Mark Poloncarz

Democrats retake the Erie County Legislature, but still fall short in countywide contests

The day after the election, Erie County Democrats were celebrating a few victories, something that has been, at times, hard to come by in recent years.

After regaining the majority in the Erie County Legislature, as well as council seats and supervisor’s chairs in some of the county’s larger suburbs, Jeremy Zellner, the Democratic county chairman, said his camp was feeling good about its push to get people to the polls.

“We had a good night,” Zellner told City & State. “We actually gained some ground last night.”

And indeed, regaining a majority in the county legislature after losing control two years ago is something for the chairman to hang his hat on. Republicans failed to take out incumbent Democrat Tom Loughran, despite an aggressive campaign, and lost incumbent Republican Ted Morton’s seat to newcomer John Bruso, another Democrat.

But losses in all three countywide offices on the ballot, despite a 2-to-1 voter enrollment advantage, show a county party still struggling to find its way. Of the five offices elected by all of Erie County, establishment Democrats hold just two posts, with Mark Poloncarz, who won big in his 2015 reelection bid, occupying the county executive’s office and District Attorney John Flynn in his first term. 

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This year, the opportunity seemed well at hand for the Democrats to retake at least one of the offices. Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard, a Republican, had been sharply criticized for his handling of the jails, where 22 inmates have died since he took office in 2006. He had also come under fire for wearing his uniform to a “Spirit of America” rally where members of the crowd included known white supremacists and a confederate flag was flown. Bernie Tolbert, his Democratic challenger, and a coalition of social justice groups ran an aggressive campaign to oust him. Still, Howard squeaked by on Tuesday, beating Tolbert by about 2 points.

Mickey Kearns, a South Buffalo Democrat who has spent the last four years in the state Assembly, did win the race for county clerk, but he ran on the Republican line with the support of the GOP, defeating former newsman Steven Cichon, a Republican-turned-Democrat, by about 4 points.

And incumbent Republican Stefan Mychajliw defeated Democrat Vanessa Glushefski, despite her strong showing. Glushefski, a certified public accountant who worked to convince the public that she was more qualified for the post, could not overcome name recognition and fundraising prowess of Mychajliw, a former television news reporter who won by about 10 points.

Bruce Fisher, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College and a Democratic political commenter, said that Democrats have no excuse for losing all three races, especially with the problems Howard was facing.

“The idea that this was a win for Democrats in difficult circumstances ignores many realities,” he said.

And, conversely, it showed that Republicans have honed a strategy that works. Fisher pointed to the many mailers that went out playing up cultural issues. Suburban voters were peppered with mailers from the state Senate Republican Committee and others stoking fears over illegal immigration and tying Democrats to NFL players kneeling in protest of police brutality during the national anthem. In one county legislature race, mailers claimed that Michelle Schoeneman, the Democratic challenger to incumbent Conservative Joe Lorigo, wanted to put a “free heroin shoot up site” in suburban communities throughout the district. She filed a defamation complaint over the campaign materials.

“This was a lost opportunity for Democrats,” Fisher said. “On the Republican side, it was a huge validation of the Trump style campaigning. They demonstrated, once again, that if you attack and attack and attack, you’ll win.”

Zellner acknowledged there were missed opportunities this week. “We were incredibly disappointed that we didn’t do better with the county wides,” he said.

But he also worked to downplay the losses during an interview with City & State Tuesday.

He pointed to the clear advantages of incumbency Republicans enjoyed in the sheriff and comptroller races. He also bristled at the oft-repeated statistic about his party’s enrollment advantage, arguing that with regularly anemic voter turnout, it’s not an accurate way of portraying the electorate.

“The voter enrollment advantage is not a real thing,” Zellner said. “When you look at turnout numbers, consistent turnout numbers, the Democrats don’t turn out at all in this town.”

But this time around, turnout was up more than 203,000, an increase from around 184,000 in 2013 – the last time the sheriff and comptroller offices were up for election.

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The higher numbers were almost certainly driven by the aggressive campaign to vote down a ballot measure that would have convened a state constitutional convention, with a wide array of interest groups working to defeat the measure.

And, as Erie County GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy told City & State, the most well-heeled and active of those groups were unions, many of them municipal labor organizations, whose membership is strongly Democrat.

And, he said, a higher turnout, statistically speaking, should benefit Democrats. “There’s twice as many Democrats as Republicans,” Langworthy said. “Do the math.”

Zellner said that taking back the county legislature was a “main goal,” and so certainly he can count that as progress. Now, with the legislature and the county executive’s office being of the same party, they will be able to accomplish more, he said.

For example, Poloncarz last year proposed an ethics reform package that the Conservative and Republican majority coalition tried to water down and then killed altogether. That will be taken up anew next year.

Less Republican grandstanding on issues outside of the county’s purview, like whether the county should accept Syrian refugees or ban sanctuary cities, will allow legislators to spend more time working for constituents, Zellner said.

“I think what our party does best is govern and we need legislators, when it’s appropriate, should be a check and a balance to the county executive, but also when it’s appropriate, to get things done for them,” he said.

But the county legislature has little latitude in what it can do as a governing body. Its members hold the purse strings of the county budget, but more than 90 percent of the spending is determined by state and federal mandates. Perhaps the biggest perk is that the majority controls jobs at the county water authority, widely known as local government’s most prolific patronage farm.

Zellner said he sees an opportunity to accomplish a lot with a strong partnership between the legislature and the executive.

Perhaps that will be something to build on for the next elections.

“There is going to be a big difference,” he said. “There’s going to be people who will be accountable to the public, to get things done and to deliver for the community, not politicize the body.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that there were four offices elected by all of Erie County. The story has been updated to reflect that there are five countywide offices, with two held by Democrats, including District Attorney John Flynn.