary election.
  • Candidates for state comptroller and attorney general can qualify for up to $3.5 million in a primary and another $3.5 million in the general election.
  • State Senate candidates will be eligible for up to $375,000 in a primary and another $375,000 in the general election.
  • State Assembly candidates will be eligible to receive up to $175,000 in a primary and another $175,000 in the general election.
  • Donations of up to $250 will be matched 6-to-1 for statewide candidates.
  • Donations of up to $250 to legislative candidates who opt into the program will be matched on a 12-to-1 basis for the first $50 contributed; the second $100 contribution will be matched 9-to-1; the last $100 will be matched 8-to-1. So a $250 contribution could be parlayed into $2,300 from the state.
  • Donations to legislative candidates will only be matched when the money comes from residents of the candidate’s district, while statewide candidates matching funds will only be available when a donation comes from a state resident.
  • The total individual limits on contributions to statewide candidates will decrease from $69,700 to $18,000. Limits for Senate and Assembly candidates will have the result of increasing if the candidate runs in both a primary and general election in a somewhat complicated arrangement.
  • The recommendations set thresholds in dollar amounts and in the number of donors for any candidate wishing to participate in the funding program. Dollar thresholds will be reduced by a third in legislative districts where the average median income is lower than the national average.
  • There are caps on state funding per candidate.
  • Gubernatorial candidates who participate in the program must participate in at least one debate.
  • The program will be administered by the Public Campaign Finance Board, which will operate under the aegis of the State Board of Elections. It will receive requests for payments and will conduct post-election audits of the use of state funds.
  • The estimated total cost of the program in 2026, when it would be fully operational, will be up to $100 million, with various somewhat nebulous sources of funds identified to pay for the program.

The proposed system is lauded by political reformers as a way “getting big money” out of state politics. A noble goal of course, but how does it work in real life?  Are there still work-arounds?

State Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy offered an interesting commentary on the Commission’s work last week, before the Report was released. The Albany-Times Union on November 25th quoted Langworthy as saying “I haven’t even read it yet, but I know that I’m against it. I don’t need to read it before I know I’m against it.”

It seems to me that if the public financing rules survive legal challenges and actually do go into effect for the 2024 legislative elections that the number of candidates getting into many races will increase since campaign money will be so much easier to gather up. It will be a boom for political consultants who will latch onto fringe candidates who would now have money to spend.

The New York City system for public financing is often cited as a model, but it may not necessarily be a good one. For example, a special election for Public Advocate was held in the City early this year that attracted 26 candidates, 11 of whom received public money. Nearly $7.2 million of taxpayer money went into that race which saw just 118,395 votes cast citywide; 2.3 percent of registered voters.

The State Legislature will now have until December 22nd to reject the Commission’s plan or it will go into effect, at least until the first law suit is filed challenging the system.



Early starts for local 2020 elections; a county budget mix-up; Robin Schimminger

Wishing everyone a happy and peaceful thanksgiving! Try not to bring up politics at the dinner table.  Talk about other stuff.

With the United States now in a pattern where presidential politics start early and go on for what seems like forever, you would think that it would be easy to adapt to the same level of activity on the state and local level. But it still takes some getting used to.

The year 2019 saw the reinstitution of June primaries for state and local offices, something the state has not had for nearly five decades. June primaries mean petitioning starts in February, when there may be snow and ice on driveways and sidewalks and it gets dark in early evening – not ideal conditions for circulating petitions. Continue reading

The Godfather — Part IV

This month we can see the well-promoted film, The Irishman, on the big screen for a very limited run. That will be followed by the film’s availability on Netflix. Netflix’s teaser explains the movie like this: “Welcomed into a crime family, he followed orders, kept secrets — and swayed history. Martin Scorsese’s epic tale of power and loyalty.”

Movies like The Godfather and its sequels and GoodFellas have always drawn tremendous interest, and are often considered some of the great classics of Hollywood. The Irishman could also be a big hit. But why settle for something loosely “based on a true story,” when you have at your fingertips a real, compelling true story? Continue reading

An Inconvenient Ignorance

By Paul Fisk, Editor

This summer I had the privilege of spending a three-day weekend with Al Gore (and 1,200 of his closest friends) learning about climate change science, effects and solutions.  Mr. Gore’s organization, The Climate Reality Project, has trained over 20,000 “Volunteer Climate Reality Leaders” from 149 countries and territories in spreading the scientific truth about climate change and what we can and must do about it.  As an aging, retired public servant I have become increasingly troubled by the political and environmental legacy my generation is leaving our children and grandchildren.  So I have been increasingly active in organizations devoted to combating the twin existential threats to our democracy and our planet’s habitability posed by Trumpism and the climate crisis.  Paul Fisk

The steady news stream of ever-more mind boggling outrages and audacity by our President has largely displaced necessary discussion of what has been happening to the world’s climate. Only recently has increasing public concern been regularly featured in the mainstream media. Continue reading

Election results mostly as expected; turnout better than four years ago

Yesterday’s elections offered a handful of unexpected results, but incumbents mostly won.  Turnout ticked up compared with 2015.

As projected here on August 13th, County Executive Mark Poloncarz was victorious, but his margin was smaller both in terms total votes and in percentages than in 2015.  Lynne Dixon worked hard, but she offered no compelling reason for a change in leadership in County Hall. Poloncarz’s taking-care-of-business style worked just fine. Continue reading