Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz seemed to take an extra measure of pride in discussing plans for his re-election announcement in Lackawanna on Tuesday evening.
Almost 500 people were expected at Lucarelli’s Banquet Facility in his hometown, the Democrat said, to support his effort to win a second term.
“Other than a rally for Bill Clinton,” he said, referring to a past local gathering, “I can’t think of any one ever bigger.”
The sheer magnitude of the Tuesday crowd underscores the host of advantages that Poloncarz brings to his latest countywide campaign. As he prepares to meet Republican challenger Raymond W. Walter, an assemblyman from East Amherst, the county executive enters the race with an edge in every key category: polls, campaign funds, party enrollment, name recognition and incumbency.
Even his opponent stems from a second tier of potential challengers after top GOP figures such as County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs and County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr. shied away from the race.
And with no major scandals or controversies, hours of positive exposure handling three separate snow emergencies, and a slew of rosy economic statistics, Poloncarz appears confident about what lies ahead – even as he takes nothing for granted.
“I think that in the end, if you do a good job, the people will reward you by wanting to keep you in the position you’re in,” he said during an interview in his 16th-floor office of the Rath County Office Building. “And I think we’ve done a very good job.”
Poloncarz, 47, wastes no time in emphasizing why he deserves another crack at the county’s top elected post. Unemployment has dropped from 8.9 percent when he took office in 2012 to 5.5 percent, he said, while 20,000 jobs were created. He points to new companies at the North Youngmann Commerce Center in the Town of Tonawanda and at the former Bethlehem Steel complex now thriving because of county economic-development efforts.
The county has piggybacked on the state’s Buffalo Billion program, and with construction cranes still perched against the downtown skyline, Poloncarz seems to grasp a “progress” theme that Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown successfully employed for his third-term campaign in 2013.
But Walter is already on the attack following his own campaign kickoff Saturday. He contends that the Poloncarz performance has been anything but “very good.” The Republican candidate believes that the incumbent could have better used state programs such as the Buffalo Billion, cites the deaths of several children supervised by the county Child Protective Services, and says the county response to the November mega-snowstorm ranked far below Poloncarz’s own high marks.
Poloncarz, however, already anticipates the GOP jabs. He dismisses Walter’s contention that industrial development agencies have received short shrift in his administration. Indeed, the county executive said he campaigned against IDA largesse toward low-paying jobs in hotels and pizza shops and says he stayed true to his word. “The old way of giving tax breaks to whoever applies just doesn’t work,” he said. “We’re saying there are new parameters, and don’t come to us if we’re not going to get the benefits. “We’ve changed all that, and the sky hasn’t fallen.”
Walter is already hinting at a campaign featuring Southtowns supervisors still steaming over what he called a slow county response to the initial phases of the November storm. He says some areas never saw a plow for days and that county coordination efforts proved poor.
That charge may irritate Poloncarz as much as any as he recalls one 33-hour stint in the county emergency command center, and says he makes “no apologies” for late plows at somebody’s subdivision.
“My goal was to make sure Mercy Hospital in 6 feet of snow was accessible, or the dialysis center in Orchard Park was clear,” he said. “People would have died otherwise. In general, I think the vast majority of the public understands that.”
Poloncarz said 5,000 people from all over the state were responding at one point, and labels Walter’s view of the county’s performance “revisionist history.”
After Poloncarz replaced his commissioner of social services following the deaths of several children, however, Walter also appears poised to criticize that department. It may prove the most emotional campaign topic of all, and Poloncarz acknowledges the community concern the deaths inspired.
When questioned, the county executive paused and rattled off the full names of several children who died in CPS care. The toughest part of his job is dealing with such tragedies, Poloncarz, and he believes that new steps taken by his administration will help prevent recurrences.
“We’ve changed the Department of Social Services structure so that there are many more eyes looking at this issue,” he said, adding that new caseworkers have been hired along with former police officers trained as special investigators.
“Unfortunately, I can’t say that no child will again die at the hands of an adult in the future,” he said. “I can say we have taken significant actions.”
Poloncarz said he also will tout his administration’s record in sealing a solid stadium lease with the Buffalo Bills that helped ensure the team’s future in Western New York.
“I got it done,” he said.
He will point to $60 million of infrastructure investment since 2012 with $30 million more slated for this year, as well as improvements to parks, libraries and Erie Community College. And he says he will not shy away from a progressive philosophy of government.
“I think Walter ascribes to the old Ronald Reagan notion that government is the problem,” he said. “I believe that government can be part of the solution. I believe a government working on behalf of its people is truly what government stands for.
“I will say we have accomplished a lot,” he added, “and will accomplish more.”