In her recent campaign ad, Erie County executive candidate Lynne M. Dixon tells voters that she shuns the politics of major parties.
“I’m not a Republican; I’m not a Democrat,” she says in the ad. “I’m an independent who doesn’t care about partisan politics.”
But Dixon is not "an independent,” as she says. She is a member of the Independence Party, a functioning and influential minor party in New York politics. And she may be exploiting a common misperception that those registering under the Independence label are “independents,” or unaffiliated with any party.
Now Democrats say Dixon, a county legislator from Hamburg, is trying to fool Erie County’s voters while she challenges incumbent Democrat Mark C. Poloncarz on the Independence and Republican lines.
“Disingenuous would be an accurate term,” said Poloncarz campaign manager Jennifer L. Hibit, who notes that Dixon's GOP connections extend to hiring consultant Christopher M. Grant – a veteran of myriad campaigns for top Republicans such as Rep. Chris Collins.
Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner says Dixon votes in “lock step” with Republicans, and was “hand picked” by GOP leaders for the county executive race and for the Legislature before that.
He also says Independence takes advantage of its name, with no local hierarchy or even any philosophy.
“I would like to see what process she went through for the endorsement because it’s not a real party,” Zellner said. “It’s a gimmick. It’s a sham party.
“They don’t stand for anything,” he added. “They’re just an appendage of the Republican Party.”
Dixon insists she’s not trying to fool anybody.
“I absolutely don’t think it misleads people because I view myself as independent,” she said. “I got into this not to push any particular party but ideas.
“It sounds like semantics more than anything,” she added.
Dixon acknowledged she spoke with no Independence Party leaders when she began her county executive candidacy this year; she simply circulated petitions and beat a primary opponent put up by Democrats. And while she caucuses with the Republicans and runs this year and in past years with their backing, she feels no obligation to vote with them.
But Hibit said Dixon caucuses with Republican legislators in County Hall for a reason.
“Let’s start with her time in the Legislature, where she’s voted with the Republican caucus 98% of the time," Hibit said. "I don’t know how less independent you can be.”
Dixon takes issue with Hibit’s claim of near unanimous support for Republicans, noting she opposed Collins’ proposed library cuts when he was county executive, and supported Poloncarz’s first budget to help “him get the job done.” Her staff points out that Dixon has broken with Republicans on many issues, including budget amendments in 2011, supporting compliance with minority and women business enterprise laws in 2011, voting to ban fracking in Erie County in 2013, and supporting a resolution urging passage of the Child Victims Act.
“I’ve always voted for what I believe to be right for the people I represent,” Dixon said. “I don’t care about party labels.”
She said she registered with Independence in 2002 because as a TV reporter at the time, she “wanted independence.”
Tom Connolly, state Independence Party vice chairman who works for Republican State Sen. Phil Boyle in Albany, said his party often backs Democrats in Erie County, including Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, and Council members in Buffalo and the Tonawandas.
“And many are not awfully big fans of the present leadership of the Democratic Party,” he said, noting that local Democrats this year even manufactured an Independence primary by sponsoring a Dixon opponent (Dixon won handily).
But nonpartisan groups like Common Cause NY say they have long recognized that Independence has survived and prospered for a quarter century through its name. Executive Director Susan Lerner said Dixon is proving no exception.
“She is not an independent, she is a member of the Independence Party endorsed by Republicans,” Lerner said. “This seems to be misleading the voters.”
The Independence Party has long lured young people registering for the first time, she said, who think they are signing up as “independents.”
“It truly is misleading to voters who do not think it’s a party,” she said, adding her organization “gently reminds” those seeking electoral information that registering with Independence means joining a political party.
John W. Conklin, spokesman for the State Board of Elections, said his agency also recognizes the appeal to young voters who more and more register with no party.
“If you’re 18 and haven’t had a civics class or don’t have anyone to explain this stuff to you,” he said, “you see the word ‘Independence’ and that’s what you think it means.”
He said the board has responded by adding a “no party” choice for people registering to vote.
“We’ve certainly heard these anecdotal stories over the years,” he added. “That’s why we’ve tried to make it clearer.”
Conklin noted that state election law prohibits words like “American,” “United States,” “national,” “New York State” or “Empire State” in party titles. Now, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz of the Bronx and Sen. James Skoufis of Woodbury – both Democrats – have sponsored a new bill prohibiting use of “independent” or “independence” in a party name.
“Evidence suggests that many voters who are registered as members of the Independence Party do not realize they are registered in the party,” Dinowitz said in his bill memo. “They intended to register as independent (i.e. unaffiliated) voters but were confused by the name of the Independence Party. This law would remove a major source of voter confusion.”
Connolly, the Independence state chairman, labeled the bill “DOA,” but acknowledged the situation. The party, he said, has asked elections officials and legislative leaders to change how options are presented on the enrollment form called a “buff card."
“Move [the no party option] up to the number one question,” he said. “Then there would be a simple juxtaposition and it would cut down on those people who mix it up. It’s not our fault that voters who mistakenly enter the Independence Party do not read the whole buff card.”