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May fundraiser provides early test for Dixon in county exec race

When local candidates file campaign finance reports with the Board of Elections on May 24, it’s a sure bet Lynne M. Dixon’s will gain lots of attention.

Following a major fundraiser and a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity, those studying the county executive candidate’s report will zero in on the summary page required by state election law. It will reflect just how well the Independence candidate running with Republican support is doing, and whether her long shot effort against Democratic incumbent Mark C. Poloncarz is gaining any traction.

Dixon’s supporters acknowledge her need to report at least $100,000 in order to generate any optimism in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 135,000 voters.

“I would think she needs six figures to show she has some capacity in this thing,” said Jack Cookfair, the Syracuse political consultant and veteran of myriad Erie County campaigns. “She’s got to get out the perception that this is a competitive race.”

In previous years, Dixon would not be required to tip her financial hand until July 15 as the county and state geared up for a September primary. But under the revised political calendar enacted by the new Democratic Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo earlier this year, Dixon must file a pre-primary report by May 24 because she is challenged by another Independence member in a party primary on June 25.

As a result, Dixon (now a county legislator) has slated her first major fundraising event for May 8 at Lucarelli’s Banquet Center in Lackawanna. With ticket prices ranging from $75 to $5,000, the event her staff is now promoting will provide an early test as to whether Dixon will can compete against an incumbent opponent who starts with $445,000 in his campaign treasury.

“She has to put out the perception that she’s independent and that she does have a chance,” Cookfair said. “That will take money, well thought-out positions, and not a lot of right-wing stuff.”

Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon is prepared to announce her run for county executive against incumbent Mark Poloncarz. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Dixon acknowledges that she has never before had to raise substantial sums as a relatively safe county legislator from Hamburg. A former radio and television reporter, she also does not hail from the political world nor has she significantly participated in the nitty-gritty of funding a campaign.

But sources close to her express optimism she will collect the necessary resources from traditional Republican contributors as well as a business community they claim is unhappy with Poloncarz.

Now Dixon is relying on Christopher M. Grant, a Buffalo consultant who rose to prominence during Rep. Chris Collins’ charge from the private sector to the Rath County Office Building in his first county executive campaign in 2007. Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy is also playing a major role in the Dixon campaign, while the Legislature’s chief GOP staffer – Steven Whipple – is handling media.

Dixon now hopes the Lucarelli’s affair plus other efforts will provide the perception of competitiveness she needs in a world where campaign money begets more campaign money. She said many old and new supporters have purchased tickets online, and she expects significant support from the business community, too.

“It’s clear people are very supportive and eager to see the county head in a new direction,” she said, adding she is confident her campaign finance report will reflect more than $100,000 when filed on May 24.

She does not believe she needs the $1 million that Poloncarz has predicted is necessary on both sides to wage an effective campaign in a large county like Erie.

“I will have what it takes to get out my message,” she said.

Poloncarz, meanwhile, has not overwhelmed political observers with the $445,000 he reported to the state Board of Elections in January. But nobody is doubting the ability of a powerful incumbent commanding upstate New York’s largest municipality as well as its biggest Democratic organization to raise what is necessary.

“It will probably be a $1 million race,” Poloncarz said in March. “I like my position where we are at about half a million.

“But we will have a lot of expenses,” he added, “and there will be a lot of fundraising between now and Election Day on both sides.”

Cookfair, who has coordinated campaigns and produced media messages for many office seekers in Erie County and throughout New York, said the lack of other major elections in Western New York this year may ease the price downward for each side.

But he agreed that Dixon, especially, may not need to “wow” political observers and potential contributors on May 24 – but must at least raise an eyebrow.

“She’s got to get out the perception that this is a competitive race,” he said.

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