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Politics Column

Erie County executive race is down to the wire

Robert J. McCarthy

Democrat Mark Poloncarz is muscling his team into action this weekend, flexing every possible power of incumbency as he confidently faces the voters on Tuesday.

Lynne Dixon, his Republican/Independence opponent, is demonstrating her own energy – the kind stemming from a scrappy underdog whom nobody is dismissing.

That’s the state of the Erie County executive contest that has quietly dominated a 2019 electorate more preoccupied with 2020 than the business at hand. President Trump, impeachment, filling Chris Collins’ House seat, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren – they all seem more engaging – a year before the “really good stuff.”

But Poloncarz and Dixon have delivered a big time campaign. It’s been nasty – really nasty – at least on TV. The mere fact that the incumbent has exhumed Collins in his ads aimed at Dixon says he must work at this one.

Dixon, meanwhile, trumpets the criminal record of some former Gorski administration official who bought tickets to a Poloncarz fundraiser.

Ugh.

Nevertheless, voters will settle these burning questions at the polls on Tuesday. Here are a few observations about last minute dynamics:

• Turnout (or lack thereof) will prove crucial for both candidates. Poloncarz must somehow rally Buffalo’s massive Democratic plurality to vote, even without any local motivating races. After the GOP threw in its City of Buffalo towel a few years ago, the Council and County Legislature contests that used to energize local voters are no longer a factor.

• Enter Byron Brown. After winning four elections for mayor, he knows how to compete in the city.

As a result, the mayor and county executive will together visit several East Side churches on Sunday, according to campaign sources. The black church in Buffalo remains hugely effective in reaching the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency (just ask State Sen. Tim Kennedy, who may have saved his career by refocusing and regularly attending Sunday services).

Brown also appears with Poloncarz in a new Facebook ad that encourages Dems to vote.

• Poloncarz is savvy enough to take advantage of the mayor’s expertise. Brown’s troops have rallied before, helping to stave off a serious Bernie Sanders challenge against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary and also came through for Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

• Other efforts are underway. Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner says Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul headlined a rally in her Hamburg hometown a few days ago in support of Poloncarz. And the state Democratic Party under new Chairman Jay Jacobs is also pitching in with mailings and data research.

“It’s for candidates from town office and up,” Zellner said. “That’s more than they have done before.”

• Still, the state party has not shown the love for the locals like in Suffolk County, where County Executive Steve Bellone received about $365,000 from the Cuomo allies. Bellone, after all, did not recently write a book jabbing Cuomo.

In his “Beyond the Xs and Os: Keeping the Bills in Buffalo,” Poloncarz revealed he was “a bit impatient with the state’s inaction” on renegotiating the Buffalo Bills lease before Albany finally jumped in.

• Dixon, meanwhile, will concentrate on the Democratic suburbs that occasionally show their more conservative side. Erie County Republican Chairman Karl Simmeth planned a “big event” for Saturday to rally the troops, adding that efforts would concentrate on those Dems who have shown in the past why Erie County is never a “given” – despite its 135,000 more Democrats.

• Questions surround the effect of the state’s new early voting system and whether it will increase an occasional anemic turnout. Indeed, the county executive’s contest always attracts the fewest voters of the four-year cycle (after president, governor and mayor). And it could be that this race has not exactly fired up Erie County voters from the get-go.

• Quote of the Week comes from former Erie County GOP Chairman Bob Davis: “I would call it an off-off-off year. It’s all compounded by what’s going on in Washington. People are turned off. And if the weather is bad, who’s going to vote?”

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