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Robert McCarthy: Democrats again spurn 'outsider' Kearns

Erie County Democrats spurned one of their most successful candidates of recent years last week when passing out their endorsement for clerk.

Same old, same old for Michael P. Kearns.

The Democratic assemblyman from South Buffalo and now a candidate county clerk is used to rejection from Democratic Headquarters. He may even revel in it, much like his mentor and political hero, the late Mayor James D. Griffin.

Kearns bucked the organization in 2012 during a special Assembly election, winning the primary against the party leaders' choice, an aide to Rep. Brian Higgins. Then he snared a curious but effective nod from Erie County Republicans, gaining virtual invincibility in South Buffalo’s often rough-and-tumble politics.

Once in Albany, Kearns almost immediately challenged then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver over his handling of sexual harassment allegations against a member. The powerful Assembly boss then shunted Kearns into political oblivion.

Now, as local Democratic leaders embrace every opportunity to skewer Kearns and promote Steve Cichon for county clerk.

But  Kearns is emerging once again as a Democrat/Republican hybrid. He is wrapping his candidacy in outsider labels, challenging core party principles such as support for abortion rights and gun control.

Even if he loses the September face-off with Cichon, the GOP line will guarantee his survival through the primary and a place on the November ballot.

“I’m pro-life and have an A+ rating from the NRA,” Kearns said a few days ago. “If you don’t fit into their criteria, you’re not a good Democrat."

“I think the Democratic Party should be a big tent for everybody,” he added.

It’s not all about guns and abortion, Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner says. Ever since Democrat Anthony M. Masiello gained Republican support while running for mayor in 1997 and 2001, party rules call for denying endorsements to Democrats running with the GOP for non-judicial offices. Zellner also insists that Kearns never formally requested the party nod.

“He met with me earlier in the year and said he would like to be considered, and that he would also seek Conservative, which is understandable,” Zellner said. “But the Republican support is a problem. He simply ignored the Democratic leadership and worked with the Republican leadership and Ralph Lorigo,” the Conservative Party leader

In recent days, the chairman recorded an automated phone poll gauging opinion after the message accuses Kearns of campaigning “as a true Republican by misleading the public.”

In other forums, Zellner labels Kearns as a career politician and ineffective in the Council and Assembly. Kearns’ signature issue of cracking down on “zombie properties” was never backed by legislation, Zellner says.

“We plan on exposing him for who he is,” he said.

The Democratic Party does not exclude the dwindling number of pro-life candidates who also run with Conservative backing, Zellner says, pointing to Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger of Kenmore. Zellner added that the party endorsed Kearns for Assembly in 2016 (against no opponent). But he acknowledges that Kearns’ stands on some issues do not help his cause when seeking party support.

“He has been against Democratic principles and policies for a long time,” the chairman said. “I believe his issues are inconsistent with standing up for the LGBT community and his pro-life views do not reflect our views on a woman’s right to choice. He’s the most consistent anti-choice person in the Legislature.”

Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy seems to enjoy the Democratic focus on Kearns, whom he has backed for Assembly since 2012. Langworthy points to Democratic National Chairman Thomas E. Perez’s recent re-enforcement of the party’s need for pro-choice candidates, and said Erie County’s long tradition of conservative Democrats is no longer tolerated.

“Now it’s a Perez-Zellner party of radical, liberal progressives who are out of step with the voters of Erie County,” Langworthy said. “This is a case of Mickey not ideologically meeting the orthodoxy they’re trying to thrust on people.”

Though he is well known through much of Erie County during a 12-year political career, Kearns’ 2009 primary challenge to Mayor Byron W. Brown fizzled, and raising money for the Democratic primary may prove difficult. Few candidates or even party organizations have risked such a bipartisan effort for a non-judicial office.

Still, Canisius College political scientist Michael V. Haselswerdt thinks Kearns may offer an attractive option for voters in both major parties. Party loyalty may not hold sway, even in overwhelmingly Democratic Erie County, he said.

“Independents tend to be highly valued,” he said, adding that voters who know Kearns will view him as someone unwilling to “play ball” with everyone.

“The parties become less useful as you go higher in office,” Haselswerdt said.

Donald J. Trump hardly ran a primary campaign beholden to Republican leaders, Haselswerdt noted, and ultimately gained the White House. He believes Kearns’ dalliance with the GOP and links to Trump may not haunt him, noting significant local support for the Republican presidential candidate last fall.

In addition, Republicans hold three countywide offices and control the Legislature even though Democrats enjoy a registration advantage of about 133,000 voters.

“He’s going to say ‘I will do what’s good for you,’” Haselswerdt said, “‘and that the parties are out of touch and I am not.’”

Kearns emphasizes he has always been a Democrat and will remain a Democrat. When ostracized by Silver, he could have joined the Assembly Republicans, he said, but did not.

“I didn’t because I’m a Democrat,” he said.

The party is rejecting Kearns again, but he  appears eager to embrace the situation. He says many elected Democrats will support him, and he is ready to begin.

“A lot of people don’t like this decision,” he said.

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