The Public Record: First the Clerk's Race, Then the World!

by / Apr. 11, 2017 5pm EST

Whatever you make of Mickey Kearns, allow him this: He has a way of confounding the local Democratic Party to which he belongs, and he leaves political chaos—that is to say, opportunity—in his wake.

Case in point: Kearns announced last month that he will run for Erie County Clerk, an office vacated by Chris Jacobs, who was elected last fall to the New York State Senate. As is his wont, Kearns made that announcement without the blessing of his own party, infuriating Democratic leadership, which apparently had other plans for the seat. (Or in any case would have liked to exert control over and take credit for Kearns’s candidacy.) Kearns has always played well with the local Republican and Conservative parties; he ran unopposed for reelection last year on the Democratic, Republican, Conservative, and Independence ballot lines. And he got the Conservative Party endorsement for clerk two weeks ago, to the chagrin of Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner. That means he can run in the general election even if Democrats field a primary opponent who manages to beat the popular South Buffalonian. 

However, they probably can’t: The Democrats have not endorsed anyone so far, but the leading candidates are Steve Cichon, a journalist whose work in local party politics has won him support on the party’s executive committee, and Janique Curry, who has a powerful Democratic patron in Mayor Byron Brown. Zellner, once at odds with Brown, has now allied himself to the mayor, who is currently chair of the state Democratic Party. It’s an uneasy alliance, but they are ecumenical in their objections to Kearns.

For a split second, TV weatherman Kevin O’Connell was bandied about as a candidate for the Democratic endorsement, but the bluff local celebrity and occasional restaurateur decided to stick to his day job. That O’Connell was even advanced as a candidate underscores the weaknesses of Cichon and Curry. Cichon is known in party circles but, despite gigs at WBEN and the Buffalo News and years of community activism, has little name recognition. The same is true for Curry, who also is challenged by the region’s racial and geographic politics: She is an East Side, African-American political operative and community worker. Those are positive attributes in a citywide race, as is her pedigree with the Grassroots political club; countywide, all these remain disadvantages.

Curry’s advantage over Cichon might be the fact that’s there is a mayoral election in Buffalo this fall, and Brown is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Buffalo Comptroller Mark Schroeder. Schroeder will force Brown to spend money and get out the vote on the East Side, which would benefit Curry’s primary run against Kearns. Indeed, Curry’s and Brown’s campaigns would overlap significantly.

But Schroeder’s race against Brown similarly benefits Kearns by turning out South Buffalonians. And vice versa—indeed, Kearns’s candidacy seems a perfect leg-up for Schroeder’s: It’s almost as if (clears throat) the two self-proclaimed maverick Democrats from South Buffalo planned the thing. A heavy turnout in South Buffalo might just balance Brown’s support on the East Side, which will come out strong as ever. 

(Unless, of course, a popular African-American candidate like Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant enters the mayoral race. She says she’s considering it, and wasn’t that her SUV parked across the street from Schroeder’s campaign announcement event on March 5? Why yes—yes, it was. But then maybe the mayor’s political team finds a South Buffalonian or a Delaware District candidate to siphon votes from Schroeder, and down the rabbit hole we go…)

Whether or not the strategy puts Schroeder within striking distance of Brown, Schroeder’s candidacy certainly helps Kearns in his primary, and thus diminishes Curry’s stock in the eyes of the Democrats’ executive committee. So, perhaps, advantage Cichon. But greater advantage to Kearns.

All of which is to say, Kearns has done an end run around party headquarters once again. Cichon, Curry, Kearns—any one of them could do the job, which is pretty ministerial, as well as the other. But, politically, Kearns has the advantage of name recognition, a solid base of proven, cross-party support, and a ballot line already secured for the general election. Smart money says Kearns wins the Democratic primary in September and the general election in November.

UPDATE: In this morning’s Buffalo News, Bob McCarthy reports that the GOP will endorse Kearns for clerk, too.

• • •

The clerk’s job is more appealing than the seat Kearns currently occupies in the New York State Assembly on several counts:

  • That commute to Albany, which has foreshortened political careers and marriages.
  • It is an executive position, rather than a legislative one, and Kearns longs to show what he can do if he’s in charge of something rather than a junior member of a legislative body, which is where he is and will be on the Assembly for a long time.
  • The clerk’s seat has been a useful political stepping-stone for its two previous occupants: Kathy Hochul went from clerk to Congress, and then to lieutenant governor after losing her seat in Congress; Chris Jacobs became a state senator, which is likely to be a stepping-stone toward some greater ambition.

Kearns is ambitious, too. He’d like to be mayor of Buffalo, he’d like to go to be county executive, he’d like to go to Congress—there is no advancement that does not appeal to Kearns, who is always reaching for just a bit more. But paths upward are few and far between for Western New York’s political class. “No one has ever said, ‘You know what job would be really interesting? You know what I’ve always wanted to be since I was a kid? Erie County Clerk,’” a Democratic Party official recently told The Public. For most who seek the job, it’s a stop on the way to someplace else.

• • •

If Kearns wins the Erie County Clerk race, he leaves a vacant Assembly seat in his wake. When Kearns left the Buffalo Common Council to go to the Assembly seat (vacated in turn by Schroeder’s move to the city comptroller’s office), he left no clear successor behind him. A battle ensued between, among others, Kearns’s aide Matt Fisher, Pat Burke (who lost that battle but parlayed the experience into a successful run for Erie County Legislature), and Chris Scanlon, who won the day. 

Kearns is unlikely to leave a clearly anointed successor to his Assembly seat, so another skirmish is likely. Burke might jump at it; even a junior member of the Assembly has more interesting work than a county legislator, and the pay is better. But Burke has a young family, and that commute to Albany is brutal. Chris Fahey, the aide to Congressman Brian Higgins who lost to Kearns when Schroeder vacated the Assembly seat, might reemerge. 

Who knows who else will line up? That’s still several dominoes down the line.

• • •

And speaking of down the line, a great deal of Democratic energy is gathering around the possibility of unseating two prominent conservative elected officials in 2018: Congressman Chris Collins of Clarence and state Assemblyman David DiPietro of East Aurora. Collins’s opposition is visible and vocal: They maintain a Facebook page, they organize demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns, they meet to discuss strategy, fundraising, and possible candidates. 

The movement to unseat DiPietro is, so far, more quiet. There is a cabal in DiPietro’s hometown of East Aurora who have been meeting and discussing candidates. Last week, Christina Abt—a journalist who often engages in political activism and lost to DiPietro in 2012, and who is not part of that cabal—attended a meeting of the Democratic Party committee for the Town of Evans, which is part of the district DiPietro represents. Abt was there to gauge support for another shot at DiPietro in 2018, when Democrats hope backlash to the Trump administration will drive progressives to the polls.

She is hardly the only potential Democratic challenger to DiPietro, who has not faced a vigorous opponent in any of his reelection bids. And there are a lot of Democrats and unaffiliated voters in the 147th Assembly District. Here, too, it’s early days.