Today we came one step closer to the abolition of Erie County Government as a separate taxing entity. That is what I firmly believe, and it is the way I can best rationalize what I saw happen today.
As predicted, a group of nine legislators – all six Republicans, and three rogue Democrats – joined together to create what they are calling a “reform coalition”. They touted their reform bona fides, that this was a bold new day for Erie County, and that great things would happen.
There was, to me, a distinct difference in the way this coalition expressed itself. While the rogue Democrats made excuses for themselves, the Republicans were positively giddy.
Why shouldn’t they be? They just regained a majority in the legislature.
What’s behind this?
As best we can put together, Tim Kennedy approached Democratic HQ to ask to run against Stachowski. Lenihan reportedly told Kennedy that he was going to stick with Stachowski and let him decide when he wanted to stop going to Albany. Kennedy then turned to Steve Pigeon and asked for his help to run against Stachowski. Golisano’s money was pledged, but Pigeon wanted something in exchange.
Pigeon wanted Kennedy to deliver the legislature to him. Three Democrats to flip so Collins would have his majority. Rumor has it that Pigeon is working on Collins’ gubernatorial campaign behind the scenes.
Kennedy delivered Miller-Williams, who is affiliated with Grassroots, which is currently aligned with Pigeon and City Hall, as well as Christina Bove. It is also rumored that Brian Higgins is one of the people behind the scenes brokering this on Kennedy’s behalf.
Thursday at the Legislature
The proceedings began with the oath of office:
The six Democrats who remained loyal to Lynn Marinelli were sworn in separately. Almost instantly afterwards, Tim Kennedy (D-2) moved that Barbara Miller-Williams (D-3) be named legislature chair, seconded by John Mills (R-13). Maria Whyte (D-6) moved that Lynn Marinelli (D-11) be re-elected chair, seconded by Dan Kozub (D-1).
Debate ensued, and the speeches on both sides were quite emotional. Whyte blasted the “queenmaking” being engaged in by Steve Pigeon and Chris Collins, thus jeopardizing the legislature’s independence. Kozub invoked the notion of honor, wondering what, exactly, the new 9-member majority was talking about, given that the legislature had gone along with Collins 97% of the time last session. Betty Jean Grant (D-7) wondered why her only other African-American colleague on the legislature would willingly align herself with a county executive who so regularly vetoed items that were important for their constituents. Marinelli thanked her supporters, but the writing was on the wall. She mentioned the fact that, unprecedentedly, armed Sheriff’s Deputies were on-hand on the 4th floor of old county hall to escort fired staffers from the building.
When I heard this, I noted that this smacked of a coup. It was intimidation.
On behalf of Miller-Williams, Tim Kennedy tried to convince his colleagues that he still stood for Democratic principles and had not jettisoned them to join this coalition. He was followed by Mills and Rath, who in essence shouted, “yay!” Rath eloquently spoke of the dawning of a new era, bemoaning the fact that the Republican minority had previously been shut out of the process.
Upon hearing Kennedy, Dan Kozub stood up and indicated that if he “had boots with [him], [he’d] put them on.” He reminded Kennedy that everything he had ever done in the legislature had been pro-labor, and Chris Collins had thwarted and opposed him every step of the way. He called this a “joke” and said it wasn’t about governing, but about politics. He mentioned that he was all but strong-armed into voting for Barbara Miller-Williams by colleagues who told him they had the Republicans on board, and “that’s not asking for my vote”.
Whyte again invoked the name of Steve Pigeon, drawing a parallel between the coup Pigeon orchestrated in the State Senate, and the coup he was orchestrating in the county legislature.
Ray Walter (R-4) somewhat missed the point of what the election in November concluded. He said that the voters had spoken, and that there had been a “sea-change” in the legislature. He said that “elections have consequences”, and the “public spoke” that it didn’t want “business as usual”. Betty Jean Grant retorted that the people behind this weren’t in the room, and the 9 Democrats had not met together since being elected, primarily because Tim Kennedy and Christina Bove simply refused to do so.
Soon afterward, a vote was taken and Barbara Miller-Williams was elected chairwoman, and Maria Whyte was re-elected as majority leader, and John Mills re-elected as minority leader.
The “Reform Coalition” gets to work
Then the “reform coalition” began to push through its agenda. Populating jobs was primary on the agenda. Miller-Williams very definitively denied that any new jobs were created, and the Republicans insisted that the changes made today would result in a net savings for taxpayers. My information is that jobs were created, and that their creation may have thrown the budget out of balance.
Afterwards, the reform coalition held a press conference, which WNYMedia.net attended.
The Sea Changes
And what of this sea-change? Of course, elections do have consequences, but Walter is playing fast and loose with the truth when he suggests that, for instance, the people who voted for Tim Kennedy thought they were voting for someone aligned with Chris Collins. Or Steve Pigeon. Is it a brand new era? Well, in this case the era means that the Republicans are going to own whatever happens in the leg over the next two years. Make no mistake – at the press conference afterward, John Mills very simply referred to the six non-Pigeon Democrats as the “opposition”.
For her part, Miller-Williams had a novel definition of “reform”; “moving Erie County forward”. Well, certainly everyone would be in favor of that. Reform is so very much more, though, isn’t it? And is packing the leg with new patronage hires and paying political debts “reform”?
Christina Bove had very little to say, beyond informing the press that she was impressed that legislators could speak their minds. Yay!
When asked, Miller-Williams dodged the question of whether any staffers were escorted out by law enforcement, but about “4 or 5” people were losing their jobs. None of the legislators would go into detail about how the reform coalition was first formed – they would not say whose idea it was, or who was the impetus behind it. The Erie County Democratic Committee issued a statement likening what happened today in the legislature to the mid-2009 State Senate coup. Miller-Williams dodged that question, as well, indicating that she was only worried about the county leg, not what other governmental entities do or did.
Kevin Hardwick (R-10) argued that it was his hope that partisan distinctions could be eliminated from the legislature, and that legislators could vote the way they want, or the way their constituents want. Walter echoed that sentiment, but then the need for a “reform coalition” is somewhat mooted.
Nobody – not one of the so-called reform coalition was comfortable acknowledging the fact that jobs was a big part of what was going on. Grassroots and the Erie County Republican Committee were the big winners today. ECDC was a big loser.
The people of Erie County? Time will tell how this all affects them. But the last time the county executive had a compliant legislature, we ended up with a choice between a red and green budget.
Ever dance with the devil by the pale moonlight?