The talk surrounding next week's special election in the heavily Democratic 142nd Assembly District hearkens to 2012, when Democrat Michael P. Kearns ran on Republican and Conservative lines and stunned the experts by defeating endorsed Democrat Christopher J. Fahey.
This time, endorsed Democrat Patrick B. Burke, who is also backed by the Working Families and Reform parties, is facing another Democrat – Erik T. Bohen – running with Republican, Conservative and Independence support. The question is: Can Bohen pull off the same upset six years later?
The drama is a result of the seat being was left empty after Kearns won the November election for county clerk and subsequently resigned from the Assembly.
Like in 2012, turnout is expected to prove light for the special election, posing an advantage for Burke and the Democratic Party’s traditional ability to get its voters to the polls. But much has changed in six years. Polls show Democrats trending in 2018, and Burke – a county legislator since 2013 – enjoys crucial support from Democratic leaders. Intense union support also has produced a flurry of pro-Burke mailers to voters, and he is well-known from his tenure in County Hall.
But Bohen hails from a well-known South Buffalo family, touts his own union connections – his father, William, just retired as business agent for Ironworkers Local 6 – and he has established a network of relationships through his more than a decade as a special education teacher in the Buffalo Public Schools.
Still, the showdown again boils down to two young South Buffalonians attempting to make their political mark in an old-fashioned neighborhood donnybrook that strays at times into nasty territory.
Burke, 33, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from SUNY Buffalo State, may have fostered many of his relationships from behind the Buffalo Irish Center bar, where he worked for several years. These days, he works as a full-time legislator while also teaching part-time at Buffalo State. In 2013, he pulled off his own upset by winning a Democratic primary for the County Legislature against an endorsed Democrat, signaling the start of what he has always called an “independent” course.
“After a grassroots campaign, I ran in a primary against the party and won,” he said a few days ago. “When I said I was going to run, people laughed at me. That incentivized me to work extra hard.”
Burke has often bucked the establishment, prompting some Democrats to quietly hope he will display his independence in the Capitol rather than County Hall. He embraces the reputation.
“I don’t owe anybody,” he said of his current party support. “The party just recognized it needs to support things people believe in. And my background separates me from other public officials.”
Burke has also sponsored high-profile legislation in a County Legislature not often cited for innovation. In 2015 he championed a law banning microbeads in beauty and bath products. He also sponsored a groundbreaking law banning gay conversion therapy and was behind new efforts to combat opioid addiction.
Bohen, 35, is a graduate of Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School and St. Bonaventure University, and earned a master’s degree from Canisius College. He teaches special education at Lorraine Elementary, and cites his involvement in several charitable causes and benefit races as examples of his community commitment.
Bohen competes as an unsual candidate – a Democrat running on the GOP line. He said he considers himself a Democrat, will caucus with the Democrats, and will support Carl E. Heastie as speaker of the Assembly when the chamber organizes in January.
But under special election rules, party leaders choose the candidate; Democrats picked Burke while the GOP tapped Bohen. Others planning to compete must wait until the September primary or November general elections. Indeed, talk of other candidates (including Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski) entering the primary persists.
“I’m a Democrat, but I can work on both sides of the aisle,” Bohen said.
To underscore his Democratic credentials, he points to a host of fundraisers he has helped sponsor for Democrats in South Buffalo and beyond.
Burke does not hesitate to emphasize Bohen’s cooperation with the GOP in the Democratic district.
“He’s working with them,” he said of Bohen and Republicans. “He can say whatever he wants.”
Burke also points to his opponent’s association with Carl P. Paladino, the former Buffalo School Board member and 2010 Republican candidate for governor who was ousted from the board following a process that started when he made inflammatory comments about President Obama and his wife Michelle. He says Bohen has “long political ties to Paladino.”
Bohen acknowledges Paladino’s backing and says he is a longtime family friend.
“I believed in Carl’s message when he started,” he said, pointing to Paladino’s strong local support in several elections. “But I don’t agree with his racial comments. They were totally out of line and were hurtful to so many people.”
Now new flyers that depict Paladino as a “racist Trumpster,” while wearing a Bohen button, are blanketing the district. In a rare move for a political candidate supported by outside groups, Burke has disassociated himself from the flyers, which were mailed independently by an Albany group called NY Forward. Spectrum News reported that the group has received contributions from a committee with ties to the New York State United Teachers union.
“It was a garbage mailer. I hated it,” Burke said. “I didn’t know about it, and I have no control over it.”
Despite Burke’s protests about the unauthorized mailers, Bohen links them to his opponent.
“It’s out of control. I’ve taught African-American children. I’ve been in their homes,” he added. “To label me a racist because of my relationship with Paladino is totally wrong.”
The pair is also not in sync on hot-button issues like abortion. Bohen vows he will never vote for the “10th point” of the proposed Women’s Equality Act, which would expand abortion rights in New York.
“I do not believe in abortion at eight months,” he said. “I would never vote for that; it would be going against my faith.”
Burke calls it a “frustrating” issue because of the “buzzwords and talking points” it involves, and says he is not ready to take a position on the “10th point.”
“Growing up in Catholic South Buffalo I always identified as pro-life,” he said. “But I don’t want to see Roe vs. Wade be repealed.”
Each candidate is also attempting to “out-union” his opponent, right down to the Burke camp pointing to Bohen’s failure to include a union “bug” (which indicates printing in a union shop) on his campaign literature. Bohen called that a “clerical mistake.”
Still, Bohen lists several unions supporting his cause, though not his own Buffalo Teachers Federation, which has reacted to his ties with Paladino, a longtime teachers union foe. Burke, on the other hand, counts almost every major union as supporters, which could prove key in turning out the vote.