Gearing up to seek a third term as Erie County executive, Democrat Mark C. Poloncarz has no idea who will run against him in November.
But it’s a sure bet his eventual opponent will launch an all-out assault on Poloncarz’s self-acknowledged liberal politics, according to early hints dropped by leaders of the Republican and Conservative opposition. That’s just fine with the county executive, who despite claims that he governs out of sync with Erie County voters, is ready to defend his claims of solid economic development – no matter what his politics.
“They can say I’m too far to the left, but if you look at our economic track record and what we’ve accomplished,” he said, “I think I’m exactly what the people of Erie County are looking for.”
Poloncarz, 51, told The Buffalo News a few days ago he will formally announce his bid for another four years within the next few weeks. He forms his plans as Republican and Conservative leaders urge State Sen. Christopher L. Jacobs to enter the race. Jacobs has yet to reveal his political plans for 2019.
But Poloncarz is preparing for a serious challenge, whether Jacobs answers the call or it is someone like County Clerk Michael P. Kearns. Others mentioned include County Legislators Edward A. Rath III, Joseph C. Lorigo or Lynne M. Dixon.
The county executive estimates the campaign will cost $1 million, and says he will raise it. He views the 2018 momentum of his Democratic Party locally and nationally, and feels he can harness it. And he is ready to launch a campaign hinging on his claim of 30,000 new jobs under his watch (which he attributes to State Department of Labor statistics for Western New York).
Regardless of his politics, Poloncarz says the economic gains will ultimately guide voters at the ballot box.
“We’ve got 30,000 more jobs and the lowest unemployment rate [in recent years],” he said. “I think my administration has played a key role in making that happen.”
So far, nobody within the Republican or Conservative leadership has focused on the incumbent’s government record beyond grousing about his failure to significantly reduce taxes in the newest budget. But they are pointing to Poloncarz’s past identification with the liberal politics of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, his frequent tweets on national issues, and going “above and beyond” in efforts to “govern to the left.”
“He has embraced some very radical, left-wing positions,” Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said. “By his own admission, he’s more in line with New York City than the blue collar Democrats of Western New York.”
Not surprisingly, Langworthy’s Conservative Party counterpart – Ralph C. Lorigo – has long dwelt on the same theme. He points to the consistent strength of his minor party line with Erie County voters, and says the Poloncarz brand of politics would “shock the Democrats of 20 years ago.”
“He describes himself as a de Blasio progressive Democrat,” Lorigo said. “That’s just a soft name for socialism.
“It’s the conservative-minded individual who most likely wins a countywide race,” he added. “Democrats here are not like nationwide Democrats. Not here in Erie County; not now.”
Lorigo may offer a sneak peek of next fall’s broadcast ads when he mocks Poloncarz efforts to ban plastic grocery bags, backing the Paris Climate Accord and efforts to curb global warming, or to end smoking in cars carrying youngsters.
“Now he’s telling people how to raise their kids,” he said.
Poloncarz brushes aside the criticism as irrelevant in a time when jobs are plentiful and Buffalo is rebounding. Democratic politics is moving to the left, he says, noting the kind of progressive candidates scoring victories around the state and nation last November – including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Erie County.
“I believe in strong, progressive values,” he said.
Indeed, Poloncarz emphasizes his support for county initiatives like new ethics regulations, fair housing laws and a pollution-reducing ban on microbeads in cleaning products. Voters are becoming “more progressive,” he said.
“All you have to do is look at the recent gubernatorial election,” he said, or wins by new and progressive Assembly candidates like Karen McMahon in Amherst. He even poked at Langworthy’s claim of electing countywide Republicans.
“Last time I checked he couldn’t even find someone from his own party to run for clerk,” he said of Kearns, a Democrat, running on the GOP line.
And he doesn’t think his left-leaning positions on issues hurt him with voters.
“The people of Erie County understand I’m a good steward of their tax money,” he said. “We can disagree on social issues.”
Instead, Poloncarz hints at a campaign hyping policies that have strengthened the county economy. That includes appointees to the Erie County Industrial Development Agency who support pay equity for women or “clawback” measures for companies gaining tax breaks but failing to meet job creation promises.
“I’ve taken a lot of flak for it,” he said. “But we know it has worked and we have changed the way business is done at the other IDAs. Look at Clarence and Amherst. They’re not making the bad deals they did in the past.”
Poloncarz now says he wants to develop the former Bethlehem Steel site for new businesses, encourage a new agribusiness center in Eden and capitalize on state programs like the Buffalo Billion.
“We’ve got some things percolating behind the scenes,” he said. “I don’t want it to be a blip on the screen. I want it to be permanent.”
The county executive acknowledges his eventual Republican opponent will wage a serious, well-financed and competitive campaign. He notes he presides over a county with a population greater than five states, and with more lane miles of road than Rhode Island, Delaware and Hawaii.
“I think it’s one of the few jobs in government ... where you can have a long-term impact on the community,” he said.