Mark C. Poloncarz reveled in his image as a progressive Saturday as he set out to become the first Erie County executive in 24 years to win a third term.
A crowd of about 400 Democrats — many of them county employees — met him inside the Larkin Center of Commerce, moments after the county party committee unanimously endorsed him as its candidate.
Some of the party's biggest names — Mayor Byron W. Brown in particular — stressed they are united behind Poloncarz, which wasn't the case when he first sought county government's most influential post in 2011. The county's Democratic organization was riven with factions at the time, the mayor's being just one.
But Poloncarz that year made Republican Chris Collins a one-term executive and four years later defeated Raymond W. Walter of Amherst, a Republican assemblyman angling for the county executive's suite in 2015.
Poloncarz does not yet have an opponent. The most likely challenger at this point appears to be County Legislator Lynne Dixon, an Independence Party member from Hamburg who teams with two Republican lawmakers and a Conservative to from an opposition bloc. Dixon recently said she is "weighing her options."
If she chooses to run, Dixon will need to raise money quickly. Her campaign fund held less than $20,000 on Jan. 15, according to records with the state Board of Elections. That would be a small amount with which to wage a countywide race.
The treasurer of Poloncarz's fund reported a balance of about $445,000 on Jan. 15. If history is a guide, he will raise tens of thousands more before the campaign goes into full swing. The Poloncarz fund had $417,000 in the bank in January 2015 and more than $600,000 six months later.
Should Poloncarz win in November, he will be the first Erie County executive to win a third term since Democrat Dennis T. Gorski of Cheektowaga did it in 1995.
“Eight years ago, you gave me, the son of a steelworker and nurse from Lackawanna, the honor to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for county executive," Poloncarz told his crowd. "No one gave us much of a chance back then. But together we proved those so-called experts wrong."
His case for a third term rests primarily on his vow to further rev up the local economy with incentives and programs that create jobs which pay a living wage. One of the Erie County executive's best tools for bolstering the local economy is the county Industrial Development Agency.
"We rejected the business-as-usual attitude of the past that gave tax breaks to whoever applied," Poloncarz said. "We are now holding those businesses accountable. If they do not create the jobs that they say they will, we will take the tax break that we gave them back."
As the nation's economy has improved, so has Erie County's. But Poloncarz spoke of the work he and other local officials have done to create a "New Buffalo" and a "New Erie County" — a region that scraped off its rust-belt image and drew national headlines for doing so.
“On the day I was sworn in as executive, the county’s unemployment rate was 8.9 percent," he said, "and by the end of 2018 it was reduced to 3.9 percent, the lowest rate in more than three decades."
He rattled off other accomplishments: seven straight balanced budgets that ended with a surplus; the signing of a stadium lease that keeps the Bills in Buffalo; completion of a Fair Housing Law; pouring more than $460 million into road and bridge repairs; his leadership during extreme weather events. A job not yet done: eradicating the opiate epidemic that has led to hundreds of deaths here and tens of thousands nationwide.
The Republican opposition often casts Poloncarz as being too liberal or too progressive for Erie County. But he wasn't shying away from the progressive label on Saturday. He said he was right, for example, to advocate that a troubled nursing home, Emerald South Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Buffalo, be forced into receivership.
"If fighting to close an abysmal nursing home makes me radical, I am honored to wear that badge," he said. "If fighting on behalf of you, my constituents, instead of the 1 percenters, makes me extreme, well, call me extreme because I am proud of my record of sound progressive leadership."