Before going on the air in the WNED studio four years ago, then-County Executive Chris Collins stood before the podium and apparently went through his talking points. The studio was set: The videographers and moderators were all in their places. No doubt under some debate coaching advice, Collins moved his lips in faux speech pattern and allowed his hands to continue their gestures, like a mute ventriloquist’s dummy. He appeared somewhat nervous; his opponent Mark Poloncarz was a capable attorney and constant thorn in his side as the elected Erie County comptroller. But when the cameras went red, he was fine. The same pantomimed talking points about his track record as a fairly popular county executive came out, if overly performative (e.g. he was overly loquacious, speaking beyond the 60-second buzzer eight times), just fine.
He didn’t win the debate, but that hardly mattered. Poloncarz was within the margin of error for victory, but not many really thought Poloncarz would pull it off. Collins literally had a million more dollars than Poloncarz. In his concession speech a few weeks after the debate, he basically admitted he didn’t see this coming, saying “The public has spoken. I don’t know quite what to make of that.”
Walking out of the studio that night there were dozens of people demonstrating against Collins and in support of Poloncarz, with representation from the labor and cultural communities, including the then-ubiquitous King Collins rat, an embodied protest against Collins’s slashing of a county-funded pest control program.
Four years later and the passion has been mostly drained from county politics. Poloncarz has ridden high on a successful new lease for the Bills, relative labor peace within the county’s largest department in social services, and has visibly relished his populist role as the area’s Chief Commanding Officer for Weather Emergencies. Seriously, if Ray Walter pulls a miracle and gets thousands of registered Democrats to swing rightward (say in Tonawanda, where Walter has aggressively focused his sales tax reform plan), he should give Poloncarz the honorary CCOWE title for life.
There’s a reason Poloncarz is so good at managing storms. He’s good at managing and knows that being a good manager is probably the unsexiest thing in the realm of politics. The one time that he can demonstrate his management skills that makes sense to the uninformed voter on the ground—the one likely to swing on a superficial factor of likability—is when everyone is stuck in the house watching storm porn, and everyone knows who the Ron Jeremy in that equation is.
But this is also his—and by extension politics in general?—greatest weakness: Good management and good politics are strange bedfellows. Just this week, in response to a scandal manufactured by the local GOP machine to drive attention to Walter, Poloncarz offered this mellifluous rebuttal: “This administration runs a clean administration.” The substance of the GOP-leaked story, as it turns out, most likely implicates their own man, current Congressman Chris Collins, for apparently fraudulent accounting in the reconstruction of a nondescript rural road that runs between Evans and Eden. The hunter becomes the hunted? Perhaps.
Now Poloncarz is the one with a five-fold lead in fundraising, though his nearly $573,000 feels modest compared to Collins’s $1.27 million war chest in 2011. And just as Poloncarz challenged Collins to multiple debates to which the sitting county executive quietly demurred, the pattern is repeating itself with Walter in this election cycle.
Though an avid appreciator of the arts in word and deed, Poloncarz’s public persona, like his now-famous hair style, lacks imagination and color. By contrast, Walter projects as a gregarious fellow, one who looks and sounds like he’s spent the lion’s share of the summer drinking beer and eating hot dogs, which in Erie County equals a solid campaign strategy. He also should have a verbal edge on Poloncarz. As an attorney-turned-assemblyman with a background as a car salesman, Walter should be able to make Poloncarz look technocratic and wooden by contrast. Aside from some major issues in Child Protective Services that was worsened by a gross overreaction to those issues, Walter needs to turn Poloncarz’s greatest strength—that he’s really good at running the business of the county—into his greatest weakness—Poloncarz is a wonk, not a leader.
And that’s exactly the tone Walter tried to strike early. I watched the debate with about 20 Poloncarz supporters at Sidelines bar in downtown Buffalo, where one TV was kept trained on the Toronto Blue Jays decisive game against Texas in the Major League Baseball playoffs. Item number one on the Walter agenda was to attack Poloncarz for being such a big nerd, relishing his critique on the county’s computerized DLan system. Because we all know that nerds can’t be leaders; just ask Rob Ford, Chris Christie, and Donald Trump.
In four years under Poloncarz, the county has restored minimal funding to arts, culturals, and libraries, brought health clinics back to chronically underserved neighborhoods, gained jobs—Poloncarz claims 12,000 since 2011—while increasing its budget for road mending, taking baby steps in curbing the corruption-rife IDA, and keeping a balanced budget without even a faint odor of scandal. Even this latest GOP attempt to smear Poloncarz backfired two days later during the debate, with Walter admitting, “I don’t think Mark did anything wrong,” allowing Poloncarz to say, “Real leadership isn’t jumping to conclusions.”
In between small cheeseburgers—sliders?—chicken wings, and a vegetable tray, Poloncarz holdouts managed minor elocutions when the incumbent along with turned the tables on the challenger, Walter tucked his tail between his legs and never invoked the “leader” argument again. Most of Walter’s criticism’s of Poloncarz’s governance were picayune in nature: that CPS caseloads, though down from 51 per worker to 22 was still higher than the state-recommended 15, that he hears from constituents about the poor state of county roads, which the county will forever lack the resources to maintain, that Poloncarz should have alerted the public to the the attorney general’s investigation into DPW even though Poloncarz’s explanation that he didn’t want to appear to be grandstanding and squashing sour grapes over Chris Collins’s bitter loss remains entirely plausible, if not outright good-mannered.
Walter tried to bring fire, but Poloncarz found ways to easily throw cold water on all of it, even at one point, accusing Walter of being Chris Collins’s hatchet man for the many cuts that Collins enacted to the arts and culturals and inner city health clinics. On the question of the value of arts and cultural to the region, Poloncarz was careful to mention the economic benefit, leaving this corner a bit disappointed he didn’t think the mention the intellectual and educational benefit, but what could one expect from a man who follows the data.
After the debate ended, the bar slowly filled with local Democratic party types, including a now-satisfied and beer-drinking Mark Poloncarz. He had spent a few weeks preparing for the debate, and wasn’t caught off-guard by any question. He had held his own.
But so had Ray Walter. He won’t win this election, and he certainly didn’t win this debate, but he still wins. Good soldiers on both sides of the spectrum, are rewarded for their sacrifice and loyalty. Walter might fancy joining the state senate, where a Republican vote has far greater power than in the traditionally Democratic assembly, and there’s always another judgeship looming in the offing somewhere.
To this observer, Poloncarz appeared bored at times, as if the debate landed somewhere beneath him. Four years departed from a brutal and thrilling victory over a seemingly indomitable opponent, it can’t be helped that this go-round feels a bit empty.
Or is this just what good government feels like?