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Erie County Democrats, Politics, and Governing

9 Nov

The Democratic Party in Erie County needs to change, and it needs to do so fast. 

In just a short period of time – less than 10 years – the Erie County Republican Party has gotten its act together while the Democrats have foundered. The fault for this lies not with Len Lenihan or Jeremy Zellner. It doesn’t lie with Erie County Conservative Party chairman Ralph Lorigo or with the state Independence Party chair Frank MacKay. It doesn’t lie with Steve Pigeon. It lies with everyone. 

Frank Max partisans will go out of their way to blame Jeremy Zellner. What good does that do? From a micro standpoint, it might make you feel better – even though we are without any evidence that any electoral outcomes would have been different had he been the party’s chairman. But from a macro standpoint – for the overall good of Democratic politics in Erie County, it is a further descent down a rabbit hole of recriminations and unnecessary shaming and blaming, which is wholly counterproductive. 

Want to blame someone? Look in the mirror. 

I’m writing this because I want Democrats in Erie County to succeed. 

Republicans don’t even have to do battle with Democrats. Democrats are perfectly fine battling amongst themselves. It’s dumb, it’s counterproductive, and it needs to stop

On Election Night, the Erie County Democratic Party lost key high-profile races, Kirsten Gillbrand, Barack Obama, and Brian Higgins will serve new terms. Mike Amodeo lost, Kathy Hochul lost, and David Shenk lost. While some factions will gloat about this, and declare that it proves some intramural point, it reflects poorly on everybody in every faction

In the last ten years the Republicans in Erie County have gone from being an elitist club of enduring failure (excepting some safe suburban zones), and completely reinvented themselves into a party with young candidates, brash candidates, new and controversial ideas, and – most importantly – a large pot of money.

Let’s look at the Comptroller’s race. After two Poloncarz victories – countywide milestones for Democrats – we lost this time. Millionaires and developers like the Collinses, the Corwins, Paladino and his collection of companies have used their deep pockets to expand their political influence. That new reality allowed races like Stefan Mychajliw’s to be exceedingly well funded against an awkward Democratic unknown from a small exurb whose selection was almost cynical in its electoral tone-deafness. After 2010, Democrats lost Paladino’s money for good – he was sometimes a reliable Democratic donor in certain, key races. Mychajliw has no personal fortune from which to draw – indeed, he made much of his thrift during the campaign – beater car, cracked-screen smartphone. Whereas just 6 or 7 years ago, a Republican candidate like Stefan would have been expected to self-fund and expect little help from the party, there is now a vat of reliable fundraising from within and without the region. This is in large part thanks to the rise of suburban new-money political activism, but also the unchallenged leadership of its party committee, led by all-around nice guy/hardnosed warrior Nick Langworthy. 

Republicans also suffer from infighting; they just don’t turn it into World War III. 

Shenk was poorly funded, unlike his opponent. Shenk was an unknown, unlike his opponent. Shenk seemed out-of-place, awkward, unlike his polished opponent. What Shenk had was a large Democratic enrollment advantage. His job performance as interim comptroller? He literally sent out a release critical of Poloncarz’s proposed property tax hikes the day before election day – too little, far too late, and completely overshadowed by other news.  His first advertisement was introductory; in a 30-second spot, he wasted 5 seconds telling you he commuted to work every morning. His script had him emphasize that he was “your” county comptroller, as if that was somehow persuasive to viewers who probably don’t know what the comptroller does. Hell, the comptroller-elect ran on an  “I’ll stop patronage” platform – well outside a comptroller’s job description.  Shenk the unknown battling against Stefan Mychajliw – a person who came into your living rooms every night for years as “red coat” asking the “tough questions” of politicians – had to go directly on offense. He had to knock down Mychajliw’s favorables immediately to have a fighting chance. It wouldn’t have been hard – Mychajliw is uniquely unqualified to be comptroller; after the Republicans spent so much effort explaining that Phil Kadet (2009) or John Canavan (2005) were CPAs, now we had a Republican who had no finance background whatsoever. Instead, we learned about Shenk’s commute. 

Shenk’s second ad was much better, but it was too late. In the end, it was a closer race than I expected it to be, but it was a failure nonetheless. Mychajliw had already wrapped up the Conservative and Independence fusion party lines, theoretically giving Democrats a way to vote for him without using the (R) line. Advantage: Stefan. 

The Amodeo race was even more shambolic; he was never given a fair shot. Like Shenk, he was underfunded. Like Shenk, he didn’t set out to contrast himself against his opponent’s weakness. Like Shenk, he was the victim of the anti-Lenihan/Zellner faction, which used Steve Pigeon’s ties with Ralph Lorigo’s Conservative Party to run Chuck Swanick, first in a Democratic primary, and later in the general election, gleaning the 12% homophobe vote. Despite their protestations to the contrary, Swanick’s sole reason for being in that State Senate race was to punish Grisanti for his vote in favor of same-sex marriage. He was funded almost exclusively by “loans” and money from the gay-hating “National Organization for Marriage”. When he failed to get the Democratic endorsement, Swanick continued with his campaign, appearing in exactly one TV spot, paid for by the Conservative Party. In it, he looked like Ralph Lorigo’s kidnap victim.

There was nothing whatsoever wrong with Amodeo as a Democrat, by the way – the whole thing had to do with the fact that Lenihan wouldn’t endorse Swanick. And why should he have? Swanick was most recently a failed party-switcher; reeking still from the stench of the recent Erie County budget meltdown and tax hikes. Why would Lenihan have endorsed someone so virulently anti-marriage-equality and anti-gay that he accepted money from a PAC totally opposed to the type of progressive policies the Democratic Party should be promoting? Grisanti had buckets of money and support from bipartisan sources. He outspent Amodeo by a ridiculous amount, even going negative against him for no apparent reason. It was a uniquely vicious and relentless campaign from someone who really had the race sewn up tight. $20,000 per day in advertising, the Democrats were caught looking like beggars. 

Yet Democrats I spoke with in the waning days of the campaign brought up Amodeo within their first breath. It was their big hope – he could still pull it off!  But Amodeo wasn’t just underfunded – he was the direct victim of an epic battle for control of the party, and had only one party line against a guy with the (C) and (I) endorsements lined up.

Some of the recriminations are hilarious. For instance, when Shenk personally asked Buffalo’s Mayor for help with his campaign, the Mayor flatly refused. When others in the party tried to intervene for help from the Mayor’s faction with the Hochul, Shenk, and Amodeo races, they were met with the mayor explaining that none of those people concerned him. Pigeon’s faction went one step further – they actively opposed the Democratic candidates for Comptroller and State Senate. When Democrats are in the trenches, all Democrats should pull together to help out; to do their part. Primary season is one thing, but when they’re over, that’s no time to go AWOL because your guy lost. 

Here is the most important lessons the Democrats in Erie County should take from the whole thing: you need to recruit new blood to what’s become a shallow bench of candidates. Too often we see the same names over and over again, and most of them do absolutely nothing, except ensure their own longevity. You need to locate and cultivate new sources of campaign funding. You need to come to the realization that an enrollment advantage means nothing in the face of a Republican candidate who can credibly appeal to Democrats.

One of my biggest criticisms of Mayor Byron Brown is that he is too concentrated on the politics and interoffice management of the city’s government, and offers up no broad, aspirational goals, nor any plan to achieve them. Democrats in Erie County need to maintain existing relationships with labor, and continue the hard work to reverse years’ worth of right-wing demagoguery against worker rights, but start coming up with some new ideas and better plans for the future that can appeal across party lines. 

Finally, Kathy Hochul’s loss to Chris Collins was particularly devastating. The blame for that loss cannot be affixed to the party apparatus, or to any sort of factionalism. Instead, she was out-spent in a district that became even more red than the one she won in 2011. She had her own funding and her own excellent campaign infrastructure at her disposal, and she lost because she lost. She ran an aggressive campaign and did as well as any Democrat could be expected to do. 

On the other hand, Justin Rooney from Newstead mounted a credible challenge to Mike Ranzenhofer in SD-61, which has recently expanded to the Rochester area – new territory for them both. We need more Justin Rooneys, and Justin Rooneys need more support and more money. 

So, what can we do immediately to stop this? First of all, the best way to maintain weakness through factional squabbles is to start laying blame for it on anyone, or any side. Whether you’re in with the Mayor, with Pigeon, or with Zellner: you’re a Democrat. Start acting like one. That means the governing should be more important than the politics should be more important than the power. The factionalism exists because it’s a battle over control – a battle over patronage and the money and political loyalty that comes from it. (The Republicans are not immune here – their cozy relationships with the (I) and (C) fusion parties has to do with overcoming their enrollment disadvantage in exchange for patronage and favors. This is why electoral fusion is a horror that anyone with any interest in good government should strongly oppose). I don’t care how the factions decide to make peace and unify, but without it, the party will continue to fail or underperform. Things Democrats stand for will lose in the battle of ideas to things Republicans do  – fiscal meltdowns, “trickle down” fantasies, union-busting, homophobia, corporate welfare, punishing the poor and working class, playing budgetary games to hide fiscal time bombs. 

We need to not only stop associating with the likes of Ralph Lorigo, we should be openly challenging his party’s entire platform (such as it is), and electoral fusion itself. 

We need to not only stop associating with the so-called “Independence Party” and add “abolition of electoral fusion” as a platform plank. 

We need to stop playing factions off each other and get back to the work of electing good-quality Democrats to office. 

We need to overhaul our messaging and become more transparent and inclusive. 

We need to start better appealing to suburban voters who self-identify as small-c conservatives. 

We need to come up with a specific vision for this county, and propose ways to get us there. 

We need to improve outreach to people who sit on the sidelines because the system is so sordid, and solicit ideas, advice, assistance, and counsel. 

We need to grow our bench, and encourage more people to come in from the private sector to make government work better. 

We need to locate and cultivate new and more reliable sources of funding of campaigns. 

We need to especially target elected officials who have spent more than 20 years in office and have little achievement to show for it – regardless of party. 

We need to start thinking outside the traditional Democratic box and realize that western New York’s unique position within a unique statewide power structure leaves us as a political, economic afterthought, but with that comes flexibility and freedom. 

We need to identify structural and infrastructural problems that cost us money due to years’ worth of bad planning, bad politics, and bad government. 

We need to outperform the Republicans on the battleground of ideas. 

We need to change how we perceive ourselves before we can change how others perceive us. 

We need to consider abandoning the practice of endorsing candidates in a Democratic primary. 

When the primaries are over, Democrats should back Democrats, period. 

We need to create and implement policy-based criteria for endorsements.  Why, at the reorganization, did the party not consider adopting marriage equality, anti-fracking, or minimum wage platforms? Then use them as criteria for endorsements.

You know who cares about trivial gossip fed to the Gramignas and other Illuzzi heirs about this faction and that faction? No one, that’s who. 

We need to come to the stark realization that the infighting and toxic recriminations are repelling good people from becoming (or staying) involved in the system. What you’ll have left is people with their hands out, looking for their cush jobs, and the region will be stuck in neutral, if not reverse. 

We need to stop fighting Democrats and start fighting Republicans and Conservatives and the Independence Party. 

By the same token, we should welcome, support, and encourage good ideas, regardless of their source. 

At the very least, we should be having open, honest, vibrant debate about these ideas in a transparent process. 

I’ve been writing about this stuff for almost ten years. I’m still hopeful about this region’s future, despite how acutely screwed up everything is. I see a lot of good things happening on the fringes – things happening not because of government or politics, but in spite of them. There is so much love for this area, and so much energy out there just waiting to be unleashed if someone would just take the lead. If someone would come out and say, this is what we should be doing,  and here’s how we can get there together. Democrats in Erie County should be at the forefront, helping to lead that discussion and helping to formulate that plan. 

But the longer we continue down the same, generations-long path of 50s era thinking, pandering to fusion opportunists, and reluctance to change, plan, and expand, the longer we’ll keep seeing results like Tuesday’s. Let’s stop being Pigeonistas and Headquarters guys and Byron’s people and start being Democrats. 


Mychajliw vs. Shenk for Chief Budget Nerd

2 Nov

The race for Erie County Comptroller is something we all know about, but understand little. Including one of the candidates for the office.

The Comptroller is our chief budgetary nerd. He keeps an eye on where the money’s coming from, how much there is, and where it’s going. He makes sure that the money is being spent the way it’s supposed to be spent, and he conducts audits from time to time to examine just that. Because budgets are prospective, it’s important to know throughout the year how we’re doing with its predictions, and in the end, how we did – did we overspend? Is there a surplus? Did we hit it just right? So many variables can skew the numbers in a given year. 

It’s not an inherently political position, although it’s an elected one. The comptroller should be independent of the legislature and the County Executive. The comptroller should conduct monitoring, auditing, and borrowing without regard to the political expediency of any of it, and instead act in what he believes is the best fiscal interests of county taxpayers. He should be a watchdog, and not anyone’s lapdog. 

That’s why Mark Poloncarz and Chris Collins didn’t get along; Collins was not used to, and didn’t like, having his decisions subject to careful review and monitoring, so he clashed with the Comptroller’s office almost constantly. 

Now, we have David Shenk, the interim Comptroller appointed to complete Poloncarz’s second term running against former journalist and current public relations specialist Stefan Mychajliw. Mychajliw, you’ll recall, was Collins’ campaign spokesman in 2011. 

Mychajliw is running on his youthful vigor, his easy way of connecting with voters, his pledge to be independent, his immigrant bona fides, his personal thriftiness, and his experience as a Channel 2 “redcoat” TV journalist, who asks “tough questions” of politicians. Shenk is running on his record as Boston Town Clerk and having had his mettle tested in the military. It’s been a relatively quiet campaign until this week. 

First, Mychajliw ran an ad pledging that the first “audit” he would conduct would look into the “friends and family” hiring practices in county government. That’s fantastic, but completely outside of the job description of a Comptroller. Hiring “friends and family” through patronage or nepotism may be something we don’t like because it is, or seems, unfair, but it doesn’t affect county finances unless you’re creating a new job for the person. Presumably, the underlying position and its related costs would already be accounted-for in the budget, and the decision on hiring is not reviewable or subject somehow to audit. 

Auditing is about money – not politics. 

Pledging to audit hiring practices is silly, but how exactly will he have the power to “end it”? He doesn’t have legislative powers, or even executive power with respect to changing that. And if a “friend” or “family” is qualified for the job, what objective harm is being done to the county coffers? 

This is WBEN / Red Coat stuff. That’s why Shenk replies with this: 

But more importantly – what qualifications does Mychajliw have to be Comptroller? Remember how Poloncarz’s detractors said he was unqualified because he didn’t have a CPA? Well, he didn’t, but his staff did, and Poloncarz has a JD and had extensive experience in corporate finance law. Mychajliw, on the other hand, has no such experience, no such advanced degree, no qualifications whatsoever to be chief budget nerd of Erie County. His LinkedIn page reveals undergraduate degrees in political science and broadcast journalism. That’s it.  Shenk has an undergraduate degree in management, and has been Boston Town Clerk and tax collector for 20 years

But when you examine the two candidates, who has an understanding of what’s going on? Here’s a telling exchange from a recent debate between Mychajliw and Shenk:

Not an exciting race by any measure, but it seems as if one candidate – Shenk – has a better grasp of not only the facts, but the terminology. 

Political Money and Political Politics

30 Oct

In the race for Erie County Comptroller, no one can mount a credible attack that incumbent Mark Poloncarz has done a lousy job.  Instead, the only attacks are that he’s too political and that he “can’t count”.  Specifically, Phil Kadet charges that Poloncarz projected that 2008 would end up with a deficit of $10 million, but that it actually ended up being a surplus of $10 million.

That would be great if it was true.

The ad references a January 2009 article where everyone – the comptroller and the county executive – expressed concern about a deficit.  In the article Kadet cites, Poloncarz specifically states,

“There is a very distinct possibility, when all is said and done and we close out our financial statements, that we will end up with a deficit,” Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz said Friday. “It will probably be less than $10 million. But you don’t want a deficit. And a deficit is a deficit.”

That alone is distinctly different from what Kadet’s ad claims. And Collins’ office was concerned, too:

County Executive Chris Collins, through his budget office, had slowed hiring to a trickle and froze other discretionary spending when sales tax income started cooling at midyear.

Collins’ budget director, Gregory G. Gach, also canceled any employee travel plans that were not fully reimbursed by the state or federal governments or were not needed to “fulfill core missions.”

Gach, in his final budget status report for 2008, told the Legislature in early December that he foresaw a $1.6 million surplus but warned that a further downturn in sales tax income could change that. Fuel prices, a major component of sales tax proceeds, already were falling.

In his forecast, Gach said he had not accounted for the potential $6 million-plus payment related to ECMC because it was only rumored at the time. Weeks later, however, the state Health Department alerted Erie County it owed the money, then took the $6.23 million on Tuesday.

When the final numbers actually came in, it turned out that there would likely be a surplus of $5 to 7 million – not the $20 million swing Kadet charges.  That’s not an inability to count, that’s alerting government to a potential problem, and government reacting appropriately to slash spending.

So, we’ve established that Kadet’s making crap up when it comes to who can and can’t count.  Let’s turn to Kadet’s “I’m a CPA” mantra. He also claims that the current comptroller’s office is too political (read: anti-Collins). They charge that the cellphone audit, the parking audit, and other audits have all been too political.

But so what?  What’s wrong with examining everything that county government does?  And Poloncarz has been criticizing the Democratic legislature when needed, too.  For instance,

  • In 2006, the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved a resolution granting raises to Giambra managerial-confidential employees in Sewerage Management.  The resolution they approved also would have granted sewer management the perpetual right to grant their managerial-confidential appointees raises whenever they felt like it without legislative approval.  The comptroller’s office contacted the Legislature leadership before they voted on the resolution to alert them to the significance of what they were doing and to advise them against doing it.  They did it anyway.  Poloncarz alerted the public and the media, criticizing the Legislature action, which resulted in the Legislature going back at the next session and reconsidering the resolution to change it to ensure legislative approval and oversight of all such raises in the future.
  • In 2009, the Democratic members of the Legislature attempted to send a partisan mailing to election inspectors claiming credit for attaining higher election day pay for election inspectors.  Upon learning of this, the comptroller’s office  immediately and publicly said this was inappropriate and violated the Legislature’s rules of order pertaining to mailings at County expense.
  • Over the past several years, the comptroller’s office has been critical of proposed Legislature Democratic amendments to the annual budget, noting that certain amendments would create negative variances and could contribute to deficits.
  • In 2006, the comptroller’s office conducted investigations and stopped the Forestry Management Program (timber harvesting in County forests) and the Concession Project at Wendt Beach Park after the Democratic-controlled Legislature had approved each project and allowed them to move forward.  Both projects had serious problems and potential improprieties in the RFP and contract award process with the winning vendors.
  • They have consistently warned and cautioned the Legislature about excessive capital borrowings and County debt and urged them to reduce annual proposed borrowing even when some legislators wanted more or certain projects in their districts funded.
  • In annual budget reports, when Democratic Legislature staff received upgrades or additional salary outside the normal process, we reported that in our reports and noted the incongruity (just like with administration political appointees).

So, the job of comptroller as taxpayer watchdog has been adequately executed for the past four years.  Phil Kadet, on the other hand, was hand-selected by Chris Collins, and has been the beneficiary of at least two very high-dollar fundraisers hosted by Chris Collins, including one in Collins’ own home.  That hardly bodes well for Kadet’s independence as comptroller.