Ryan Whalen

Ryan Whalen is Capital Tonight's Western New York political reporter. He covers politics in Rochester, Buffalo and the Southern Tier. Ryan was a general assignment reporter for Time Warner Cable News Buffalo for nearly five years and worked in several other markets before joining the Cap Tonight team.


Posts by Ryan Whalen

DCCC Launches Campaign Against NY Congressional Members

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is launching a digital campaign in response to a new amendment to the Republican health care plan. The proposal, seen as a potential compromise between the Conservative House Freedom Caucus and more moderate Republicans, would allow states to opt out of provisions that guarantee patients with preexisting conditions receive coverage and don’t pay more.

Also written into that amendment, according to the DCCC, is an exemption that would keep those protections in place for members of Congress, should their state seek the waiver. A spokesperson for the committee said it’s a clear indication they understand the potential impact of the legislation on patients.

Among the GOP representatives who the campaign is targeting are Claudia Tenney (NY-22) and Lee Zeldin (NY-1). The committee said neither have publicly committed to voting for the plan, but have been very supportive of repealing the Affordable Care Act in general.

Uber Already A Major Presence In Buffalo

From the Morning Memo:

It will be a few months until ride-hailing officially arrives upstate, but Uber is already making its presence known in Western New York, projecting the creation of up to 700 jobs in Buffalo alone.

The company hosted a job fair yesterday in Amherst, where officials registered dozens of potential drivers.

“The best part of Uber as work is flexibility; you can work anytime,” said Buffalo resident Sandeeb Kumar. “You can select your time at your convenience, and it’s a good source of income.”

The company’s doing more than just recruiting. It is also continuing PR initiatives it began even before the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to an agreement as part of the recently approved budget to legalize ride hailing outside NYC.

While lobbying to bring ride-hailing to upstate, Uber often noted that Buffalo was the only region with a National Football League team that didn’t have the service. Kim and Terry Pegula, the owners of the Buffalo Bills and the Sabres hockey team, were among those pushing for legalization.

So it wasn’t a big surprise when Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the Bills and Sabres, announced a partnership with Uber yesterday. They’ve already announced they plan to integrate the company’s phone app with the My One Buffalo app, which is used during games, concerts and events.

Hall of Fame running-back Thurman Thomas is set to deliver swag and tickets to the football team’s official draft party to a handful of people who use the app today.

Uber had a similar promotion where they teamed up with a local food truck to give away free tacos last month.

Rochester Dem Mayoral Primary Gets Heated

From the Morning Memo:

The Democratic primary battle for Rochester mayor is already shaping up to be a contentious one.

Incumbent Lovely Warren gave a State of the City address last night that sounded an awful lot like a campaign speech.

Not to be upstaged, her opponents, who were in attendance, were quick to criticize. They questioned Warren’s claims about unemployment and job growth, and also said she’s taking credit for development she’s not responsible for.

Former TV reporter Rachel Barnhart said the mayor cherry picked statistics by saying Rochester’s unemployment rate fell from nine percent to six percent.

She said those numbers come from the city’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, which only designate a person unemployed if he or she has actively searched for work. According to Barnhart, the actual unemployment rate is considerably higher – closer to 14 percent.

The former journalist also took issue with Warren’s claim that 30,000 jobs have been created and retained on her watch at City Hall. Warren later said roughly 22,000 jobs were retained while 8,000 were actually created.

“Lovely Warren is delusional,” Barnhart said. “Does anyone really believe that we created more than 30,000 jobs in this region? There is absolutely no data to support that.”

Meanwhile, former Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard said Warren was taking credit for projects – like filling in the long-criticized Inner Loop – that started well-before she took office.

“There`s a lot of things that have happened in the city of Rochester that were basically in the pipeline for a number of years,” he said. “Predecessors put in in the pipeline and they came out and their successful.”

Warren defended herself. For instance, regarding the inner loop, she said her administration secured funding for the project, though it had been in the works before she arrived on the scene.

The mayor accused her primary opponents of trying to score political points by detracting from the progress she and her staff have made.

“The facts speak for themselves,” she said. “You cannot, you cannot take away the great work that we have done in this administration.”

Warren said when she ran for office four years ago, she didn’t deny the work her opponent, incumbent Mayor Tom Richards, had done, but instead offered a different vision. She suggested her primary challengers do the same.

Buffalo Train Station Still Dividing WNY Leaders

From the Morning Memo:

The effort to build a new train station in Bufflao has turned out to be the year’s most polarizing project, dividing Western New York leaders since they began officially exploring the issue in the fall.

Some, like Rep. Brian Higgins, cried foul when outside consultants determined it would cost less money to build a new station downtown than renovate the historic Central Terminal – Buffalo’s original station and the congressman’s preference.

His tone didn’t change much yesterday after a selection committee tapped by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to study the issue and make a recommendation officially chose the downtown site. According to Higgins, the city is missing a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

“(The) new train station you’re building downtown Buffalo will be inaccessible to 65 percent of America,” Higgins said. “(It) doesn’t seem like a smart decision about Buffalo’s future.”

Meanwhile, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz voted against the downtown site, too. He made clear though, that his rejection of that site wasn’t a vote in favor of the Central Terminal.

In the county executive’s opinion, there wasn’t nearly enough information to make a decision, period, and he questioned whether a new train station should even be built in the first place.

“Should we be investing millions of dollars into a new station for 400 riders, basically, a day?” he asked.

Poloncarz said the community is still feeling the impact of bad urban planning decisions made a half a century ago. He doesn’t want to repeat those mistakes.

“All you have to do is look at the impact the East Side has as a result of the Scajaquada (and) 33 (Expressways),” he said. “(We) have to look at UB. Business leaders did not want UB in downtown Buffalo in the late 60s. I think we all realize that was one of the dumbest decisions made by people in this community.”

The state Department of Transportation is now tasked with deciding where downtown a new station could go. Just because the issue is out of local leaders hands, however, doesn’t mean it’s going away.

Buffalo mayoral candidate Mark Schroeder indicated he plans to make the train station a talking point in his campaign, sending a press release out shortly after the selection committee announced its decision. He said the process wasn’t sufficiently transparent, and he promised to fight a downtown site if elected.

“The hypocrisy is palpable,” Schroeder said.  “Buffalo needs a leader that listens to its people instead of slamming the door in their faces.  If I’m elected mayor, everyone will have a seat at the table.”

His primary opponent, incumbent Democratic Mayor Byron Brown, led the selection committee. He defended the decision, but promised to work with citizens who favored the other site.

“In selecting that downtown location, it does not in any way preclude us working together to invest in the rehabilitation, reconstruction, renovation of the historic Central Terminal building,” Brown said.

Brown insisted the new station will ultimately make the “visitor experience” in Buffalo even better.

WNY Progressive Caucus: PAC Or Not?

From the Morning Memo:

This week, the state Attorney General’s office brought felony charges against three Western New York political operatives, including former Erie County Democratic Committee chairman Steve Pigeon.

The complaint alleges illegal coordination during the 2013 primary season between Democratic candidates and the WNY Progressive Caucus – a political committee connected to the defendants.

The WNYPC has been widely referred to as a political action committee or PAC since it first came to light roughly three and a half years ago. According to the investigator who wrote the complaint, however, it is, in fact something else entirely.

The complaint outlined three different kinds of committees: an authorized committee, an unauthorized or Independent Expenditure Commitee, and a PAC. According to the investigator, a PAC, while not defined by state law in 2013, was considered by the state Board of Elections to be committee that could only support candidates through direct contributions.

An IEC, on the other hand, can make expenditures on behalf of a candidate as long as there’s no coordination. The complaint claims the WNY Progressive Caucus both was and was always intended to be an IEC.

Still, to make matters more confusing, treasurer Kristy Mazurek initially registered the committee as a PAC, then sought to amend the designation to an IEC a day after the 2013 primary in question.

According to the complaint, it wasn’t until five months later the Progressive Caucus was officially redesignated because Mazurek failed to file an additional form.

After a court appearance by the defendants yesterday, during which they all pleaded not guilty, defense attorney Joel Daniels asked reporters if they’ve ever read the state’s election laws.

“It’s kind of like going through a maze,” he said.

If this case does go to trial, we may all be trying to find a way to navigate it.

ECDC Chair Has Sharp Criticism For Kearns

From the Morning Memo:

Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Jeremy Zellner is not pleased with one member of his own party, making his views crystal clear in a press release put out yesterday.

Zellner criticized current Assemblyman Mickey Kearns for a number of things, not the least of which is the fact that the Democrat has sought and accepted the local Republican Party’s endorsement to run for county clerk this fall.

“First, he accepted the GOP endorsement from Trump transition team member Nick Langworthy and posed alongside (Congressman) Chris Collins PR man Mike Kracker,” Zellner wrote.

The chairman also criticized Kearns for recently saying 76 patients died at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center over a three year span. Last week, Politifact gave the claim a “Pants On Fire” grade, determining that only 13 deaths actually happened at the facility.

These barbs weren’t particularly surprising, but then Zellner came up with something new:

“Kearns has GOP operatives tweeting on his behalf from the official county clerk office account,” the chairman said. “This seems like highly unethical behavior, and I am calling on the Erie County Ethics Commission to investigate this matter as soon as possible.”

ECDC Executive Director Quinn Bushen explained that the committee believes Republicans in the clerk’s office have violated the county’s social media policy, which states employees, interns, and others working on behalf of the county cannot use official social media handles for political purposes. Last week the clerk account retweeted both Kearns and former Clerk Chris Jacobs, who is now a Republican state senator.

Kearns rejected the allegation, saying: “There was absolutely no coordination whatsoever between my Assembly office and the County Clerk’s Office. It’s as simple as that.”

The candidate is not apologizing for accepting the Republican endorsement for what he believes is a largely non-partisan office. He said he’ll have to work with members of all parties if he wins.

“I’m going to remain positive with regards to any of my responses and maintain a positive campaign,” the assemblyman said.

But Zellner said all these instances show Kearns cares more about furthering his own career than serving constituents.

Pigeon To Face Felony Election Law Charges

Three prominent Western New York political operatives are scheduled to face felony election law charges Wednesday, according to a source familiar with the case. Among them is former Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Steve Pigeon, who is already in the midst of criminal proceedings for allegedly bribing a state Supreme Court justice.

In June, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the investigation that led to the bribery case started because of election complaints that were turned over to his office. Schneiderman insisted the investigation was ongoing.

Meanwhile, the original complainants – Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, former legislator Tim Hogues and attorney Mark Sacha – have been vocal about their displeasure with the unresolved election issues. They believe there was evidence the WNY Progessive Caucus, a political action committee tied to Pigeon, illegally coordinated with candidates to circumvent campaign finance donation limits.

The source said, two other Pigeon associates connected to the PAC, Kristy Mazurek and David Pfaff, are also scheduled to appear in court. Mazurek had a failed run for state Assembly this past fall and has been cooperating with the prosecution for at least a year and a half.

Neither Pigeon’s attorney nor the Attorney General’s office have commented on the charges at this point.

Lorigo: Erie County Dems Remain Conservative

From the Morning Memo:

The Erie County Conservative Party is in the process of interviewing candidates for endorsements, but won’t introduce most of its 2017 slate for a few more weeks.

The committee has a big fundraiser on May 4 – (spoiler alert: it’s not Star Wars themed) – and typically waits until after that event is over to announce its decisions.

Still, Chairman Ralph Lorigo noted party officials have already chosen two Democrats to run on its line this fall, one of whom is Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, who is running for the Erie County Clerk vacated by now-state Sen. Chris Jacobs, a Republican.

Lorigo said he believes the position is service and constituent-oriented and Kearns has proven as both a Buffalo Common Council member and a state lawmaker that his focus on the individuals he serves.

The Erie County Republican committee has also endorsed Kearns, and his willingness to accept support from across the aisle appears to have left him on the outside looking in with his own party.

Lorigo said he doesn’t understand why Kearns would be shunned by his fellow Democrats simply because he’s willing to keep an open political mind.

“He’s a great constituent-oriented persona, and they could have endorsed Mickey Kearns and gone forward with a win and had a win on their side,” the chairman said. “Instead they seem to push him into a different direction.”

The Conservative Party boss has a theory: He believes local Democrats are trying to shift ever further to the left under the leadership of Chairman Jeremy Zellner and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. Not surprisingly, he thinks that’s a bad idea.

“Clearly to me the problem is that the head of the party does not believe that this is still a conservative county and trying to go in a different direction,” Lorigo said. “They get proved wrong every November.”

Lorigo, who has a history of supporting local Democrats, including Buffalo mayor and state Democratic Party Chair Byron Brown, said he believes the so-called Reagan Democrats still represent a large portion of the county. Kearns and many of his constituents, he believes are among them.

Rep. Collins Calls Cuomo A ‘Bully’ An ‘Extortionist’ And A ‘Blackmailer’

Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY, criticized the governor following a press conference in Depew today, for suggesting part of the difficulty with the budget this year was uncertainty with the federal government. Gov. Andrew Cuomo specifically pointed to the potential impact of the so-called Collins-Faso Amendment earlier this week.

“The audacity of him saying, I can’t get a budget passed because something might happen six months from now with a federal budget is called kick the can, point a finger, place blame. I’d say to Governor Cuomo, look in a mirror. There’s only one person to blame for the budget being late and sir, it happens to be you,” Collins said.

When asked about the governor’s concern over having to bring legislators back for a special session if there were a shortfall, Collins said Cuomo was exaggerating. For instance, he said if his amendment to shift Medicaid costs from the county to the state, were part of new healthcare legislation, it would only require the governor to find 1.5 percent savings in the budget.

Collins called it the most bloated budget in America and claimed he could find billions of dollars in savings if he were asked.

“All this governor is doing is what he does. He overstates it. He’s a blamer. He’s blaming his incompetence on anything he can and now it’s the Collins-Faso amendment, which by the way would fix county budgets in New York for the next five decades,” Collins said.

The congressman said Cuomo is attempting to use the budget to sneak in legislation on policy and give himself unilateral authority over economic development dollars.

“Let’s call it out for what he is. He’s a thug. He’s a bully. He’s an extortionist. He’s a blackmailer. He wants all the authority,” he said.

UPDATE: Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul responded on behalf of the administration Wednesday afternoon.

“Once again, inside trader-turned Beltway insider Chris Collins has difficulty telling the truth. Collins cynically sold out his constituents and continues to try and slash their healthcare, raise their taxes and threaten New York’s finances in order to fund a bloated defense budget. New Yorkers aren’t stupid and he’s fooling no one,” Hochul said.

Kennedy Supports Shortening Timeline To Put Ride-Hailing Law Into Effect

From the Morning Memo:

Upstate legislators were hoping to see ride-hailing legalized outside New York City by the Fourth of July weekend. That was the plan at least, back when a state budget deal by the constitutional April 1 deadline still seemed like a realistic goal.

The bill to regulate the industry was supposed to take effect 90 days after its passage. Of course, with that legislation attached to the budget, which has no apparent timeline at the moment, upstate leaders believe they could be waiting until at least late-summer – maybe longer – for ride-hailing to come online.

Needless to say, they’re not happy.

“Until a budget is finalized, we are stuck waiting, unable to move this progressive priority forward that so many in Buffalo and Western New York want and deserve,” state Sen. Tim Kennedy said.

Kennedy is already proposing a solution to expedite the process. He said he supports shortening the legislative effective date once the policy is enacted.

“While we certainly need to ensure that implementing this service is done so safely and thoroughly, residents in Upstate should not be punished for the dysfunction that continues to consume Albany,” he said.

That would be welcome news for many of Kennedy’s constituents, but not Buffalo taxicab advocate Bill Yuhnke, who said he believes it will take the state at least 90 days to get infrastructure in place for the new industry.

“I hope he’s ready to watch the news if this bill gets passed and rushed and not a lot of thought and planning,” Yuhnke said. “I don’t think the DMV’s ready. I think they’re going to have to hire new personnel.”

Yuhnke admitted the 90 day cushion would benefit him personally, as his company, Liberty Yellow Cab, attempts to get its ride-hailing division off the ground.