Republican Kevin Hardwick remembers when he first thought he might need to cross the aisle and join the Democratic Party.
The Erie County legislator met with Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz on the night of Dec. 2 and worked out what he thought was a reasonable compromise on the 2019 Erie County budget. Maybe some of his Republican colleagues would be upset, he thought, but he considered it a good compromise that preserved most Republican earmarks and proposals, so they'd get over it.
He found out just how wrong he was on Dec. 3, when he met with the Republicans.
"They just went ballistic," Hardwick said.
His vote to help pass Poloncarz's spending plan was met with outrage the City of Tonawanda Republican didn't expect. It created a permanent fault line between Hardwick and the Republican-supported caucus.
So Hardwick, a Republican for four decades, switched sides in the Legislature.
His defection is expected to lead to a more polarized Legislature. It also prompted political observers to ask: Is this an example of how unwelcome a moderate voice is in the Legislature's Republican-supported caucus? Or just the unpleasant fallout after internal disputes and personal agendas?
Hardwick, a Democrat before changing his party affiliation in college, said he doesn't recognize the GOP he signed up with. He holds many conservative values, but he's too centrist for some, he said. He may oppose gun control and abortion rights, for instance, but he supports environmental regulation and has a soft spot for unions, he said.
He measures his politics in terms of clothing sizes.
“I’m a medium when it comes to my politics,” he said. “It’s not going to be a tailored fit, and I think most people are like that.”
After his budget deal with Poloncarz, he got a call from Republican Party Chairman Nicholas Langworthy, who told him his colleagues were accusing him of "treason" and "consorting with the devil."
"I wasn’t meeting with the Russians," Hardwick fumed, recounting the call. "I was meeting with the Democrats."
But his caucus colleagues say that while Hardwick is being trumpeted as being a moderate consensus builder, he rarely attempted to persuade them. Instead, they said, he would consider the matter on his own and vote without consideration for what others in his caucus might think, or what might be at stake for others.
That love of brinksmanship, his desire to be the one swing vote on which everyone holds their breath, appeals more to Hardwick than any true consensus building, said Legislator Edward Rath III, R-Amherst.
"He can make a compelling argument, but he would never make it with us behind closed doors," Rath said. "That’s too bad, because if he’s going to use that as a justification, it’s a hollow justification."
Hardwick attributes his defection more to personal conflicts within the caucus than to any sudden conversion to a liberal ideology. Whenever he took a more moderate position, he said, he was called on the carpet by his more conservative colleagues and everyone would be resentful.
"Wash, rinse, repeat," Hardwick said of his seven-year tenure as a Republican caucus member, which was in the majority until this past January.
The fact that Hardwick and Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo hold nothing but contempt for each other didn't help. Hardwick's desire to go his own way without regard for the rest of the caucus drove Lorigo crazy, and Lorigo's high-pressure attempts to get Hardwick to toe the line annoyed Hardwick.
In 2014, Lorigo demanded email passwords from Legislature staffers and tried to fire Hardwick's legislative assistant for leaking a caucus email to Democratic staffers.
That came shortly after Hardwick cast a key vote against a position Lorigo and several other Republican caucus members supported.
"I've never gotten over that," Hardwick said. "I certainly viewed it as payback."
Since then, the caucus has endured a number of vote defections involving Hardwick. Most recently, aside from the budget deal, Hardwick has also sided with the Democrats to keep Amherst Democratic Party Chairman Jerome Schad as Erie County Water Authority chairman.
But members of the Republican-supported caucus said what Hardwick did in regard to the budget amounts to more than a personality conflict. As far as they were concerned, Hardwick was a promise breaker.
Hardwick had promised his colleagues he would support a Republican caucus budget package that would cut property tax bills. But when Poloncarz made a round of calls to minority caucus members asserting flaws and threatening to veto all Legislature requests, Hardwick stepped forward to negotiate a compromise deal with the county executive and Democratic Legislature leaders without letting any of his minority colleagues know.
Hardwick emailed his colleagues about what he had done on the morning of Dec. 3. Their responses were swift. Their chance at passing budget amendment package that would lower taxes during the 2019 election cycle was slipping away.
"Your e-mail is replete with references to yourself and your personal priorities," responded Lorigo, C-West Seneca. "I understand that, but I want you to know that every time you break away from our caucus to focus on your personal priorities, you weaken the rest of us and the constituents we serve. As you are undoubtedly aware, buying one vote in the minority is much easier than an actual compromise with the entire caucus. It’s also a lot cheaper."
Legislator Lynne Dixon, I-Hamburg, added, "We all know that what is good for one is not always necessarily good for all. 'I' would like other things added in or cut out, as well, but the legislature is about more than just what 'I' want."
When Hardwick showed up at the Legislature later that morning, he was grilled for roughly 40 minutes by his colleagues for actions they considered to be self-serving and disrespectful. The way they saw it, they went out of their way to accommodate Hardwick's budget requests in their amendment package to ensure his vote, and he sold them out without bothering to include them in any conversations until after the deal was done.
Hardwick said he just wanted to avoid a veto war with Poloncarz and to gain $10 million more for county road work, which is what he said he got.
"That was the moment when I went, 'Oh, my God,'" Hardwick said. "That reaction was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I didn’t see that coming."
Soon after, he said, he reached out to Democratic Legislature Chairman Peter Savage and asked if he might be welcome on the other side. Unlike the Republican-supported caucus, he said, the Democratic caucus is a more diverse group and more tolerant of different opinions.
Republican Legislator John Mills of Orchard Park, however, noted Democratic legislators Thomas Loughran of Amherst and Barbara Miller-Williams of Buffalo aren't exactly happy players in the Democratic fold.
On Tuesday, Hardwick was invited to attend the county Democrats' holiday party.
He showed up to a rousing round of applause.