Casey Bortnick

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Does Anyone Want To Face Mark Poloncarz?

Just about every Republican you talk to in Erie County insists publically it’s a “winnable race.”  The first two preferred GOP candidates to challenge Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz used those exact words while at the same time announcing they wouldn’t be the ones to do it.

Two weeks ago, Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw said he was dropping out to unify the Republican Party around Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs.  Monday, Jacobs said thanks, but no thanks.

“My hunch is that Chris Jacobs’ decision, knowing Chris the way I do, is that it was based on polling and his gut. So his announcement today tells me that their internal polling shows that Poloncarz is strong,” said Republican Political Consultant Vic Martucci.

Any Republican running for Erie County Executive would have to overcome a 130,000 voter enrollment disadvantage and this year, a popular incumbent.  Martucci knows what seems like tough odds now can change dramatically in seven months.

“Between now and November is an eternity in politics and if you’re not in the race and something were to happen to make the County Executive vulnerable politically, he’s not in a position to take advantage of that,” he said.

While Jacobs and Mychajliw both calculated it wasn’t worth the risk, State Assemblyman Ray Walter may decide it is.  Calling it a “winnable race.”  Walter, who received the backing of Chris Jacobs is now on the clock.

“I appreciate Clerk Jacobs’ support but there is a party process that must occur and I have great respect for that process. I will continue to talk with my family and party leaders and a decision will be made sooner rather than later,” Walter said.

A Walter candidacy would allow the GOP to mount its best defense of the Erie County Legislature.  The Republicans took control of County Hall for the first time in more than thirty years in 2013 and Erie County Chairman Nick Langworthy would like to keep it.

Running Walter would prevent Langworthy from having to pull one of his county legislative candidates to challenge Poloncarz.  To Martucci, Walter could help some down-ballot candidates in battleground districts.

“On the plus side, Ray represents the largest town in Erie County, represents the town of Amherst and the village of Williamsville and he’s battle-tested.  Amherst is no longer the Republican stronghold as it was ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. It’s marginally Democrat,” said Martucci.

Jacobs, who cited his desire to stay Erie County Clerk as his prime reason for not running, knows first-hand that Walter has a tough decision to make.  But in true Erie County GOP fashion both he and Walter say the county executive race is “winnable.”

“He brings a lot to the table and I think he will be a solid, solid candidate if he decides to do it.  I don’t know if he’s definitively said that or not.  I don’t want to put him on the spot like I was,” Jacobs added.

If Walter also decides he’s out, Martucci floated Assemblywoman Angela Wozniak as a dark horse candidate.

Erie County Clerk Drops Out Of County Executive Race

Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs is not running for Erie County Executive. He confirmed the news Monday Afternoon via a press release.

“Over the last several months I have considered the race for Erie County Executive, always mindful of the ongoing and innovative initiatives we have begun and continue to expand upon at the Clerk’s Office. From the outset of this process I said I would give the run the serious consideration it merited and make a final decision by early April,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs is the second high profile GOP candidate to take his name out of consideration to challenge incumbent Democrat Mark Poloncarz.  Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw announced late last month he was backing out of the race and throwing his support behind Jacobs.

“While I have received a great deal of encouragement and support from party leaders, small business owners, veteran and labor organizations, and people from all walks of life, I have decided that at this time my commitment to the County Clerk’s Office must come ahead of any campaign for County Executive,” said Jacobs.

Like Mychajliw, Jacobs also threw his support behind another Republican.  He confirmed the Buffalo News Polictical Reporter Bob McCarthy’s report that he’s backing State Assemblyman Ray Walter to challenge Poloncarz.

Walter’s name emerged only recently when party insiders began to look for a back-up if Jacobs decided he didn’t want to run. Walter was first elected to the assembly in 2011.  His district includes the Towns of Amherst and Pendleton, and the Village of Williamsville.

Walter released this statement in response to Jacobs’ announcement:

“I appreciate Clerk Jacobs’s support but there is a party process that must occur and I have great respect for that process.  I have certainly looked at this opportunity and believe that it is a winnable race.  I will continue to talk with my family and party leaders and a decision will be made sooner rather than later.”



Johns Calls Pay Commission ‘Backdoor’ Way Of Getting A Raise

A Rochester-area State Assemblyman says if his colleagues want a pay raise they should draft legislation and vote on it.  Webster Republican Mark Johns not only criticized the way the pay raise commission was approved he called the bill flawed.

“We passed the bill at 2:30-3:00 in the morning and there’s not a lot of daylight then and people aren’t necessarily paying attention.  The problem I have with a pay commission is the people on the commission will be appointed by politicians to decide how big of a raise the politicians should get,” said Johns.

About a week ago the idea of a pay raise commission for state-elected officials looked like a dead issue.  The commission was included in a last minute budget bill approved by the Senate and the Assembly.

“I believe the constitution says that we have to vote ourselves a raise, which will not take effect until the next legislature is seated, and I believe that’s the correct way to do it.  I think if people want a raise they make their argument, like they would with any other bill, and then have an up or down vote on it so you can see how your legislators are going to vote on the increase,” Johns said.

As Nick previously detailed, the new panel is actually being rolled into the commission created in 2011 that determines whether state judges should receive a boost in pay.  As Johns noted, any pay raise for the Senate and Assembly would not take effect until the next Legislature is seated, or Jan 1, 2017.

“I got elected in 2010 and I took a pledge not to vote for a pay increase for the duration that I’ll be down there.  I think that people would like to see a lot of things voted on and a pay increase is not one of them.  We don’t vote on term limits which upwards of ninety percent of the people want.  We’re going to do a backdoor way of getting a pay increase and I don’t think that’s going to be real popular when it gets out,” said Johns.

Increasingly frustrated with the legislative process, Johns teamed up with Democratic Sen. Diane Savino last year to introduce the SOLE act.  The Sensible Opportunity for Legislative Equality bill would allow each member to bring a bill that’s been discharged from committee to the floor for a vote at least once during a two-year legislative session.

A version of the bill was included in an Assembly Minority ethics reform package and did not make it into the budget. Johns is hopeful the idea will still be considered before the end of the legislative session.

“I’ll be honest with you we talk about all kinds of equality: marriage equality, pat equality, gender equality, I think legislative equality would go a long way.  We vote on a lot of issues down there and the red button does work.  There’s no reason a minority member or a majority member shouldn’t be allowed to bring up a good idea for discussion and have an up or down vote and if you don’t like the bill or the contents vote it down,” Johns added.


Race For Erie County Executive Becoming Clear… Sort Of

The race for Erie County Executive just got a little clearer.  One of the two top contenders for the GOP nomination, to challenge incumbent Democrat Mark Poloncarz, dropped out Wednesday and threw his support behind another fellow Republican.

“Party leaders and donors asked me to speed up my timetable and make a decision to either run myself, or clear the field,” Erie County Stefan Mychajliw in a press release Wednesday morning.

Mychajliw has been considered a rising star in the party after winning two straight races in a county with 130,000 more Democrats than Republicans.  Mychajliw, 41, said the decision was personal.

“If I became a candidate for County Executive it would take me farther away from my family and will be the third time in four years I ran a grueling county-wide campaign,” said Mychajliw.

Rather than just announce his intentions, Mychajliw seemed to unintentionally put some pressure on Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs.  While Jacobs has long been considered a candidate for County Executive, he has yet to throw his hat into the ring.

“It is my duty to lead the charge to bring our party together and strongly support Chris Jacobs in his quest to become the next County Executive,” Mychajliw said.

The Jacobs reference did raise some eyebrows.  Republican Consultant Vic Martucci acknowledged it broke protocol.

“It’s unusual. It may just be he knows Chris Jacobs is running,” Martucci said.

The problem is Jacobs himself hasn’t yet decided.

“I appreciate Stefan’s comments, I will be making a decision sometime soon,” he said.

Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy saw Mychajliw’s comments as a ringing endorsement and not an effort to pressure Jacobs to declare.  But with the list of potential GOP candidates shrinking, Langworthy knows the clock is ticking.

“Everyone’s got their own internal checkpoints and processes before they jump into a race of this magnitude.  It’s a huge undertaking.  There’s a great deal of questions they have to internally answer.  Chris is going through that process right now and I expect that he’ll be giving me an answer shortly,” Langworthy added.

Along with the party enrollment disadvantage for the GOP the current County Executive seems to be enjoying a high level of popularity.  Martucci said, no matter the candidate, it could be an uphill battle.

“(Mark) Poloncarz had two big wins in his first term.  He negotiated a successful lease agreement with the (Buffalo) Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. It was an ironclad deal that prevented any potential buyer from moving the team.  He also delivered a strong performance during the November snowstorm.  Those two issues are still fresh in voters’ minds,” said Martucci

Other than State Senator Pat Gallivan, who told us Wednesday night he’s not running, Martucci sees Jacobs as the best candidate the Republicans could field to oust Poloncarz.

“He’s got everything you’d want in a candidate.  He’s likable, a fresh face, and has done a great job in the clerk’s office which has been a spring board to higher office,” Martucci said.

Jacobs has made no secret out of the fact he’s been thinking about a run for a long time.  Despite the challenges the race presents he sees a path to victory for the GOP.

“If I do enter this I will do it because I sincerely believe it is winnable, but more importantly because I sincerely believe that I could make a profound impact and better impact than who is there currently,” Jacobs said.

The Republican powers-that-be would like to see Jacobs make a decision sooner than later.  Langworthy said there are other candidates, with a lower profile, interested in running who would need to start their campaigns a little sooner.

“If we go to a different echelon of candidates, where they may have a district that doesn’t include all of Erie County, they have to go get known in different areas other than where they’re most familiar with,” said Langworthy.

Jacobs understands the ball is in his court.  But he’s always prided himself on being his own man and said he’ll announce his decision when he’s ready.

“The way you run a race independently enables you to govern independently and I felt very, very strongly about that,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs has served as New York’s Secretary of State under Governor Pataki and as a member of the Buffalo Public School Board. He was elected Erie County Clerk in a special election in 2011.

Supporters of Alix’s Law Optimistic In A ‘Post-Silver’ Assembly

With a new leader in the State Assembly there’s new optimism a few proposed laws that have been blocked will finally make it to the floor for a vote this legislative session.  One piece of legislation would eliminate a loophole in the state’s hit-and-run law.

It’s called Alix’s law, after Western New York teenager Alix Rice who was hit and killed by a drunk driver in 2011.  After four years of waiting, Rice’s father told Time Warner Cable News Reporter Ryan Whalen he has high hopes under new Speaker Carl Heastie

“Our new Speaker has a golden opportunity at this time to put a positive stamp on his leadership of this Assembly,” said Richard Rice.

Under the proposed law, drivers would not be able to argue they were unaware they hit a person or caused damage to property, if they were drunk.  The man who hit and killed Alix Rice was convicted of a misdemeanor, but avoided conviction on the more serious charges he faced.

Rice believes former Speaker Sheldon Silver was only thing standing in the way of the bill that was passed again this year in the State Senate.

“When I talked to him about it he said it was just too controversial to introduce to the Assembly,” Rice said.

The bill has another thing going for it, it’s sponsored in the Assembly by Buffalo’s Crystal Peoples-Stokes.  Stokes is a strong ally of Speaker Heastie and hasn’t been shy about exercising her new found influence.

Much like the new found optimism surrounding the Mixed Martial Arts legislation, in a “post-Silver Assembly,” Rice feels the bill is closer to becoming law than it’s ever been.  Still he’s keeping his fingers crossed.

“It will give me a feeling that she did something great for the world even though it wasn’t really by choice,” Rice added.

Reed: Federal Regulations Show Fracking Can Be Done In New York

Congressman Tom Reed is once again calling on Governor Cuomo to change his position on fracking. The Corning Republican suggested new federal regulations on the issue show a “fracture” between Democrats.

“To see that Gov. Cuomo can’t do in New York State what the Obama administration is doing on the federal level is amazing,” Reed said in a conference call with reporters Monday.

New Federal regulations, announced on Friday, updated rules for 95,000 oil and gas wells that operate on Federal land. Reed said he’s not necessarily a fan of President’s Obama’s oversight of natural gas development and hydrofracking, but unlike Governor Cuomo he said at least the Obama Administration is moving forward.

“Clearly, the Obama administration has relied on the best scientists, the best data, the best information that is out there,” Reed said.

Reed is calling on the Governor to look at the science used by the administration as a model to allow development of the Marcellus Shale in New York. In statement released Monday night Reed said:

“I am calling on Gov. Cuomo to reverse his ill-conceived fracking ban that infringes on constitutionally protected property rights. If the Obama administration and even California Gov. Jerry Brown can side with farmers and landowners, now is the time to undo such a damaging and job-killing policy.”

Meantime, Reed is also proposing the Defense of Property Rights Act. The idea, detailed in an oped, would allow property owners adversely impacted by the ban on hydrofracking to seek compensation.

Erie County Legislator Out Of Coma And Back To Work

Less than a month after spending six days in a coma, an Erie County Legislator has made a miraculous recovery.  Republican Ted Morton is not only back to work, he’s preparing to kick off his re-election campaign next month.

“I’ve had seizures in the past, primarily when I was younger but nothing to this extent,” Morton said.

Morton, 56, has lived with epilepsy for most of his life.  On February 18th he suffered what he described as a series of epileptic seizures.

Morton was rushed to the hospital where he was stabilized and hooked up to a ventilator.  Being unconscious for several days, Morton said he’s just happy to be alive.

“It feels phenomenal.  Especially waking up when I did, days later, not knowing what happened and then fully realizing what happened.  I’m just so thankful to be here.  I’m thankful for my friends and family and everyone that prayed for me and wished me well during the time and supported my family,” Morton said.

Morton was elected to the Erie County Legislature in 2013.  He gained notoriety by taking a suburban seat that helped tip the balance of power back into the favor the GOP for the first time since 1977.

Morton was preparing to launch his re-election bid when he fell ill.  Doctors tell Morton there was no permanent damage and he should be able to make a full recovery.

“We’re changing some medications to hopefully ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again but over the next couple of months I will be seeing my doctors again several times for follow-up visits just to make sure everything is good,” Morton said.

Morton returned for the full legislative voting session last week and plans to attend committee meetings on Thursday.

“I’m probably about eighty percent of the way back physically.  It takes a while to recover when you’re out for that amount of time, so I had to pace myself a little bit.  But I think probably in the next two to three weeks I’ll be back to a regular schedule,” said Morton.

He thanked the community, his friends and family, and the emergency responders and hospital staff that he believes saved his life.

“They were all true professionals and I feel I wouldn’t be here today if each of them in their own way had not been such outstanding professionals and I’m so happy about every single one that helped me over that ten day or two week period so I’m just very appreciative,” Morton added.


Buffalo Assemblywoman Enjoying New Found Influence

The replacement of a Board of Regents member isn’t exactly front page news but it’s a subtle signal the new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has his own set of political allies.  There’s early indication Buffalo Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes is one of them and already has the new Speaker’s ear.

“I do have a very good relationship with him.  I have enormous respect for him.  He’s not served all that many years longer than I have so we’ve kind of come up together,” Peoples-Stokes said.

The Buffalo Democrat appeared to be flexing her new found influence when reports surfaced that longtime Board of Regents member Bob Bennett was being replaced.  Bennett told Time Warner Cable News, Sunday night, he took his name out of consideration after Peoples-Stokes told him she was recommending a different candidate to the Speaker.

“When the legislature’s in joint session, the Speaker really controls the entire thing,” said Bennett.

“Without any doubt Crystal Peoples-Stokes has reached a point of the most influence she’s had since she got there, absolutely,” Democratic political consultant Jack O’Donnell said.

Stokes has served in the Assembly since 2003.  Despite her tenure she’s had a hard time gaining the support of her own party with some Erie County Democrats, including Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner, reportedly favoring her primary opponent last fall. 

Peoples-Stokes easily won the primary over former State Senator Antoine Thompson and her seventh term in the Assembly.  Some say she also proved she’s an emerging political power.

“There were a lot of big name (Erie County) Democrats behind him (Thompson). He had a lot of resources at his disposal and the fact that she did so well and was so well-respected in her district only strengthens her in Albany and in dealing with folks in the Assembly leadership,” said O’Donnell.

Peoples-Stokes relationship with Carl Heastie dates back to her work with the organization Grass Roots Buffalo. An organization Heastie reached out to for advice during his time as a Democratic leader in the Bronx.

“Crystal, (Buffalo Mayor) Byron (Brown) and Maurice Garner and Grassroots sort of was a template for how a young generation of African-American leaders took office. Unlike some of their predecessors who were challenging entrenched, often white, elected officials, Grassroots was basically a reaction to Art Eve and the Art Eve machine,” O’Donnell said

Eve, the well-known Buffalo Democrat, held that Assembly Seat before Peoples-Stokes. O’Donnell says she may have already eclipsed the former Deputy Speaker’s influence in the Assembly.

Peoples-Stokes has maintained her relationship with Heastie and if this recent move with the Board of Regents Seat is any indication she won’t be shy about taking advantage of it.

“The fact is that the Speaker cares what Crystal Peoples-Stokes thinks and I think her opinion carries a lot of weight, not just with the Speaker himself as it clearly does but Crystal’s become a real leader within the Women’s Conference in the Democratic Assembly and she’s also become a real leader in the Black and Puerto Rican Conference,” O’Donnell said.

“He’s a good guy. I’m grateful that I have a relationship with him. And I think the fact that I do have a good relationship with him, and have his ear, will bode well for Buffalo,” Peoples-Stokes added.


Brown For Governor in 2018?

On the same day Buffalo’s Democratic Mayor, Bryron Brown, delivered his annual State Of The City Address there’s new speculation about his future. The first African-American mayor of the Queen City is in his third term and some believe it will be his last.

“Buffalo has become a success story. That’s not something we used to hear. It’s not something people around the state used to talk about and now they are talking about it and they’re talking about Byron Brown as part of that,” said Buffalo-based political consultant Jack O’Donnell.

While the jury is still out on whether or not Governor Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion has delivered the economic resurgence it promised, there is at least a perception of progress. O’Donnell believes Brown’s political stock is rising along with it.

“In my opinion you need only look at the results. Things are going well in Buffalo. I think a lot of folks are saying that. He ran on progress and I think that’s exactly what qualifies you,” O’Donnell said. “ And every time Byron Brown has faced the voters he’s done very well.”

Brown has won three landslide Mayoral races, before that he served he served in the state Senate. With his recent success some believe he’s eyeing a return to the state Capitol.

“There are rumors that Governor Cuomo doesn’t plan to run again and we’re a long way away from seeing if that’s true. But there is some sense that if Governor Cuomo didn’t run for re-election that Byron Brown would be a very strong candidate.” O’Donnell said. “He’s raised large sums of money and he’s well connected across the state. That’s a great profile for someone who might want to be governor.”

Brown has been rumored to be interested in higher office before. He’s been mentioned as a congressional candidate, and was reportedly on Cuomo’s shortlist when he had to pick a new lieutenant governor last summer.

Brown’s political fortunes have always seemed tied to Buffalo. If the perceived resurgence of the state’s second largest city continues, O’Donnell believes he’ll be well-positioned for something bigger.

“He has connections across the state, so I think it’s only natural people would look at our mayor and say maybe he’s destined for bigger things,” O’Donnell added.


Morelle Supporters See ‘Interim’ Title As Audition

Even with the “interim” title, State Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle’s temporary promotion marks the first time since 1991 that a representative from outside New York City has filled the Speaker’s role.  Those close to the Rochester-area Democrat see this as an opportunity to prove he can fill the role permanently.

“He’s uniquely qualified to be the Speaker.  Whether or not the political realities will come together for him I don’t know.  But I would encourage him to move forward with this,” said Former State Senator Ted O’Brien.

O’Brein and Morelle have a long standing friendship and have worked together in Monroe County politics for decades.  Even O’Brien acknowledges beating out a Downstate rival to win the majority of votes in the Assembly Democratic Conference will be an uphill battle.

“It is tough.  Sixty-one of the members represent districts in New York City.  I think he has to be able to comfort people that he’s going to be looking out for everyone and New York City won’t be disadvantaged by his term as Speaker,” O’Brien said.

Bringing different factions of a party together is something Morelle has experience with.  As the head of the Monroe County Democratic Committee, he was able to keep peace among the David Gantt wing of the party and those more loyal to former Rochester Mayor and Lt. Governor Bob Duffy.

Morelle left the chairmanship soon after a divisive 2013 Rochester Mayoral Democratic Primary, between Lovely Warren and Tom Richards, to focus on his role as Assembly Majority Leader.  O’Brien believes both experiences make him uniquely qualified to lead.

“I think he’s proven during his time as Majority Leader that he can keep this conference that’s so diverse, from so many different parts of the state, working together.  He’s already earned careful consideration,” said O’Brien.

How Morelle handles the next two weeks of critical budget negotiations could be a factor in whether or not he gets to keep the job. While difficult, O’Brien believes it’s an opportunity for Morelle to separate himself from other candidates.

“I hope he goes forward but it’s going to be a special burden for him.  Not only does he have to solicit support as Assembly Speaker, he has to do the job for the next two weeks too.  But if anyone can do that Joe Morelle can,” O’Brien added.

If Morelle were to become Speaker it would mark the first time since 1925 that a Western New Yorker held the permanent post. The last time a Speaker hailed from Monroe County (Morelle’s home county) was back in 1898.