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Poloncarz walks fine line on Green Light law

At the dawn of this year’s election for Erie County executive, opponents of Mark C. Poloncarz wasted no time unveiling a key campaign strategy to unseat the Democratic incumbent – paint him as an “ultra-liberal” out of touch with local voters.

Now Lynne M. Dixon, the Republican challenger who is a member of the Independence Party, thinks Poloncarz is already paying attention to their efforts. She says the county executive’s new opposition to the state’s Green Light law granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants – in the face of most New York Democrats’ support for the concept – shows he is reacting.

“He finally came out,” Dixon said a few days ago. “He was hearing from the residents and acknowledging that a majority of them in Erie County don’t agree with that.

“He had to make a statement after dancing around it for so long,” she added. “People feel very strongly about it.”

After refusing for weeks to take a stand on the new state law raising passions on both sides of the issue, Poloncarz finally said earlier this month that he could not support a bill he views as flawed. It fails to prevent noncitizens from voting in elections, he said, and raises questions of constitutionality that he directed his county attorney to challenge in federal court.

“Ultimately I do not believe this law benefits the people of Erie County and I cannot support it,” he said then.

Even now, however, Poloncarz will not discuss the Green Light law and declined to speak with The Buffalo News for this story. His spokesman, Peter Anderson, said the county executive “is focusing on things that really affect county residents like economic development, jobs and workforce development, and environmental protections.”

“The County Executive is working to build a better Erie County, not tear it apart,” Anderson said in a statement.

Indeed, in a reaction that may underscore his sensitivity to the topic, Poloncarz recently berated a Channel 2 reporter for even asking about the Green Light law. It all prompted him to predict his victory in November.

“I’m gonna win,” Poloncarz told Channel 2. “I guarantee you I’m gonna win regardless of this issue or not.”

But opponents say Poloncarz has validated their contention that advocating progressive policies will not fly with some voters, especially the crucial conservative Democrats in first-ring suburbs who some observers think will determine the election’s outcome.

They point to the county executive’s long alliance with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (who often calls New York the nation’s “progressive capital”), as well as his self-proclaimed identification with the politics of Bill de Blasio, the left-leaning mayor of New York.

“He has embraced some very radical, left-wing positions,” the former Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, who is now the head of the state Republican party, said earlier this year. “By his own admission, he’s more in line with New York City than the blue-collar Democrats of Western New York.”

Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo points to recent Poloncarz tweets advising undocumented immigrants how to handle federal raids, his efforts to ban plastic grocery bags, back the Paris Climate Accord or to end smoking in cars carrying youngsters.

“On one hand, he’s against illegal immigrants getting driver’s licenses,” Lorigo said, “and on the other hand, he’s putting out tweets telling illegal immigrants how to protect themselves from the law. I certainly think it’s very telling.”

Poloncarz supporters say the Dixon camp must resort to the “social issues” argument because county government is functioning smoothly – the roads get plowed and libraries work. They also point to an improving local economy and thousands of new jobs created on the Poloncarz watch that rank as more important concerns for Erie County voters.

How would driver's licenses work for those in the country illegally?

“He was just in Washington this week to advocate for a long-overdue federal infrastructure bill and for community revitalization programs,” Anderson said, “things that would directly impact county residents.”

But other area Democrats seem to also recognize the bill’s potential pitfalls, since all in the Erie County delegation to the State Legislature except Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes and State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy voted against it.

Indeed, Dixon and her allies have so far proven silent on the issues that Poloncarz ranks as priorities. But it is expected they will continue to hammer away at the county executive’s politics as both sides woo the suburban Democrats who, in the past, have drifted to the GOP line.

“The great majority of Democrats in Erie County are not fans of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren,” Lorigo said, referring to national Democrats. “It’s my belief that the great majority of (local) Democrats are still not comfortable with that kind of rhetoric.”

Poloncarz 'cannot support' Green Light law, citing legal issues

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