Buffalo News - Poloncarz victory caps off spirited campaign

Becomes just second Democratic county executive in 51-year history of post

November 8, 2011

Mark Charles Poloncarz, the son of a steelworker and nurse from Lackawanna, hammered out a surprisingly convincing victory over incumbent Chris Collins on Tuesday to win election as the eighth Erie County executive.

He becomes only the second Democrat in predominantly Democratic Erie County to win in the 51-year history of the post.

Poloncarz, 44, the county comptroller who also is an attorney, overcame Collins, 53 to 47 percent, or 115,877 to 103,743, with 98 percent of the vote tallied.

The challenger's victory culminated a spirited campaign that proved hard-fought to the last minute, and handed a stunning political reversal to Collins after the Republican posted a 28-percentage-point landslide in 2007. Though he promised to run Erie County like a business and harbored gubernatorial ambitions, the defeat appears to remove Collins, 61, from the local and statewide political arena — at least for the time being.

It also marks the second major disappointment in a row for the Republican political team he had assembled after Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, a close ally, lost her congressional bid to Kathleen C. Hochul last May.

The mood at Mark Poloncarz's Election Night headquarters, in the Erie Ballroom of the Adams Mark hotel in downtown Buffalo, was jubilant as Democrats felt they had toppled an incumbent county executive who appeared invincible only months before.

"I want to thank all the great members of the Democratic Party and the Working Families Party, without you I would not be here," Poloncarz said, singling out organized labor's contributions.

"Thank you for standing up for me," he said, also thanking his parents for "instilling in me the value of hard work and giving back to our community."

"Thank you and I love you," he added.

Then he summed up his campaign.

"I may have not been able to self-fund my campaign, but today I feel like the richest man in Erie County," he said.

He thanked Collins for his service to Erie County.

"We can have differences on issues, and I will always give credit to someone willing to stand up in the fray; willing to take a shot," he said.

At the Collins gathering in the Rich Renaissance Atrium, however, Republicans watched their control of county government slowly slip through their grasp. Poloncarz gradually increased and then held his lead throughout the night, while the reversal the Collins campaign anticipated never materialized, and Collins conceded defeat around 11:30 p.m.

The defeated county executive took the stage and pledged a "smooth transition" as he leaves office in January.

"This has been a wonderful journey," Collins said. "We have changed Erie County. We set a standard for other counties. Things didn't work out. Sometimes life isn't fair."

Collins thanked his wife and family and say he worries how his young staffers will land as his term wraps up. He also touted his work in office, and credited Lean Six Sigma for helping to improve the county's finances.

"I just can't imagine what else we could have done in this campaign," Collins said. "The public has spoken. I don't quite know what to make of that, but they did."

Collins, who spoke to about 200 supporters, said he did his best every single day.

"When you lose an election, you move on," Collins said. "We will be moving on. One thing I won't be doing is leaving Western New York.

"My family gave up a lot for me to do this, but it's something I needed to do," he added. "I needed to give back to this community, and we did."

Alden resident Barbara Lipa, who worked as a Poloncarz volunteer, said she was not surprised by how well the night was going. She had guessed that it might when she went to vote first thing in the morning and noticed turnout was high.

"It was 145 first thing in the morning," Lipa said, of the turnout in Alden.

Lipa said she thought Poloncarz's strong showing related to people's frustration with cuts and changes to basic elements of county services.

"They were closing down things that mattered to people," she said. "And, of course, the parks — they are not that great."

Members of Western New York's labor unions also said they were jubilant about the Poloncarz vote tallies.

"I'm not surprised — I felt comfortable that we had a shot," said Richard Lipsitz, a members of Teamsters Local 264 who is chairman of the Western New York Labor Federation's Political Action Committee. "Labor has felt since the Wisconsin events — the attempt to outlaw collective labor in Wisconsin — that we've needed to make a strong fight."

"This is part of that strong fight," Lipsitz said of the Poloncarz race.

Lipsitz said that the Poloncarz campaign seemed to connect with voters by drawing attention to the basic services that residents have seen cut back or eliminated in the last four years.

"There's a total lack of empathy that Mr. Collins has for ordinary people," he said. "This is exhibited in draconian cuts in health clinics, libraries, and small culturals. We saw that we had an opportunity for a front of unity, ... and we built upon that."

Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan said Poloncarz — though in some senses a known figure at the start of the race — was able to position himself as the candidate of "balance."

"Mark, as comptroller, he was a fiscal watchdog," Lenihan said. "But he believes we should have balance."

Another factor in the Poloncarz campaign that appeared to resonate with voters and supporters was his blue-collar roots and working-class pedigree.

"Mark Poloncarz is a family man, he came from a working family. That brought him down to earth for people," said Tom Finger, a Cheektowaga resident and labor relations specialist with the Civil Service Employees Association who was at Poloncarz's party Tuesday night with his wife, Debbie. "It resonated."

Hochul, the Democratic congresswoman from Amherst, spoke briefly at the Poloncarz event, describing her delight at the possibility of having more Democrats in major office in Erie County. She thanked labor representatives in the crowd for their continuing support for the party's candidates.

Peter Anderson, Poloncarz's campaign spokesman, said the theme of the evening was simple: "Unity."

"The theme is unity. We pulled together," he said. "It's a good night to be a Democrat." At the Collins gathering in the Rich Renaissance Atrium, however, Republicans watched their control of county government slowly slip through their grasp. Poloncarz gradually increased and then held his lead throughout the night, while the reversal the Collins campaign anticipated never materialized.

Collins entered the contest the heavy favorite as an incumbent, fueled by a $1.6 million campaign treasury (much of it his own funds) and backed by support from the often-influential Conservative Party.

But an early October poll conducted by Siena Research for The Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV showed him in a close race.

And when another Siena poll the Sunday before the election portrayed the pair tied in a dead heat, most political observers anticipated the race would be decided by a thin margin.

And it was. So much so that the campaigns and news organization held off on declaring winners until well after 11 p.m.

The race took on all the characteristics of a political dog fight in its final days as it became apparent to both camps that it was close. As late as early October, however, the Collins camp insisted their candidate was cruising toward victory.

The Collins ads airing since Aug. 15 were positive variety, showing the county executive meeting with kids on the Erie County beaches he claimed had been vastly improved.

While the race never became particularly personal, it took on increasingly nastier tones after the first poll on Oct. 9 showed the two candidates with a few percentage points. Poloncarz's campaign contributions then began to tick upward, especially from labor unions that ultimately figured as a major component of his campaign.

Even Poloncarz's campaign manager, Jennifer Hibit, was paid by SEIU 1199 in a highly unusual arrangement. Still, Poloncarz's last reported a total of about $250,000 on hand, nowhere near the $1.25 million he predicted he could raise when he announced his candidacy in March.

Most observers viewed the race as a referendum on Collins and his promise to run Erie County as a business — with few doubting he had fulfilled that pledge. But he ran into some of his toughest sledding when he proposed vast changes in how the county library system would be funded and slashed money for cultural institutions.

Poloncarz responded that Collins was sitting on vast sums of county money and that many of the programs the county executive had cut were affordable. He cited city health clinics closed by Collins and sub-contracted to private organizations as examples of operations that could be run cheaper and more efficiently by the county.

And Poloncarz responded with a campaign aimed at Erie County's Democratic plurality of approximately 135,000 voters, appealing to Democratic values. He scored a major victory along those lines last Friday when he was joined by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Sen. Charles E. Schumer during a union hall rally in Amherst.

The two popular Democratic figures aimed to turn out the county's Democratic base. A reluctant Mayor Byron W. Brown also joined the Poloncarz rally at the request of Cuomo, although it was not expected that he would unleash his own political forces after sitting out most of the campaign.


Charity Vogel reported from Poloncarz headquarters at the Adam's Mark Hotel while Denise Jewell Gee reported from Collins headquarters at the Rich Atrium.