As Chrissy Casilio announced her campaign for county executive Monday in a Clarence fitness center, weights clanked to the ground and sweaty workout buffs hurried out of the gym.
It was an unusual setting for a political announcement, but perhaps a fitting one for the task at hand. Casilio, a businesswoman who has never run for elected office, will need to overpower three-term incumbent Mark C. Poloncarz and raise an estimated $1 million if she stands a chance at an upset victory.
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"I think people are so excited about the concept of change that that’s not going to be a problem," Casilio said in an interview after her announcement. "I’m also a very hard worker, and I’m not going to stop until I raise the money that we need."
Poloncarz received a boost Monday after Nate McMurray, the former Grand Island supervisor who planned to challenge him in a Democratic primary, announced that he was dropping out of the race.
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Casilio comes from an affluent suburb that voted for Poloncarz's GOP/Independence challenger – Lynne Dixon – four years ago. She also has name recognition from her father – Patrick Casilio – serving as town supervisor. Signs for the Casilio Companies real estate development firm dotting plazas throughout the Northtowns also don't hurt her cause.
Still, Casilio acknowledges she has a tough road ahead of her, though she said she's proven people wrong before, like when the 36-year-old mother started her own marketing firm, Casilio Communications, or became the Clarence Rotary's youngest president.
"This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve faced these battles as a woman in business, as a young community advocate," Casilio said. "My record has proven that I can succeed and I can make it happen. I go to where the change is needed."
Suburban areas key
In 2011, Poloncarz defeated incumbent County Executive Chris Collins by a 12,000-vote margin.
Four years later, he buried then-Assemblyman Raymond W. Walter by more than 44,000 votes.
Nate McMurray, the former Grand Island supervisor who narrowly lost a congressional bid to Republican Chris Collins in 2018, has ended his Democratic candidacy for Erie County executive less than a month after announcing it.
His latest victory, in 2019 against Dixon, was by a margin of 35,000 votes.
"Mark, as in every other race, will run as if he's 10 points behind," campaign spokesman Peter Anderson said. "He looks forward to running on his record and he will make every effort to communicate to the residents of Erie County about his many achievements during his tenure in office."
Part of Poloncarz's success against Dixon was rooted in the increasingly blue suburbs. Cheektowaga, Amherst and Tonawanda were key Democratic bastions for the county executive.
Dixon, meanwhile, notched victories in the Democratic enclaves of Lancaster, Hamburg and West Seneca. This year, the GOP will attempt to duplicate those wins while trying to flip the towns that went blue in 2019.
"Those first-ring suburbs of Amherst, Cheektowaga, Hamburg, Tonawanda and Lancaster, they're population centers, in many instances they’re swing towns, and those are going to be where we’re going to go try to find our vote," Erie County Republican Committee Chairman Michael A. Kracker said.
The GOP chairman said he believes Casilio, a mother of three, will connect with suburban voters – particularly women – on a different level than the county executive.
"I think Chrissy’s going to be able to identify with a voter on a different set of issues," Kracker said. "She really understands what Erie County moms are dealing with everyday, because she is one."
Kracker noted that with the exception of Amherst and Tonawanda, former Rep. Lee Zeldin performed "extremely well" in the first-ring suburbs against Gov. Kathy Hochul last year.
"So there’s been a bit of a shift there," Kracker said.
Issue of shelf life
Poloncarz is also trying to buck historical trends. No Erie County executive has ever won a fourth term. Dennis T. Gorski attempted the feat in 1999, but was defeated by Republican Joel A. Giambra.
His delayed announcement for what would be an unprecedented fourth term was made on social media Thursday morning, putting to rest rumors regarding his interest in remaining the county's top elected leader.
Many wondered whether Poloncarz would opt for another campaign after rumors circulated that he might take a post in Albany in Gov. Hochul's administration.
"The shelf life applies for his relationship to the voters, but also his passion and commitment to do the job," Kracker said. "Whether you support the county executive or not, I think at some point a change of leadership is needed to prevent the place from becoming stale."
Anderson, who also serves as Poloncarz's press secretary, scoffed at that notion.
"Mark is running for the job he wants to have," Anderson said. "He is as passionate about doing this as he ever has been."
In Anderson's view, the fact that a well-known politician like Dixon couldn't put much of a dent Poloncarz's numbers in 2019 – combined with traditionally Republican suburbs like Amherst trending blue – bodes well for the Democrat.
So do elections for Buffalo's Common Council, which are expected to increase turnout in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.
"I think more than anything, it underlines the difficulty of winning a countywide race," Anderson said. "You have to have an appeal in lot of different municipalities in order to bring those voters along, whether they’re Democrat or Republican. The fact that those municipalities were trending blue kind of underscores what Mark has been doing for the past few years."
Casilio said that while she'll be working to raise funds and meeting people in the county's cities, towns and villages, she'll have her three children at the front of her mind.
"I want a bright future for them," she said. "I don't want them moving to another state when they grow up because they can’t afford to live here."