If the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill correctly theorized that “all politics is local,” then this is the election cycle when hometown voters exercise their full power.
Washington gridlock, sequestration, website failure and government shutdowns may leave many feeling powerless, but voters on Tuesday now choose local officeholders who determine how their streets are plowed, their garbage collected, their potholes filled and the taxes they pay.
City, county and judicial offices all appear on the ballot Tuesday, as well as 94 town races in Erie County alone, ranging from Amherst supervisor to Lancaster library trustee.
“The people elected on Tuesday probably have the most direct impact on people; they are the ones who vote on town and county taxes and town and county ordinances,” Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said.
On this point, at least, he gets no debate from Jeremy J. Zellner, his Democratic counterpart.
“In the off years, oftentimes government that affects peoples’ lives the most is up for grabs,” Zellner added.
Nevertheless, paltry turnout is predicted in a year that historically registers as lowest in a four-year cycle (with presidential years as the highest). And the top-profile race on the ballot – mayor of Buffalo – has proven low-key since incumbent Byron W. Brown won the Democratic primary in September. He is viewed as the favorite in heavily Democratic Buffalo against Republican Sergio R. Rodriguez, who waged an enthusiastic campaign while underfunded and largely ignored.
Even countywide races for out-of-the-spotlight posts such as comptroller and sheriff are following tradition and failing to generate much enthusiasm.
Still, returns tabulated after the polls close at 9 p.m. Tuesday are sure to influence the course of politics in Erie County for years to come, especially among ever-battling local Democrats.
That’s why pressure is building on Zellner as much as any other politician in Erie County. With Republicans optimistic about retaining comptroller and sheriff as well as gaining a true County Legislature majority for the first time since 1977, most observers believe Zellner must significantly counter the GOP to survive the onslaught from intraparty rivals expected no matter what Tuesday’s outcome.
“Everything is at stake with the continuity of the Legislature, and that’s why Nick is coming at it so hard,” Zellner said, referring to Langworthy.
Not just a majority hangs in the balance, but possibly Zellner’s $79,000 job as Legislature chief of staff as well. His Democrats now hold a precarious 6-5 edge in County Hall, and most eyes are now trained on two races that may determine the next majority (and Zellner’s job). They include Democratic incumbent Thomas A. Loughran against Republican challenger Robert N. Anderson (the Amherst highway superintendent) in District 5, and Democrat Wynnie L. Fisher (Alden Democratic chairwoman) against Republican Ted B. Morton (a financial consultant) in District 8, centered in Lancaster and Alden.
Langworthy said he remains “cautiously optimistic” about snaring a majority from the Democrats. Republicans have ruled County Hall on several occasions, but only by forming coalitions with rogue Democrats. Now he sees the potential in Tuesday’s vote as “historic.”
“It’s important because I believe a Republican majority would provide a check-and-balance on the county executive,” Langworthy said. “We’re talking about keeping taxes low, watching spending and accountability in government.”
Both parties plan extensive get-out-the-vote activities leading up to Election Day.
“We always outwork the Republicans, which is why they’ve been hammering us so hard over the last few days,” Zellner said.
Langworthy, meanwhile, said Democrats often enjoy an edge because of union manpower that works phone banks and knocks on doors. But he also said the GOP will make maximum use of its own “boot-leather” effort. One tangible sign of GOP optimism may be the Election Day presence of state Chairman Edward F. Cox in Buffalo, where he will monitor returns from across the state at Republican headquarters in the Embassy Suites Hotel. Statewide Republican leaders traditionally hold court in Manhattan, but the mayoral prospects of Republican Joseph Lhota against Democrat Bill de Blasio in New York City continue to look bleak.
As a result, Cox will set up shop in Erie County, hoping to use local success to fuel a statewide tour he begins Wednesday to kick off 2014 elections for governor, comptroller, attorney general and the State Legislature. Local Republicans say he views Erie County as holding the best potential for such momentum.
But Democrats aren’t conceding a thing, joining their GOP rivals in a massive get-out-the-vote effort. Besides the Legislature, both parties are concentrating on incumbent Republican Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw against Democratic challenger Kevin P. Gaughan, and incumbent Republican Sheriff Timothy B. Howard against challengers Richard E. Dobson of the Democrats and Bert D. Dunn on a minor-party line called Law and Order.
Both countywide contests have proven spirited affairs. Mychajliw, a former television reporter and public relations man, stunned the local political world last year when he won the comptroller’s post for the GOP even as the county’s overwhelming Democratic majority turned out in force for the presidential election.
Gaughan, who has lost four previous attempts to win public office, has emphasized a long career as a good government advocate as well as what he calls his opponent’s lack of qualifications.
Mychajliw is lobbing similar accusations against Gaughan. He also takes every opportunity to emphasize his opponent’s $28,000 debt to the Internal Revenue Service while seeking a post that monitors the county’s $1.4 billion budget.
Howard, a former undersheriff and staff inspector in the State Police, seeks a second full term in a campaign in which Dunn seems to have generated the most attention. That’s because after losing the Democratic primary to Dobson by a mere 700 votes, Dunn has continued an active campaign on the minor party line while spending $300,000 of his own money in the process.
Most political observers expect that effort will impact the results, and Howard hopes the two Democrats will split his opposition. While Howard has also run a well-funded television campaign, it took Dobson until late last week to raise enough money to get his message on the airwaves.
Town contests are also highlighting Tuesday’s ballot, especially in the county’s largest town – Amherst. Incumbent Republican Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein is receiving a hard-charging challenge from Democrat Mark A. Manna, a council member. In Orchard Park, incumbent Democrat Janis A. Colarusso is defending her supervisor’s office against Republican Patrick J. Keem.
Another big supervisor race is under way in Hamburg, where Republican incumbent Stephen J. Walters Sr. is challenged by Democrat Walter L. Rooth III.
Spirited contests for town council also are taking place in Tonawanda. In the City of Tonawanda, voters will choose between Republican incumbent Mayor Ronald J. Pilozzi and Democrat Rick Davis.
In addition, voters will choose a State Supreme Court justice to fill the position of the retired Janice M. Rosa. Democrat Mark A. Montour, a Lancaster town justice, is facing Paul B. Wojtaszek, a Niagara County Republican legislator. Even famed tightrope walker Nik Wallenda has entered that race with automated phone calls for Wojtaszek.
Races for Surrogate Court, Family Court and Buffalo City Court were essentially decided in the September primaries.
Six propositions also await voters statewide, highlighted by a proposal to amend the State Constitution to allow for expanded casino gambling. Another proposes allowing retired Supreme Court justices to serve on an appointed basis until age 80, while two others allow land swaps in the Adirondacks in accordance with the “forever wild” clause of the Constitution.