Former TV news reporter Stefan Mychajliw unseated Democratic incumbent David Shenk as Erie County comptroller. Mychajliw, the Republican challenger, kept his lead in a nailbiter with 52 percent of the vote as of early Wednesday – 183,554 to 172,287 – with 99 percent of districts reporting.
“The most touching part of this entire election is that my father was born in a country under communist rule, under an iron first, and today he was able to cast a vote for his own son,” Mychajliw said. “I’m touched that I can dedicate this win to my parents. I’m thankful to the people of Erie County. I’m humbled by their support.”
The race for comptroller pitted the well-known television news personality and public relations spokesman against an Army reservist and former Boston town clerk. In the end, name recognition and the promise of political and fiscal independence trumped the benefits of experience and incumbency.
Both men waged a fierce race for the comptroller’s seat, both doing the necessary legwork and campaign appearances, and spending huge sums on television advertising. Mychajliw raised nearly $98,000 toward the race, and Shenk raised more than $86,000, as of the last campaign finance report.
But voters were apparently swayed by Mychajliw’s public message of fiscal and political independence.
Mychajliw, 38, ran on the Republican, Independence and Conservative party lines. He enjoyed great name recognition in this race as a former reporter for WKBW, then WGRZ, from 2001 to 2007. He is co-founder of a public relations firm and has stayed in the news as a spokesman, previously representing the Buffalo Public Schools and then-County Executive Chris Collins in his failed bid for re-election last year.
He promoted his roots as the son of frugal and hardworking immigrant parents and drew on his career as a reporter during the county’s red/green budget crisis. As county comptroller, he said, he will continue to wage a fight against government corruption and patronage.
Mychajliw turned his Republican affiliation to his advantage in an otherwise Democratic county by promising to be a politically independent counterweight to a Democratic county executive. Though new to political campaigning, he worked his campaign aggressively, on foot and on air.
“The positive nature of our campaign connected with voters,” Mychajliw said. “This is a monumental win for a Republican countywide in a Democratic, Obama presidential year.”
He turned out two slick political commercials that pushed a message of personal commitment and independent values. That led Shenk to follow up with a second campaign commercial in which he held up a red jacket – the signature apparel of WGRZ reporters – and told viewers, “I don’t need one of these to ask the tough questions.”
Shenk, a Democrat appointed in February to fill the seat vacated by County Executive Mark Poloncarz, ran on the Democratic and Working Family party lines. He touted his fiscal experience as Boston town clerk for 10 years, his in-house accomplishments as county comptroller, and his long military service in the Army Reserves, including three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shenk, 42, was endorsed by the Good Government Club and a dozen unions, hoping to capitalize on the county’s Democratic enrollment edge in this presidential election year, which traditionally leads to high turnout.
As comptroller, he said, he has conducted audits of the County Clerk’s Office, the county’s Medicaid transportation provider, and the Sheriff’s Office. The audits have saved the county hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
His office is also conducting the first comprehensive audit of the Erie County Water Authority in more than a decade – an example, he said, of how there are no “sacred cows” in his approach.
But Mychajliw cast Shenk as a political appointee beholden to Democratic party bosses for his job, rendering him incapable of being a true independent watchdog when it comes to Poloncarz. He called the current situation a case of “the fox guarding the henhouse.”
Mychajliw also criticized Shenk for supporting Poloncarz’s decision to borrow county money without going through the county’s state-appointed financial control board, which could borrow more cheaply.
Mychajliw said he knows the value of a dollar. He repeatedly mentioned his roots as the child of frugal, hardworking Polish and Ukrainian immigrants. He told stories about his grandmother nailing shingles to her own roof and sent reporters pictures of his worn-out campaign shoes and the odometer reading on his 1999 Oldsmobile, which is pushing 140,000 miles.
As comptroller, he said he will use audits to hold politicians accountable, save taxpayers money by encouraging borrowing through the control board, and propose ways to build up county reserves by cutting government spending.
Mychajliw also said he will hire “the best and the brightest” fiscal minds to keep county government in check.
“I’m in the construction business,” he said. “I want to build Erie County up into a model of fiscal responsibility.”