County Executive Mark Poloncarz is riding high on a poll that says his favorability is at 67%. But asking a respondent whether they have a favorable or unfavorable view of the County Executive doesn’t translate into votes.
When you change the polling question to, “Do you plan on voting for Mark Poloncarz?”, only 37% of respondents say yes, says a prolific Democratic party contributor.
Poloncarz’s supporters acclaim that he is scandal free — which we assume to be something of an accomplishment in the context of Western New York’s political scene. All of that is about to change, because a perfect storm has already undermined his reelection — but he doesn’t know it yet.
The winter storm that made reelection impossible
After the most intensely cold winter storm in years, county roads are in shambles. More than any other issue, local voters care about one thing: potholes. This summer, they are going to be worse than ever — and voters are going to be angry.
The fiscal reality is that Poloncarz can’t fix them before election time.
Former County Executive Dennis Gorski changed the County’s capital asset management policy regarding roads. Rather than planning roadwork on a 35 year lifecycle, the County is now planning on a 40 year lifecycle. That lowers annual spending on road reconstruction. So we’ve already been stretching our infrastructure thin for nearly 20 years.
Poloncarz desperately wants to balance the County’s budget, which is already tight and will get much tighter this year. Road crews can only do a mile per day, as a physical limit. Nearly 90% of county roads will not get fixed.
The Canadian dollar has fallen significantly in the last six months, since it was valued on par with the American dollar. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians who had shopped here to escape Canada’s high prices on consumer goods have slowed considerably. As the Canadian dollar continues to fall — a function of low oil prices — local retailers are going to take a kick to the stomach.
Erie County relies heavily on its sales tax revenue, which funds much of the County’s operations and services. The administration’s revenue projections are overly optimistic, and there will be a considerable budget shortfall of tens of millions. The Administration with likely obfuscate the accounting mechanics in the style of Joel Giambra.
But accounting mechanics won’t hide the County’s fiscal and management realities. The potholes will be in plain sight, and it will be worse than anyone can remember.
Of course, Poloncarz will blame the Town Supervisors — who have no affection for him anyways — and they will, quite reasonably, point out that the County is responsible for County owned roads.
By the time the media does its job and looks into Poloncarz’s Highway Department, there will be one patronage scandal overshadowing the next — all the while, voters will be enraged that their tax dollars fund patronage jobs for Poloncarz’s friends and family rather than fund needed infrastructure repairs.
Robb Poloncarz, Mark’s brother, was given a patronage position in the Highway Department (and one at the Board of Elections, and one at the Water Authority, for that matter) and could take center stage in the public discourse.
Then, when it’s revealed who got snow removal contracts in Hamburg and why — voters will be outraged. Worst case scenario, Poloncarz will be forced to step aside amidst corruption allegations. His best case scenario falls considerably short of reelection.
During the historic winter storm that cut through the Southtowns this December, the Governor planted himself in Western New York for ten days to manage the storm response. He had dozens of pieces of heavy equipment from across the state brought in to assist. You will remember that South Buffalo’s roads were clear and that state roads were maintained rather impressively.
You will also remember that Hamburg’s snow removal effort was a debacle. At the time, Poloncarz had been accused of preventing equipment from going into Hamburg because he wanted to stick it to the Town’s Supervisor, Steven Walters, a Republican.
The real reason for the poor snow removal in Hamburg was because the Poloncarz Administration was sliding contracts to a friend. When the scandal becomes public, Hamburg will have a general distaste for him.
His field operation in the Town will be nearly non-existant. The Poloncarz loyalists at party headquarters (namely, Jeremy Zellner and Len Lenihan) don’t have many friends in Hamburg either, and they’ve treated Democratic committeeman there very disrespectfully.
When Mike Quinn, a Pigeon affiliate, won the Town Chairmanship he offered the Vice Chairmanship to Randy Hoak, a headquarters guy. Hoak scoffed at the prospect.
In Amherst, the Democrats have performed very weak in recent years. Amherst may be heavily Democrat enrolled, but they are fed up with the Democratic party. They often vote for Ray Walter, Barry Weinstein, and Mike Ranzenhofer.
The primary process will have the Democrats in warring factions. County Legislator and headquarters loyalist Tom Loughran will have a primary challenge from the Pigeon aligned Councilman Mark Manna. It will be a bitter primary consumed mostly with pettiness and mudslinging. It’s unclear who will win it, but the party will be unable to coalesce around the winner.
In the general election, Republican Councilman Guy Marlette will benefit from Democrat infighting. If the County Legislature seat goes to the GOP, it will further solidify their majority. But Poloncarz will be hurt by the infighting and high Republican turnout in Amherst would benefit Chris Jacobs, the likely GOP nominee.
Making matters worse, Poloncarz has a nearly nonexistent relationship with Amherst Supervisor Barry Weinstein.
Perhaps no battleground will be as intense as Cheektowaga. The Town has a history of divisive politics and a Democratic party organization that is comprised in three parts.
Mark Wegner is the party’s Town Chairman and leads the traditional organization that is aligned with party headquarters, and therefore is cordial with Poloncarz.
Frank Max is now the Chairman of the Progressive Democrats of Western New York. He has compiled a long entrenched old-school political machine that is intense and cut throat. They are well organized, but aging and their ground game has waned in recent years.
County Legislator Ted Morton is recovering from a health emergency, and observers speculate that he may be unable to campaign in the current election cycle. Zellner and Poloncarz have already approached prospective candidates, some of whom found the question distasteful.
Cheektowaga Supervisor Mary Holtz has held office since 2007. Before that she had served as Town Clerk for many years. She is 67, enjoys a comfortable pension, and is considering retirement. In recent weeks her personal use of a Town vehicle has attracted criticism.
Councilwoman Diane Benczkowski is considering a run for Supervisor. She is charismatic and energetic — and far more likable than any politician that Cheektowaga has seen in decades. Max sees her as a threat to his grip on Town government.
It’s rumored that Poloncarz has been heavily lobbying Benczkowski for her support, but has been reluctant to say so publicly for fear of undermining an incumbent Town Supervisor who already distrusts the headquarters faction.
Town of Tonawnada Supervisor Anthony Caruana is up for reelection. So far it has been be a quiet race. Unless an unforeseen challenger emerges, he is expected to win reelection easily. Poloncarz hasn’t done much for the town, but the headquarters faction of the party considers it their base.
Poloncarz needs to do well in Tonawanda to win.
But Jacobs has already trumped Poloncarz’s vote count in Tonawanda twice. Running for Clerk, Jacobs received more votes than Poloncarz did for County Executive. Such strong repeated performance in such a heavily Democrat stronghold bodes well for Jacobs.
Maurice Garner leads Grassroots, the organization responsible for Mayor Brown’s three citywide wins. He is aligned with the Mayor and Pigeon, against Poloncarz.
The Unity Coalition was founded by former Assemblyman Arthur Eve and is now led by his son, Champ, the Deputy Election Commissioner. This faction is generally aligned with headquarters, but in recent months major rifts have been percolating.
Former County Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant, who has been aligned with headquarters, is upset with Zellner and Poloncarz. After delivering her the party endorsement for State Senate last year, they abruptly retreated from her campaign.
It’s rumored that Zellner cut a deal to passively back Kennedy. Grant feels betrayed and is in no mood to deliver the Eastside to an ungrateful chairman and an even less grateful County Executive.
Sources close to the County Executive tell me that he is “punch drunk on the favorability numbers.” They say he feels sure of himself, but still obsesses over messaging, talking points, and Facebook.
His contributors — who are largely attorneys and law firms who perform legal work for the county — wish that he was “more of a people person.” It seems that even his contributors are inclined to jump ship and back Jacobs, who they say is far more personable and charismatic.
As of January, Poloncarz reported only $422,000 in his campaign account. Operatives speculate that even a primary challenge from a second-tier candidate could cost Poloncarz twice that amount — before he even gets to the general.