County clerk candidate Michael P. Kearns would not commit Monday to running in the September Democratic primary, leaving open the possibility the registered Democrat may compete only on the Republican and Conservative lines in the November general election.
Kearns, a lifelong Democrat who represents South Buffalo and neighboring communities in the Assembly, acknowledged Monday he has yet to begin circulating Democratic nominating petitions. In the meantime, Erie County Republicans and Conservatives who are backing their longtime ally for clerk, are already seeking signatures for Kearns on their petitions.
"I have not started circulating Democratic petitions," Kearns said, "but am keeping that option on the table."
A Kearns decision to forgo his own party's primary would prove significant, especially since he was viewed as a strong candidate who is better known than endorsed Democrat Steve Cichon, a former WBEN Radio newsman. But one week after Democratic petitions hit the streets minus a Kearns effort, the possibility looms that Kearns will abandon his natural party affiliation for the first time – though he has run with GOP backing throughout an Assembly career that began in 2012.
And while acknowledging that the petition process is well underway, he would say only on Monday that circulating Democratic petitions is "under consideration."
Some political observers theorize the strategy may lie behind Kearns' lack of action on the Democratic front. They point out that a September primary for clerk could draw to the polls significant numbers of Democrats from his South Buffalo home turf, which is also the base of Democratic mayoral hopeful Mark J.F. Schroeder, the Buffalo comptroller who is challenging incumbent Mayor Byron W. Brown.
Others suggest Kearns – who unsuccessfully opposed Brown in the 2009 Democratic primary – may lack a strong Democratic team to obtain the 2,000 signatures needed on nominating petitions to qualify for the primary ballot.
Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo emphasized Kearns has made no final decisions, but said he is advising the candidate to skip the Democratic contest.
"My opinion is it's not worth it," he said. "He's going to win the November election anyway. Why get into someone else's primary?"
Meanwhile, the county Democratic organization headed by Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner not only refused to endorse Kearns earlier this year but has proven highly critical of his GOP associations. It also appeared Zellner was ready to continue those attacks as the primary campaign unfolded.
“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 in April. “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]."
The chairman also in April recorded an automated phone poll gauging opinion after the message accused Kearns of campaigning “as a true Republican by misleading the public.”
In other forums, Zellner labels Kearns as a career politician and ineffective when he was on the Common Council and in the Assembly. Kearns’ signature issue of cracking down on “zombie properties” was never backed by legislation, Zellner said.
“We plan on exposing him for who he is,” he said in April.
Kearns acknowledged in April that he continues to encounter difficulties in dealing with Democratic leaders.
“I’m pro-life and have an A+ rating from the NRA,” he said then. “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.
Kearns said he expects to make a decision on a Democratic candidacy soon.