When Bert D. Dunn lost his oh-so-close Democratic primary for sheriff last month, most political people thought the rookie politician would just quietly fade away.
But the sheriff’s lieutenant, who also owns Bert’s Bikes and Fitness, has proved anything but quiet. Running on a party line called Law and Order, which he created to complement the Democratic nomination he expected but lost, Dunn has emerged as the most visible of the three candidates.
His “I’m Bert Dunn and I’m not done yet” television ads are saturating the airwaves, and his signs and billboards have sprouted up along major Erie County highways.
The latest state Board of Elections records show Dunn spending nearly $320,000 on his campaign – almost all of it from his own wallet and far outpacing his two major-party opponents.
Dunn acknowledges that his minor-party candidacy against Republican incumbent Timothy B. Howard and Democrat Richard E. Dobson still remains a long shot. So why has he spent more than $300,000 of his own money on such an improbable candidacy?
“I’m qualified beyond any of the other candidates to run the Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “And if this doesn’t work, I’ll never have to wonder, ‘What if?’ ”
Dunn’s third-party bid for sheriff occurs after several twists and turns.
Almost immediately after Erie County Democratic leaders endorsed his candidacy early in the year, The Buffalo News reported that Dunn’s cellphone texts to a friend revealed a more Republican philosophy, with no enthusiasm for either President Obama or Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
It was also reported that Dunn originally registered as a Republican, then Democrat, then Republican and then Democrat again – all hampering his efforts to persuade Democratic voters.
But Dunn also promised to self-finance his campaign in a year when Erie County Democratic Headquarters looked to concentrate on tough races for the Legislature and comptroller. Party leaders stayed with Dunn, but he lost the primary to Dobson (who was financially helped by an independent committee) by 700 votes.
Dunn acknowledges his differences with party leaders.
“I don’t want to do attack ads. I refused,” he said. “I’ve got to look at myself in the mirror tomorrow.”
Now the candidate says he approaches the general election in the same manner. He’s not afraid to criticize Howard but suggests what he calls better ideas. He contends that the notoriety Howard has received from his refusal to enforce the state’s new gun-control law – the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, or SAFE Act – has unnecessarily dominated the campaign.
The real emphasis, he insists, should be placed on better administration of the county’s largest law enforcement agency.
“He started a fire here, so nobody looks to see what’s going on over there,” Dunn said of the sheriff. “He doesn’t want anyone to see his record in office.”
Regarding Howard’s position on the SAFE Act, Dunn said, “Who cares? What’s it got to do with leading the Sheriff’s Office? The job is to lead the people working there and manage the budget and services.”
Dunn also takes issue with the sheriff’s administration of “reserve” units such as the Mounted Division and scientific staff. Those units have volunteers who assume some police powers, and Dunn contends that despite insufficient training, Howard’s friends and “celebrities” are issued badges and interact with the public in those roles and that he would overhaul the practice.
Dunn said he would study and embrace “best practices” from sheriffs and jail management officers across the country to ensure that deputies are “busy 40 hours a week and not six.”
“I’d change how we assign and schedule,” Dunn said. “There is an inordinate amount of people off on weekends, and that’s preposterous.”
While Dunn denounces “cronyism” and touts his administrative abilities in the TV ads, the ads themselves – and their cost – are generating a buzz and curiosity among voters. Dunn stresses his “independence” in those commercials and hopes the county’s 96,000 unaffiliated voters will take notice.
Dunn, 43, said he views politics differently after failing to “break in” to the minor parties and the rest of Erie County’s political establishment, while acknowledging he was happy to accept the backing of Democratic leaders. He relies more on business experience and accepts its risks, he said, and now hopes all the money he has committed will result in a sheriff’s badge for his uniform.
Some observers say he will only ensure Howard’s re-election by splitting the vote with Dobson – another Democrat. Others say his full-scale ad campaign injects a major question mark into the campaign, since his ads continue to run alongside Howard’s.
But after Dobson benefited from ads purchased by a group called the WNY Progressive Caucus largely financed by former County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon, the Democratic candidate has waged a quiet campaign. Dobson has aired no TV ads, and his new campaign finance report lists only about $7,500 on hand.
Dunn said his wife encouraged him to give the long shot a try. Now, in a three-way, off-year election, Dunn says he took her advice and hopes for a historic upset.
“If you really believe in something and want to make a difference,” he said, “you’ve got to step up.”