Kevin Hardwick found himself venturing into really unfamiliar turf a couple of weeks ago.
Here was this veteran Republican – a county legislator and Canisius College political scientist no less – standing outside Erie County Democratic Headquarters to cheer Mark Poloncarz’s declaration of candidacy for a third term as county executive.
A few months ago, Hardwick the Republican could never envision such heresy. But all of a sudden he’s a Democrat – and feeling OK about it.
“It felt good,” he said a few days ago while assessing his new life in his “district office” – a Town of Tonawanda Tim Hortons.
Hardwick was labeled a “traitor” by his former GOP colleagues, may still be viewed suspiciously by his new Dem friends (even though he says he was warmly welcomed), and endured a “week from hell” after announcing his party switcheroo just before Christmas. His former world of talk radio sounded off, even if he once ruled the Sunday morning airwaves at WBEN with his own lively show (we’ll save for another day discussion of WBEN allowing a sitting legislator to host a politics program).
“The talk radio reaction and all the social media was baked into my decision. I knew it was coming,” he said. “But this was not a coin toss. So I was willing to put up with all the turncoat talk.”
For generations, County Hall Dems have caucused with Repubs and Repubs have caucused with Dems when it suited their purposes. Hardwick opted to go for it all. He felt increasingly uncomfortable in the Republican caucus, so the criticism seemed to validate a decision that proved not so difficult after all.
Indeed, when the rest of Republicanland fell in behind Donald Trump in 2016, Hardwick led the local effort for Ohio Gov. John Kasich. He never climbed aboard the Trump bandwagon, soldiering on as an official non-believer.
And it must be remembered that the Republican-turned-Democrat approaches his craft differently from those who learned from the nitty gritty of Buffalo street politics. The man earned a Ph.D. in politics. His Canisius students are now taught by a professor who has seen it from both sides of the aisle.
“In a two-party system, it’s tough to find something that fits you exactly,” he said. “The Republican Party has moved so much in the last 40 years, but I think the Democrats have a big enough tent that I can feel more comfortable being a conservative Democrat than a liberal Republican.”
Some views from his new vantage point:
• 2020 election: “I could warm up to Joe Biden once you get past the age thing. But Kamala Harris had an amazing kickoff.”
• On Trump: “I felt very out of place in a party headed by Trump.”
• On his rogue negotiation with Poloncarz leading to adoption of a still controversial county budget: “It was all about a $10 million cut that would amount to a $10 reduction in taxes on my house in the City of Tonawanda. That’s ‘historic?’”
• On attending a rally for Gov. Andrew Cuomo as he did for Poloncarz: “I’m busy that night.”
Hardwick may still encounter the wrath of talk radio and social media in the months ahead. While the Erie County Water Authority struggles to shake its label as a political patronage pit, Hardwick acknowledges he once declared “no way” on Amherst Democratic Chairman Jerry Schad continuing as Water Authority chairman. He said county Democratic leader Jeremy Zellner asked him to keep an open mind while negotiating the party switch.
“I’m now at the point where I might be able to vote for him,” he said, believing the authority is making progress in shedding its political skin.
“It’s an obvious flip-flop, but if it’s right thing to do, you do it,” he added.
That vote may very well produce another “week from hell” for the new Democrat.
But Hardwick’s new status may also provide new freedom. A few days ago he shared his disgust with a Canisius political science class about any government that would scuttle the Amazon project in Queens and its promise of thousands of jobs.
“That was 25,000 jobs,” he said. “It upsets me when people in a position of power don’t understand what they’re doing. There won’t be $3 billion for education or the other things they talked about. It’s not about their philosophy, it’s about them not understanding.
“My point is that it happens on both sides,” he added.
Hardwick faces interesting days ahead. Republicans still accuse him of “treason;” Democrats don’t say it but wonder about a 40-year Repub suddenly among them. It remains to be seen how much trust he can develop on either side of the Legislature aisle.
Still, the new Democrat has always enjoyed the outsider role. He will probably annoy both Democrats and Republicans, and thinks that might be all right too.
“It comes to the point where you ask ‘Why am I here?’” he said, “And you get to an age where you say as much as I have love the politics game my whole life, you’ve got to be responsible.”