When Mark C. Poloncarz said “no thanks” last week to a potential Conservative Party endorsement for re-election, he may have set the stage for a major theme in this year’s campaign for county executive.
The move frees the incumbent to face Republican Raymond W. Walter in November unencumbered by anything but his own Democratic ideology, according to those close to him.
Poloncarz can therefore ignore Conservative leaders on same-sex marriage, late-term abortion or any other hot-button issues of the state’s top minor party.
“It’s not a party or a statewide platform that matches up with my beliefs,” Poloncarz said.
The county executive’s decision to spurn the Conservatives also underscores a growing trend for Erie County Democrats – especially those in the State Legislature – competing in November elections without that minor party line. Only local Democratic Assemblymen Robin L. Schimminger, of Kenmore, and Michael P. Kearns, of Buffalo, now carry the Conservative label in Albany, as does Mayor Byron W. Brown in Buffalo.
But Poloncarz’s decision to spurn Conservative feelers also arrives at Walter headquarters like an engraved invitation. And the assemblyman from East Amherst has replied by appealing to an Erie County electorate he claims tilts to the right.
“This is a Democratic county but a conservative county,” Walter said, emphasizing the small “c” in conservative. “There are a lot of blue-collar ‘Reagan Democrats’ here, conservative Catholic voters who do not identify with the politics of Mark Poloncarz.
“I don’t think he has a conservative thought in his head,” Walter said of Poloncarz. “He’s a self-confessed New York City-style liberal.”
Poloncarz may be influenced by enrollment numbers in Erie County, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 130,000 voters. The county has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1984, shunned all Republican candidates for U.S. Senate since Alfonse M. D’Amato in 1992, and big suburbs such as Amherst and Cheektowaga have followed the City of Buffalo into the Democratic column.
Others say the Conservative label could kill any hopes Poloncarz may ever have of becoming a statewide Democratic candidate, or that he maintains such a big lead in polls that he does not need the line. He is expected to gain other minor-party support.
But conservative Republicans have won in Erie County. Local voters in recent years turned to GOP candidates for county clerk, county comptroller, and sheriff. And the County Legislature now has a Republican-led majority.
In addition, Erie County supported Republican gubernatorial candidate George E. Pataki in three successful elections, as well as Carl P. Paladino. And despite popular programs such as the Buffalo Billion, Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo narrowly won Erie County last November when 48 percent of voters turned against him.
Nevertheless, Poloncarz reads the local electorate as anything but conservative, and he may see the opportunity to ride a liberal wave like the one that carried New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to Gracie Mansion in 2013. He points to winning three consecutive countywide elections – two for comptroller, one for county executive – without the Conservative line.
And though Poloncarz acknowledges serious discussions with Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo, the party’s views fail to mesh with his.
“I’ve never had the Conservative Party line in the past, and I won,” Poloncarz said, “proving a lot of pundits wrong who say you can’t win in Erie County without the Conservative line.”
Poloncarz’s reasoning is “a difficult statement for me to understand,” Lorigo said. “There is no question the endorsement means a lot in a lot of races.”
Lorigo said that he discussed the coming campaign with Poloncarz, in recognition of the county executive’s conservative management of finances, and noted that Poloncarz had sought, but not been given, the party endorsement in his previous races for comptroller and county executive.
But he said Poloncarz did not want to align himself with some of the party’s social views.
“Mark Poloncarz has decided himself to be more progressive and in line with New York City Democrats,” Lorigo said. “I think he has characterized us incorrectly and misinterpreted what Erie County Democrats believe in terms of conservative beliefs.
“I believe conservative values are the values of the majority of people in Erie County.”
Walter is already reacting, even before officially gaining the Conservative line. Upstate Republicans have never shied away from waging campaigns against New York City, and Walter is taking aim at comments that Poloncarz made on the “Capital Tonight” cable program last year, saying he was “more progressive” than most New York State Democrats and that he more fits with “my compatriots in New York City.”
In previous years, Erie County Democrats eagerly sought the Conservative line.
Then-State Sen. William T. Stachowski successfully campaigned with a “D” and “C” label for decades until Timothy M. Kennedy snared it in 2010 as part of his successful challenge to the incumbent. But Kennedy also rejected the Conservatives in 2012, saying he did not believe his 2011 vote to legalize same-sex marriage would mesh with the party.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, enjoyed Conservative support from his first run for Buffalo Common Council until his 2004 congressional campaign against Republican Nancy A. Naples. Though Conservatives in Erie and Chautauqua counties endorsed Higgins in that contest, state Conservative Chairman Michael R. Long engineered the state committee’s nod for Naples. Long also refuses to give his blessing to anyone – such as Higgins – who supports the right to late-term abortion.
Other local Democrats who previously held office and ran with Conservative support include former Assemblymen Paul A. Tokasz, Dennis H. Gabryszak and Richard J. Keane, while Dennis T. Gorski carried the line in each of his contests for the Assembly and county executive.