Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard has taken the gloves off early in his bid for re-election this fall, launching a television attack ad Friday against Democratic challenger Bernard A. Tolbert.
Tolbert and other Democratic leaders say the early launch of a negative ad is a sign that Howard's campaign perceives Tolbert as a serious threat.
"Tim Howard’s ad is classic political dirty tricks," said Tolbert, former FBI agent in charge of the Buffalo office, in a statement. "(The ad) is utterly false. It is part of a pattern of lies, disinformation and misdirection that has characterized Tim Howard’s management of the Sheriff’s Office. He desperately wants to hide his appalling record."
The 30-second TV ad paints Tolbert as being out of touch with law enforcement issues and the work of the Sheriff's Office. It also resurrects accusations of sexism and harassment levied against Tolbert from when he served as senior vice president of security for the NBA from 2004 to 2010, when he retired. It ends with the statement: "Bernie Tolbert – not fit to protect us."
Tolbert called the sexism allegations "lies." His campaign released a letter addressed to key campaign supporters stating he has "never been accused of inappropriate physical or verbal conduct." A sexual discrimination suit involving him was settled by the NBA in 2009 over his objections, he said.
Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner said Saturday that the attack ads validate internal polling that shows Howard and Tolbert running "neck-and-neck" in the bid for the sheriff's seat.
"It really speaks to the desperation of the sheriff. It's almost unheard of for a candidate to be up on television this early," Zellner said.
Even if an incumbent candidate were going to launch TV ads this early – a month and a half before the election – Zellner said the incumbent usually starts by rolling out positive ads about his own record. He said Howard can't do that because of what he characterized as a "12-year record of incompetence," with his office the subject of investigations and lawsuits.
Tolbert referred to the 22 deaths in county holding facilities and improperly reported suicide attempts in the jails during Howard's tenure, among other stated shortcomings and controversies.
Christopher Grant, adviser to the Howard campaign, said their campaign needs no strategic advice from Zellner and "three-time failed candidate Bernie Tolbert."
"Bernie Tolbert needs to answer some serious questions about the hypocrisy of his campaign," Grant said. "The last time he had a job, he harassed women and failed to do his job in his security role in the NBA. At the end of the day, Sheriff Howard has demonstrated that he has done one thing – one thing exceeding well – and that is keep the people of Erie County safe."
Grant also said Tolbert had posted a video to his Facebook page a week ago that was also critical of the sheriff.