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Poloncarz eyes nemesis Lorigo in effort to regain Legislature control

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz says he’s devoting time, effort and money to all Democratic candidates this year in an effort to wrest control of the County Legislature from Republicans.

But several observers note that if there is one seat Poloncarz covets, one he longs to snare even as a long shot, it’s the one held by Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo of West Seneca, a Conservative and his most vocal legislative opponent.

“There’s no question about it,” said one Democratic insider who spoke on background.

“It’s definitely one we’re focusing on,” added another party source, referring to the Democratic candidacy of challenger Michelle J. Schoeneman.

Poloncarz confirms his commitment to legislative races this year, including “dialing for dollars” for several candidates like Schoeneman, a Springville teacher generating considerable interest from unions and other Democratic constituencies. The county executive also recruited donations and served as the main attraction for a Schoeneman fund-raiser at Mooney’s Sports Bar and Grill in West Seneca last week. And he appeared at a Schoeneman picnic fund-raiser early in the summer.

“Obviously he was a huge draw,” Schoeneman said of the Poloncarz event at Mooney’s. “I think he sees I really mean it when I say I care about good government, and that resonates with him.”

Those watching the contest say many reasons fuel the county executive’s enthusiasm.

Poloncarz earlier this year engaged in a protracted and intense dispute with Lorigo and some of his caucus over how to finance expansion of Erie County Medical Center’s emergency department. It revolved around a Poloncarz plan to borrow $100 million using the county’s lower interest rate, with ECMC to repay the loan.

But Lorigo led fierce opposition after calling the plan a gimmick to front-load savings on the 30-year loan. He claimed it was really designed to relieve near-term budget pressures, and could potentially present problems for future administrations, especially if the new money were used to pay for recurring expenses.

The standoff represented one of the most hostile conflicts of this year’s legislative session until the county executive gained a couple of Republicans to back his plan and approve the necessary bonding.

Poloncarz emphasized that he is concentrating on all Democratic candidates for Legislature, including incumbent Thomas A. Loughran of Amherst in District 5 and challenger John Bruso  in District 8, which covers the Lancaster area. He did not specifically mention his ECMC dispute with Lorigo, but pointed out he seeks “partners to work with my administration.”

“I support those who want to work with us and not those who refuse to move ahead with anything just because it happens to come from this administration,” he said. “I’m not looking for a ‘yes man’ or ‘yes woman,’ just someone who will work with my administration and its projects and initiatives.”

Lorigo says Poloncarz “can have his dreams.”

“The county executive’s beef with me is purely political,” he said, referring to the ECMC dispute. “The county executive seems to believe he was elected king of Erie County and he has a problem with anyone who asks questions. Our job is to ask questions.”

Those who challenge him, the majority leader added, become targets at election time.

Schoeneman acknowledges her underdog status in District 10 -- which stretches from West Seneca to Holland -- despite a Democratic enrollment advantage of about 3,500 voters. She also faces Lorigo’s campaign account of almost $150,000 ‑ one of the strongest treasuries for a legislative race in anyone’s memory. Schoeneman, who lives in East Aurora, reported about $38,000.

Poloncarz has also engaged Lorigo’s father ‑ Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo ‑ in a philosophical debate over which party best represents Erie County voters. In recent weeks, the pair have even traded views on the op-ed page of The Buffalo News.

“The leaders of the Erie County Democratic Party may have taken a hard left, but Erie County Democrats have not,” the elder Lorigo wrote on Sept. 9.

Poloncarz on Monday emphasized that he believes Democrats better represent Erie County voters than Lorigo and his Conservatives, and that he has declined the minor party’s backing when offered in the past.

“I said 'no' because I don’t believe or stand for many planks of the Conservative Party,” he said, explaining that the choice facing voters boils to support for President Trump or former President Barack Obama.

“I certainly support the policies of the former president,” Poloncarz said.

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