At the new Gerard Place Community Center on Bailey Avenue last week, an array of New York’s political elite had assembled even before Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s arrival for opening ceremonies.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was among those snipping the ribbon for the $6 million project offering social and educational services to the East Side, as was Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes. Mayor Byron W. Brown joined the power group; so did State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy and Rep. Brian Higgins.
“This is a very influential group of people,” Higgins noted in his remarks, ticking off their names and titles. “An impressive group.”
The heavy hitters don’t hurt Poloncarz in the least these days as the incumbent Democrat seeks a third term leading upstate New York’s biggest county. Most days he dashes between campaign stops in an official SUV manned by sheriff’s deputies wearing Secret Service-like suits and earpieces. And he appears at feel-good ceremonies like the one at Gerard Place, which was not built with county money, but hosts myriad social service programs.
“We have a strong batting order from leadoff all the way to the ninth position,” is how Poloncarz described his official companions to the audience. “That’s one reason why there’s been this big turnaround for Buffalo.”
Support from high-ranking politicians is only one of the advantages of incumbency that Poloncarz enjoys in the campaign against Lynne M. Dixon, his Republican-supported opponent. At most campaign stops he expounds on a county policy or program he believes helps Erie County residents, snips the ribbon on a new facility like Gerard Place, or appears with a high-powered politician endorsing his candidacy.
When Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez comes to town on Wednesday, for example, the Buffalo native is expected to bestow re-election blessings on Poloncarz. That can only provide a boost in an overwhelmingly Democratic county.
And on the morning he appeared at Gerard Place, the front page of The Buffalo News blared a story about Poloncarz’s new “Live Well Erie” healthy living program expected to figure prominently in his campaign.
Gerard Place "is an important program as we roll out Live Well Erie, a perfect example of the partners we need to succeed,” he later told The News, pointing to the “tools” county programs provide to programs like Gerard Place.
“That’s exactly what Live Well Erie is all about,” he added. “And I like projects like this that make a difference in peoples’ lives.”
Dixon, an Independence Party county legislator from Hamburg running with GOP support, says she knew what she was getting into when opting to run against Poloncarz.
“I knew coming into this that the incumbent has an advantage,” she said, “but I’m going against someone who needs to be challenged.”
In the time-honored tradition of an underdog, Dixon said she neither needs nor desires the advantages of incumbency. Driving herself to 12 hours of events on a recent Saturday, she said, works fine for her.
“I don’t need news conferences or ribbon-cuttings to meet with the public,” she said. “I just get out there.”
Ribbon-cuttings and groundbreakings represent just part of the Poloncarz advantage enjoyed by most incumbents. The county executive reported almost $638,000 in campaign funds to the New York State Board of Elections in mid-July, compared with $216,500 for Dixon. An entire staff buoys his official efforts, and he starts out with 135,000 more Democrats than Republicans in Erie County.
In addition, Poloncarz regularly earns “free media” on radio and television and in newspapers as part of his duties and in conjunction with genuine news events. Wearing his official “county executive jacket” with the logo on the breast, Poloncarz becomes a media regular alongside Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo or Hochul whenever snow inundates or even threatens the area.
“There are always advantages to being an incumbent,” acknowledged Poloncarz campaign manager Jennifer L. Hibit. “Voters know he is someone who knows how to lead in a storm or a crisis.”
Hibit said the county executive makes no apologies for his incumbency or even seeking a third term.
“You know where he stands, and you support him if you like him or not if you don’t,” she said. “You know he has made all these connections in the community, and he knows what the community is saying and wants.”