One issue that crystallized the differences between Erie County Executive-elect Christopher C. Collins and James P. Keane, the Democrat he defeated in last Tuesday's election, is their differing views of the county apprenticeship law.
Collins, a Republican, opposes the law, which the Legislature approved last year over the veto of County Executive Joel A. Giambra. Keane, a supporter of the law, wants critics "to stop whining about it." The divergence of opinion speaks volumes about each man's approach to government and, in that, to voters' overwhelming preference for Collins, the businessman who says he'll bring private-sector performance into County Hall.
To Collins, the law is a sop to the construction unions. Its requirement that contractors on county jobs have apprentice-training programs, he says, prevents non-union contractors from working on public projects -- many apprenticeship programs are union-based -- and drives up costs by adding in that component. Keane saw it as a kind of public-private job training program.
Western New York Democrats have long seen local government more as a jobs program than a mechanism for providing public order and basic services. In his support for the program, Keane gave fed-up voters reason to doubt his commitment to changing the culture of government in Erie County.
Republicans haven't always been a lot better, but Collins is a different kind of public official. He's more like New York City's Republican mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, another wealthy businessman turned politician, than he is like Giambra, a longtime Buffalo pol who, despited his reformist ideas, could never break out of the politician mold.
Collins was right on this one, and now is his chance to try to make good on that stand. Repeal of a law popular with the overwhelmingly Democratic County Legislature won't be easy and it's not the most important thing on Collins' plate. He needs to pick his fights, but this issue is emblematic of his declared approach to government.
In addition, the "whining" critics, as Keane called them, are right. This was a bad law, a gift to the unions that has no place on the books of a county where taxes remain high and from which jobs and population are fleeing. Anything that curtails competitive bidding, and keeps taxpayers from getting the best value for their money, hinders governmental recovery.
Voters elected Collins with an expectation that he would change the rhythm of government in Erie County. This is a good place for him to start working, even before he is sworn into office.