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Poloncarz unusually quiet on licenses for undocumented immigrants

From greenhouse gases to prospective Buffalo Sabres trades, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has opinions. He spreads them from press conference podiums, during media interviews and through his social media accounts. But there's been one notable exception.

Does he believe it's a good idea for New York State to grant – and the county to issue – driver's licenses to immigrants living here illegally?

He won't say publicly.

"He takes public positions on just about everything, whether it impacts county government or not," said Legislator Lynne Dixon, the Republican-endorsed candidate challenging Poloncarz in the county executive election this fall. "This is something that would. I think the silence speaks volumes."

For weeks, Poloncarz has declined to answer or deflected questions from The Buffalo News and other media outlets on the topic as other elected county officials have come out against the law. Under mounting pressure, he has made some recent public statements.

  • He said he does not believe voting rights should be extended to any non-citizens regardless if they get a driver's licenses.
  • He said he believes Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw is abusing county resources by encouraging other county clerks across the state to use the county's Whistleblower Hotline to surreptitiously report undocumented immigrants applying for driver's licenses.
  • He has agreed to have the Erie County attorney represent Erie County Clerk Michael "Mickey" Kearns in getting clarification from federal court on whether clerks can be compelled to issue licenses in contrast to the provisions of federal law.
People wait in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Lockport. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

The closest Poloncarz has come to expressing an opinion on the matter is to state that if a federal judge determines that the "Green Light" law is constitutional, "the county executive expects all county officials and employees to respect the decision of the court." He also said he expects federal court to uphold the state law.

"How much dancing can an incumbent county executive do?" asked Erie County Republican Party Chairman Nicholas Langworthy. "It’s a yes or no answer."

Under attack

Langworthy contends Poloncarz has been mute on the issue because he holds an opinion at odds with many voters whose votes he needs to be re-elected.

"He’s been silent on this issue when most people are against this, when – what do you know – he's in an election year," Langworthy said.

Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner said he's not surprised Republicans are more united on the controversial issue.

"It’s a lot easier for the Republicans to be lock step on an issue because that’s the way their party is structured," Zellner said. "Our party is much more diverse and covers many more issues."

Jacob Neiheisel, associate professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, noted that statewide surveys show a majority of residents oppose granting driver's licenses to immigrants living here illegally. And Western New York skews more conservative than downstate, he said.

"This is something that at the very least will threaten to take some votes from him no matter what he says," Neiheisel said.

Republican-endorsed officials have spent months using the driver's license issue to gain ground with voters.

"People are not just against this; they’re violently against this," Langworthy said. "Our phones have been ringing off the hook."

Erie County Clerk Michael "Mickey" Kearns has repeatedly said his office will not grant driver's license to undocumented immigrants and will challenge the state law in federal court.

When recently interviewed on WBEN's Hardline show, Dixon barely mentioned her desire to spend more on county roads and infrastructure but used the bulk of her airtime opposing the Green Light law and criticizing Poloncarz for not being out front with his position.

Even a Twitter post by Poloncarz over the potential trade of Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen was redirected into an attack by Dixon's campaign.

She retweeted his post and added a comment: "I’m amazed that you, the County Executive, have the time to tweet your thoughts on the Sabres trade rumors but can’t issue a single statement on whether you support allowing illegal immigrants to obtain a New York driver’s license."

Strategic decision

It is not uncommon for politicians facing an election to offer vague non-answers on controversial topics. But it runs counter to Poloncarz's trademark style.

Over the past month alone, Poloncarz has weighed in on any number of progressive issues, posting his opinions on Twitter where he has more followers than the Buffalo mayor and many state assembly members.

He has championed reducing greenhouse gases and ensuring every local immigrant and refugee is counted in the U.S. Census. He has blasted the Trump administration for separating detained migrant children from their parents at the border.

His social media accounts are loaded daily with pictures, public service messages, horn-tooting accomplishments, and opinions on everything from the need for more public health advocacy to his disappointment that Stanley Cup winners don't even skate around half the rink with the cup anymore when they pass it from player to player in the post-game celebration.

Yet when recently pinned by WGRZ for his personal opinion on the driver's license issue, he responded, "I have no role in this. It's as simple as that."

On Friday, Poloncarz spokesman Peter Anderson told The Buffalo News, "Not everybody likes every law, but in a nation ruled by law we do not get to pick and choose what laws we will follow and what laws we won’t. In addition to that, the county executive will not support it until it is ensured that the law would not allow undocumented immigrants to vote."

While the Green Light bill was pushed by Democrats, it's likely perceived as too left-wing an issue for a majority of this region's more conservative Democratic voting base, said Neiheisel, the UB professor.

So Poloncarz is handling the politically toxic issue by keeping his distance.

"He’s a good politician," he said. "He’s looking at the political tea leaves."

Zellner deferred on the question of whether it is possible for an elected official running for a countywide office to get re-elected by coming out strongly in favor of granting licenses to immigrants here illegally.

"It’s a difficult issue because of the optics of it, but clearly our Democratic officials are taking a thoughtful approach to it," he said.

Even if Poloncarz believes that immigrants here illegally should have driver's licenses and was willing to stake out a position to encourage and excite his progressive base, Neisheisel said, June or July is too early to be publicly taking a side and giving opponents the next five months to capitalize on it.

"I can easily see a point where the numbers would show it’s too much of a risk to stay silent," Neiheisel said. "Right now, it’s a low-risk strategy until his base turns on him."

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