It was perhaps house 65,000 on the Kevin T. Stocker door-to-door tour, or maybe closer to 70,000. Whatever the case, the State Senate candidate had his routine down as he knocked on one door after another.
“Hello. I’m Kevin Stocker. I hope you’ll be my boss. I’m running for State Senate.”
On this particular day, Stocker, who calls himself an “independent Republican,” was in the City of Tonawanda knocking on doors of Democrats and independents he identified.
“I already hit the Republicans during the primary,” he said.
Most people Stocker meets seem glad he stopped by.
“You’re the first candidate to come by my house,” said Thomas Henderson.
Several asked Stocker his position on the NY SAFE Act, the state’s gun control law.
“I’m a former prosecutor and gun owner,” Stocker said, as he explained he’s against the gun restrictions championed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Throughout the day, Stocker is charming, engaging, energetic.
He’s almost unrecognizable from the man who weeks earlier cancelled a planned meeting with a Buffalo News reporter.
In that case, the reporter asked Stocker to answer a few issues questions prior to their meeting on the campaign trail. The questions, he was told, were being put to all Senate candidates.
“Do you think the tax code should be simplified, and if so, how?” he was asked.
“I’ve been to 50,000 houses,” Stocker responded with a sense of frustration in his voice. “People don’t talk about this stuff. I am talking about corruption, and going to Albany to fight corruption. You guys want to get off on other issues. I am not talking about them. I am not interested in what The Buffalo News wants. I am talking to the voters. I’m addressing being independent and fighting corruption and party bosses.”
He canceled the planned campaign trail meeting on Grand Island with a News reporter.
“I don’t want to be interviewed,” Stocker said. “I don’t trust The Buffalo News. I don’t trust you. I am tired of answering your questions.”
A few weeks later, he agreed to have a reporter tag along.
“I wanted you to see what voters are saying and how they interact with me,” Stocker explained.
Stocker is unquestionably a different kind of candidate.
After stunning the political establishment by defeating incumbent State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti in the Republican primary, the Kenmore lawyer has continued his largely self-funded door-to-door campaign, talking about what he wants to talk about when he wants to talk about it. So far, the campaign has spent about $330,000, with Stocker saying he’s footing most of the bill himself.
It’s a campaign in which Stocker describes himself as the integrity candidate up against what he considers two undeserving opponents. He describes one as a criminal and the other as a liar.
Stocker himself, meanwhile, has been accused of making unsubstantiated claims against his opponents, filing confusing campaign finance reports, and running past judicial campaigns that resulted in complaints to the bar association about what opponents viewed as misleading campaign signs.
Stocker dismisses the criticisms, insisting he’s right about all his claims, saying his campaign reports are being done the way the state Board of Elections instructed, and that complaints about his signs were nothing more than the whining of opponents and party bosses – the kind of people he wants to go to Albany to fight.
“I will fight the cesspool of corruption in Albany and fight for the hard-working families of Western New York,” he says in his campaign literature.
The September primary marked the first campaign Stocker has won, but is far from the first he’s waged.
A former Kenmore village and Tonawanda town prosecutor, Stocker ran unsuccessfully for village and town justice in 2006, 2007 and 2008, and for the Assembly in 2010.
He also ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary against Grisanti in 2012.
But this time around, Stocker started sooner, worked harder and spent more money.
Pundits said Stocker won because of attack ads the New York State Teachers United Teachers ran against Grisanti in the primary and have continued to run during the general election. The statewide teachers union is backing Democrat Marc Panepinto, and some experts believed he would have an easier time beating Stocker in the general election than Grisanti.
Stocker doesn’t buy it. Stocker says he won because voters are angry over Grisanti’s flip-flopping on issues like same-sex marriage and gun control, and because Stocker has been on a door-to-door campaign for the past 18 months.
“The hard work going door to door, I earned voter trust and support,” he said.
On the campaign trail, it’s obvious Stocker enjoys the door-to-door campaigning.
“It’s wonderful,” he said. ”People are so nice.”
Attorney and father
Stocker, 50, is a life-long Republican raised in the Town of Tonawanda who graduated from Kenmore-Tonawanda public schools. He earned a business administration degree from Michigan State College and a law degree from the University at Buffalo. He served as Town of Tonawanda and Village of Kenmore prosecutor for 15 years. He proudly cites that he was named 2003 Prosecutor the Year by the Prosecutors’ Association of Western New York.
It was the experience of running unsuccessfully for judge a decade ago that seems to have colored his opinion of party politics.
In one election, Stocker recalled, he had the Republican and Conservative endorsements for judge, and was seeking Democratic endorsement as well. But the Democratic leaders made sure he didn’t get the nomination, he said.
Stocker’s media criticism also seems to go back to his judicial races. Opponents accused him of posting unfair signs, one that they charged implied he was an incumbent judge, and another that they said implied he was endorsed by more political parties than he was. A bar association panel told Stocker to change the signs, and he did, but Stocker said the signs were not misleading, and the press coverage was unfair and unwarranted.
“The only person that complained was the opposing candidate. No voters complained. They weren’t misleading,” Stocker said of the signs.
Stocker’s complaints about the media continue in the State Senate race. He was angered by a Grisanti flyer that he said wrongly accused him of supporting late-term abortion and public financing of college tuition for children of undocumented immigrants.
Grisanti’s campaign said the charges are fair because Stocker asked voters to support him as a write-in candidate for the Working Families line, which supports those issues. But Stocker also blamed The Buffalo News, which he said did not expose Grisanti’s lies and profited from them because the literature was printed by a division of The News. Stocker also uses The News’ printing operation to produce some of his political literature.
Grisanti, meanwhile, later complained that Stocker is lying about him, saying that Grisanti took campaign money from Tonawanda Coke when he didn’t. State Board of Elections reports do not show any contributions to Grisanti from Tonawanda Coke or its founder, J.D. Crane. Still, Stocker insists he’s right. Grisanti must have changed the campaign reports, he said.
In his campaign literature, in debates, and when talking with reporters, Stocker pounces on Panepinto’s 2001 election law conviction for witnessing candidate nominating petitions that he did not actually see being signed.
But on the campaign trail, Stocker’s only focus is the person on the other side of the door.
“You’re the boss,” he tells them. “Do you have any tough questions for me?”
Stocker says he goes to his law office every weekday until about 1 p.m., then leaves for an afternoon of door-to-door campaigning. After dinner and helping his young sons with their homework, he said, he then does whatever additional legal work that needs to be done.
Stocker thinks it will all pay off at the polls Tuesday.
“I’m going to win,” he said.