Some would say Stefan I. Mychajliw and Kevin P. Gaughan have no business running for Erie County comptroller this year or any year.
Neither boasts the political credentials of past comptrollers such as Henry J. Nowak or Alfreda W. Slominski, nor the financial bona fides of Nancy A. Naples.
Neither hails from the world of debits, credits and municipal finance.
And both spend much of their time explaining away political baggage.
Challenger Gaughan, for example, failed to pay several years of income taxes, and Democratic leaders say Republican incumbent Mychajliw has a spotty private-sector employment record.
But that doesn’t mean Gaughan and Mychajliw can’t connect with an electorate that seems to know both of them well – Gaughan as a champion of good government and Mychajliw as a television reporter who often challenged elected officials. Now both hope to parlay their name recognition into careers in elective office, even as voters continue to weigh their credentials.
Politically, both candidates seem to founder with fundamentals, having failed so far to raise the kind of money needed to run a serious campaign in Erie County. In fact, Gaughan reports only about $10,000 on hand, while Mychajliw reports about $62,000 – substantially more than his opponent but nowhere near the strong six-figure sums that most political veterans think are necessary.
As a result, voters are not learning much about the candidates through traditional advertising. They rely on news reports as Gaughan releases position papers and Mychajliw comments on current county issues.
Both of these unorthodox politicians are displaying quirks. Mychajliw takes every opportunity to invoke the name of Slominski, the legendary Republican who served as comptroller from 1975 to 1993, proved invincible as a countywide candidate, and earned a dedicated following along the way.
Target: ‘patronage pit’
“When I met with Alfreda Slominski” is the phrase he frequently employs to explain populist positions such as refusing to accept a cellphone or car supplied by the county. Slominski, however, has not endorsed Mychajliw as she has in the past for candidates such as Naples and former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski.
Mychajliw emphasizes his reporting roots, even if others say that it contributes little to his ability to monitor a $1.4 billion county budget. That’s when he rattles off more names, this time of top staffers who boast years of experience in the Rath County Office Building.
“When we first arrived, we found a lot of political patronage in the office,” Mychajliw said. “So we let people go and hired professional accountants. Even our secretary has an accounting degree.”
And after winning a special election in 2012, Mychajliw says, he has saved the county money by cutting the budget of his own office, tackling an Erie County Medical Center funding emergency during his first week in office, and insisting that the county borrow at the lower rates offered by the state-appointed financial control board.
“I go to my record in the first year,” he said. “I’ve proven not only that I can handle the job, but that I can do it well.”
He has ideas for the future, too, questioning the need for a three-campus system for Erie Community College when investment might be better focused on the downtown facility. He thinks the size of the County Legislature should be reduced, wonders if a county manager might serve taxpayers better than a “political” county executive, and promises to home in on the “absolute patronage pit” known as the Erie County Water Authority.
Attacks by surrogates
Both candidates are avoiding personal attacks, though they have allowed surrogates such as party chairmen to do the job for them.
County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy led the charge on revealing Gaughan’s debt to the Internal Revenue Service, Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo has resurrected Gaughan’s payment of personal expenses from his 2005 mayoral campaign account, and Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner has raised questions about Mychajliw’s past employment record at two local TV stations.
Mychajliw comes closest to a full-scale attack on Gaughan with references to his tax problems.
“I think the tax issue is a serious issue,” he said. “How can you trust someone to collect taxes on behalf of Erie County when he can’t pay his own?”
Lorigo is more blunt. He pointed out that during the period Gaughan acknowledged his tax delinquency, past media reports and campaign finance records show that he paid himself almost $20,000 in “consulting fees” while running for mayor in 2005.
“If Kevin Gaughan had enough money to pay himself with campaign cash, why didn’t he pay his taxes to the IRS?” Lorigo asked. “The career candidate has been consistently inconsistent explaining why he did not pay his taxes. Mr. Gaughan gave himself cash through his campaign accounts but stiffed the IRS.”
For Gaughan, the tax issue has emerged as the most serious challenge of his campaign. He acknowledges the problem (though he backed off an early claim that he had satisfied all his IRS obligations) and says that it stemmed from a 5-year period when he was acting as caregiver to his ailing mother. He voluntarily entered into a repayment program with the government when he was declared delinquent, he said.
Gaughan insists he should not be judged on the tax issue, but on a broader record as an advocate for regionalism and smaller government, and has criticized “party bosses” for exploiting the issue.
“I don’t believe it will work with voters familiar with my long years of service to the community,” Gaughan said.
Zellner has assumed the role of attack dog in support of Gaughan’s candidacy, pointing to Mychajliw’s “checkered employment history” by highlighting his firing or suspension from WKBW-TV and WGRZ-TV, and wonders whether he will still operate the public relations firm that once handled media inquiries for the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District.
“Mr. Mychajliw owes voters a full and complete explanation of what behavior caused both WKBW-TV and WGRZ to dismiss him,” Zellner said. “In addition, given Mychajliw’s past record of secretly operating a private business while in a position of public trust, as a journalist, he must tell county taxpayers whether he now operates or devotes time to his public relations firm while working for taxpayers.”
‘Highly politicized’ post
Mychajliw said only of his past employment that TV news is a “volatile business” in which reporters often come and go. But he also said he is proud of his “track record of independence.”
“It’s old news,” he said. “Big picture: I’m proud of my record as a watchdog reporter.”
Mychajliw also said he ended his association with a public relations firm run jointly with his brother upon his election as comptroller last year.
Gaughan has also personally avoided the down-and-dirty of politics. He prefers to emphasize his long career as a Buffalo-area attorney, pointing to 25 years of experience in finance law. He thinks that will enhance a post that has “devolved into an unfortunate and chronic back-and-forth between the comptroller and the county executive.”
“That’s because it’s always been viewed as a steppingstone, as opposed to the serious office it is,” Gaughan said. “It’s become highly politicized.”
If he is critical of Mychajliw at all, it is over his penchant for constant battle with County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
“I would be arm’s length, but not fist up,” Gaughan said.
Gaughan said his record indicates he can remain independent of political bosses, and that’s why he could be trusted to thoroughly audit county operations such as the Water Authority.
“It should no longer be a terrible political patronage pit to reward political cronies,” he said.
And while Gaughan says that neither he nor his opponent may loom as a perfect candidate for comptroller, voters should examine his record and consider how it might be applied to the office.
“I would use the office as a bully pulpit,” he said. “It behooves us in some long-term, measured way to think through the relationship of the County of Erie and its 45 governments. It’s just not been fully vetted.”