Erie County Legislator Kevin Hardwick, a Republican from the City of Tonawanda, is switching parties to the Democrats.
Hardwick has developed a reputation as a maverick in the Legislature, where he has served since first winning election in 2009. He was one of few legislators willing to cross the aisle to vote on key bills, and frequently frustrated his fellow Republicans by reaching agreements with Democrats.
Most recently, Hardwick joined the Legislature's Democratic majority in approving the 2019 county budget after cutting his own deal with County Executive Mark Poloncarz, a Democrat.
"I’m interested in a caucus that doesn’t view compromise as a 'sellout,' "Hardwick said, referring to a scathing statement from county Republican Chairman Nicholas Langworthy.
The heat he took over his budget deal was "the straw that broke the camel's back," he added.
Democrats had a 6-5 edge over the Republican-supported minority prior to Hardwick's switchover, but one of their members, Thomas Loughran of Amherst, often sided with Hardwick and others in the minority. With Hardwick's change, and a 7-4 advantage, it should be easier for Democrats to get things done in the Legislature.
Hardwick's switch to the Democrats brought a flurry of comments from members of both parties.
Langworthy blasted his former ally.
"It comes as no surprise after his many secret meetings and back room deals with Mark Poloncarz which got more pork for Kevin and hurt his Republican colleague’s districts," Langworthy said on Twitter. "Simply put, Kevin sold out."
Kevin Hardwick has notified me that he is leaving the Republican conference. It comes as no surprise after his many secret meetings and back room deals with Mark Poloncarz which got more pork for Kevin and hurt his Republican colleague’s districts. Simply put, Kevin sold out.
— Nick Langworthy (@NickLangworthy) December 18, 2018
Hardwick cannot change his Republican party affiliation prior to next year's elections for Legislature seats. He said he spoke to Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner on Saturday and is hopeful to have his support to run on the Democratic line next November, though he anticipates a primary race. He did not say he would definitely switch parties, but said he was "trending in that direction."
Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, a Republican, said the one-time conservative has sacrificed his principles to join a conference that supports gun control and abortion rights.
"Who knows what he believes today?" Mychajliw said in a statement.
His minority caucus colleagues were no kinder.
"I'm not disappointed to see him leave," said Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca. "For years, he held our agenda hostage in order to cut private, backroom deals for himself. He’s not a Republican or Democrat. He’s a member of the Kevin Hardwick party where the only platform and principles are what help Kevin Hardwick the most."
Republican legislators John Mills of Orchard Park and Ed Rath III of Amherst criticized Hardwick for blocking substantial tax reform during his years in office.
Hardwick responded that he's always been a moderate in politics who has embraced some elements of both parties. While he does not intend to change his position on some key Republican platform issues, he said, he doesn't believe that will be a major factor at the local county level. He also said he appreciates the Democratic caucus's respect for a diversity of opinions.
The Erie County Democrats issued a statement welcoming Hardwick into their fold.
"Our caucus and our party are open to new ideas, and while we may not always agree, we know Kevin will be an outstanding addition to our side of the aisle because he shares our belief in governing responsibly and for the benefit of the people who put us here," the party committee said.
Poloncarz, for his part, compared Hardwick to consensus-seeking Republicans such as the late Rep. Jack Kemp and said there was no discussion about Hardwick leaving the Republican caucus during budget discussions when Hardwick, Poloncarz and the Democratic Caucus negotiated a "compromise" budget deal.
"Legislator Hardwick is an example of a public servant who knows the right thing to do and does it," Poloncarz said in a statement.
Hardwick is an associate professor of political science at Canisius College and hosts the "Hardline with Kevin Hardwick" weekly talk show on WBEN 930AM. Hardwick on Monday posted on Twitter that this past weekend's "Hardline" would be his last show "for a while" because of the holidays and his looming re-election effort in 2019.