For months there has been considerable speculation — perhaps even expectation — that Assemblyman Michael Kearns is preparing to primary incumbent Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz for County Executive in the coming election cycle.
The historically fractious local party organization has been consumed with infighting — which some say has been exacerbated by the local party Chairman, Jeremy Zellner.
Zellner and Poloncarz are the closest of party bosses, but neither is charismatic. Critics say that Zellner is a bully and Poloncarz is arrogant and standoffish.
Sources close to both say they are franticly worried that Kearns will challenge Poloncarz, who is universally viewed as the more popular politician. Observers expect that Kearns would defeat Poloncarz, though the sitting Country Executive is expected to fundraise competitively with Kearns.
Supporters say that the Assemblyman is a rare bread of politician.
Able to work across party lines, he is a lifelong Democrat who is popular among Republicans. The former Councilman is still new to the Assembly, just recently elected to his second term. He is the lone Democrat who refused to caucus with Sheldon Silver’s governing coalition, something that has earned him folk hero-status in his South Buffalo-based district.
A Kearns Speakership?
There was even talk of a Kearns Speakership before Carl Heastie solidified the downstate party. With the backing of the Republican caucus, Kearns would have only needed 32 Democrats to break from the New York City based caucus. Heastie’s power base is rooted in the organized black, latino, and asian communities in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn.
Some observers say that, if Heastie advances a “radical downstate agenda,” there could be an opening for a power sharing coalition among the GOP caucus and moderate Democrats — not unlike the bipartisan governing coalition in the State Senate from 2012 through 2014. Rumor has it that the GOP is grooming Kearns for such a coup d’etat.
To the constituents he serves, the Assemblyman has always been known more simply, as “Mickey.”
When Kearns first ran for the State Assembly, he defeated a machine backed Democrat staffer of the longtime Congressman Brian Higgins in a heavily Democrat enrolled district — and on the Republican line. Silver dumped $160,000 into the campaign of his challenger, but Kearns still won in a landslide victory.
Kearns credited the win to his “Irish Republican Army,” he said half jokingly. The district has a 2-to-1 Democrat enrollment advantage and the underfunded upset win rocked the local political scene.
In this age of polarization and crippling party loyalties, his ability to build relationships across party lines is something of a political phenomenon.
Rus Thompson, the leader of Western New York’s “Taxed Enough Already” movement, known colloquially as TEA NY, is a Kearns supporter.
“Mickey speaks for the people, not the political class,” explains Thompson. “He has proven that he can stand up to the status quo — and against Silver.”
When Kearns challenged incumbent Mayor Byron Brown in 2009, even Carl Paladino took to the airwaves in support.
Joe Mascia, the City’s longtime Commissioner of Housing and a high profile figure in the local Democrat party organization, is also a Kearns supporter. He even supported an effort to draft him for the Speakership.
The Democrat primary for County Executive is shaping up to be a battle between the party’s two major organized factions. Poloncarz’s Lackawanna base will be overwhelmed by Kearns’ intense popularity in South Buffalo and West Seneca, operatives say.
Cheektowaga could be a battleground. Party infighting over control of that Town’s government has been fierce in recent months. Councilwoman Diane Benczkowski is being accused of improprieties by former party chairman Frank Max.
Zellner and Poloncarz have been plotting to push out Town Supervisor Mary Hotz, who is under pressure to resign. Max controls the influential Progressive Democrats of Western New York, and has been a longtime Hotz supporter.
Turnout will be high, and Cheektowaga’s demographics could swing beind either Democrat. The town is a major battleground in countywide races.