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Democrats seek to regain county influence as Republicans flex muscles

In a year marked by less than glamorous elections and predictions of more anemic turnout, Erie County’s political contests are still generating intense interest from the most basic standpoint of all: Democrat vs. Republican.

In overwhelmingly Democratic Erie County, the prospect of outnumbered Republicans retaining three countywide posts and even expanding their majority in the Legislature is generating real battles on all levels.

General election contests include an open county clerk post (Republican Michael P. Kearns vs. Democrat Steven J. Cichon), comptroller (incumbent Republican Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr. vs. Democrat Vanessa A. Gluchefski), and sheriff (incumbent Republican Timothy B. Howard vs. Democrat Bernard A. Tolbert), as well as for seats in County Hall. They represent a major struggle between an underdog GOP again flexing its muscles and Democrats trying to regain the dominance they feel is rightfully theirs.

“I don’t take anything for granted, but I think our record and our message will resonate across party lines,” said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy. “If things go as we expect, we’ll be in a celebratory mood on Election Night.”

His Democratic counterpart, Jeremy J. Zellner, points to the party’s advantage of around 135,000 in voter registration and several candidates he labels as top notch. And he says the party will remind voters of a Republican named Donald Trump.

“Democrats not happy with him can send a strong message by voting out these Trump leaders,” Zellner said, pointing to Mychajliw and Langworthy as among major Trump cheerleaders.
“I think that’s resonating and we will make sure people know,” he added.

Indeed, Democratic clerk candidate Cichon has featured Trump in much of his early campaign against Kearns, the Democratic assemblyman running on the GOP and Conservative lines. Cichon, a former WBEN Radio newsman, focuses little on clerk duties like recording real estate deeds or issuing driver’s licenses. Instead, he concentrates on the president.

“GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy was an early supporter, and Rep. Chris Collins might be Trump’s biggest ally in Congress,” Cichon said this summer after Trump suggested residents of “upper New York” should move to other states to find jobs.

“They need to speak up and let us know if they feel the same way about our home,” Cichon continued. “I call on my Republican opponent in the race for Erie County clerk to stand up for Buffalo, and denounce the president’s bashing of our home.”

Buffalo turnout

Again in 2017, Republicans launch their countywide efforts with a distinct advantage ‑ the prospect of extremely low turnout in the Democratic City of Buffalo. Republicans have fielded no candidate for mayor, city-based County Legislature seats, nor Buffalo City Court. As a result, most observers see little incentive for Democrats to go to the polls.

The GOP argues it cannot attract any candidates in a city where it is outnumbered 7 to 1, but critics contend the lack of contests remains part of a continuing strategy to discourage voter turnout in the Democratic stronghold.

“There is no question Republicans have consistently suppressed the vote in the city,” Zellner said, adding Democrats will field candidates even in heavily Republican suburbs and rural areas of Erie County.

County clerk race

Still, an election is slated for Nov. 7, and Cichon vs. Kearns ranks as one of the most interesting. Kearns, who has run throughout his Assembly career on both the Democratic and Republican lines, this year appears only on the GOP ballot. He remains a Democrat, though speculation swirls around his future should he prevail.

Kearns skipped a Democratic primary against Cichon, who is endorsed by Zellner’s headquarters organization. Now Zellner is waging a high energy campaign against a fellow Democrat with regular press releases that label Kearns “tricky Mickey.”

In August, local Democrats slammed Kearns for “baffling Erie County residents once again” by appearing on tickets raising cash for Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie and the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee.

“Mickey Kearns has spent his political career flip-flopping his way from office to office,” Democrats said in echoing a familiar Zellner theme. “Time and time again, he has proven that he only cares about advancing his career. Tricky Mickey will say and do anything necessary to get elected.”

Kearns, however, vows he will remain a Democrat if elected next month. While he says the “Democratic Party has left me” in many instances, he expects to unveil endorsements from other prominent Democrats and unions in the near future.

He also said he has received no negative feedback from Democrats after declining to challenge Cichon in the September Democratic primary.

“This is a unique, non-partisan office with no votes on policy,” Kearns said. “It’s about customer service, and I look to represent everybody.”

Kearns’s last campaign finance report listed about $48,000 in his treasury; Cichon has $19,000.

County sheriff

The campaign for sheriff, meanwhile, may be generating the most activity. Zellner contends that Howard’s early and negative ads on television point to a tighter than anticipated contest.

A 30-second TV spot paints Tolbert as 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 as the National Basketball Association’s senior vice president of security from 2004 to 2010, when he retired. It ends with the statement: “Bernie Tolbert – not fit to protect us.”

When he ran for mayor of Buffalo and later for the school board, Tolbert consistently denied the allegations. A sexual discrimination suit involving him was settled by the NBA in 2009 over his objections, he said.

“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 in September.

Comptroller race

So far, the comptroller contest has proven the most low key. Mychajliw, a former television reporter, has demonstrated his ability in two previous elections to win countywide and last reported about $90,000 in campaign funds.

Glushefsky, a lawyer and accountant, has not reported any campaign finance reports since July, when she listed about $16,000.

County Legislature

All 11 seats in the County Legislature will appear on the November ballot. But several contests loom as interesting and competitive, including Democratic incumbent Thomas A. Loughran vs. Republican Guy R. Marlette (who snared the often crucial Conservative nomination from Loughran earlier this year) in District 5; incumbent Republican Ted B. Morton vs. John Bruso in District 8; incumbent Independence Lynne M. Dixon vs. Democrat Michael P. Quinn in District 9; and incumbent Conservative Joseph C. Lorigo vs. Democrat Michelle J. Schoeneman in District 10.

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