In 2nd term, Poloncarz looking to move beyond Buffalo Buffalo
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s constituents sent him a clear message in his landslide re-election this week: Keep going.
Shortly after receiving a concession call from his opponent, Republican Assemblyman Ray Walter, the Democratic incumbent stood with his family and declared victory to his gathered supporters in a banquet room of the Hotel @ Lafayette, a lavishly restored century-old building that was a dilapidated flop house just a few years ago.
Poloncarz defeated Walter by a 2-to-1 margin, a sign, he said, that the voters are happy with the direction of his first term and that he should not veer off the path he has set for county government.
“Tonight the people of Erie County spoke, and not only affirmed the course that we have taken in the county for the last four years and they have mandated its continuance,” Poloncarz said to a smattering of whoops and hollers.
Poloncarz enjoyed the benefits of incumbency – a large campaign war chest, name recognition – and an economy on the rebound caused by a multitude of factors, few over which any county executive would much control. Nonetheless, the 30-point victory, even with a turnout of just 24 percent, is a vote of confidence for his second term.
In his first term, the county executive concentrated on positioning the county to help businesses take advantage of a steadily improving national economy and renewed interest and investment in the area from the Cuomo administration, as part of his Initiatives for a Smart Economy plan.
While the work on his economic plan is not complete – only about half of the initiatives outlined have been successfully implemented – he aims in his second term to continue pushing the plan knowing that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative will level out soon enough.
“The Buffalo Billion will eventually dry up and disappear, so we need to put in place the other pieces of the puzzle to ensure that our economy continues to be strong,” Poloncarz told City & State.
Near the end of his first term, Poloncarz turned his attention to the county’s deeply-ingrained and intractable poverty issues.
In and around Buffalo, among the poorest cities in the nation with almost half of its children living in poverty, a massive loss of quality jobs from the once-great manufacturing hub has dragged down the economy for decades.
As the economy has rebounded in recent years, with the lowest unemployment rate the region has seen in a decade and thousands of new jobs becoming available, many community leaders and organizers have asked whether all of Buffalo, particularly the unemployed or underemployed, would be included in the “renaissance” to which so many politicians and officials have referred.
Poloncarz early this year introduced a set of initiatives to foster collaboration between health and human services agencies and nonprofit service providers in order to connect county residents with job opportunities.
“When it comes to the economy and poverty, I’ve said all along you can’t have a portion of the population be successful, the 1 percent so to speak, and have the rest of the population hurting or financially not doing as well,” he said. “So, we’re trying to focus on job growth for all sectors, as well as dealing with the issues of poverty that still do impact this community.”
Poloncarz campaigned on that commitment, and shortly after his victory speech he reiterated to reporters that addressing those issues and ensuring that the entire county would benefit from the “new Buffalo” was a priority.
He also stressed that while poverty is an issue that needs attention, the broader goal of his initiatives is to help anyone looking to improve their lives, not just people categorized by the federal government as poor.
“My goal is to ensure that we are doing the best we can to support families across our community,” he said. “That addresses needs that also run into the poverty sphere.”
A lesson in Poloncarz’s first term that will inform the way he operates in these next four years.
While the county’s registered voter enrollment favors Democrats, there are many issues on which Western New York leans right. Making the “trains run on time” and fostering a stable economic situation allows more wiggle room on social issues, he said, and with low unemployment and the highest bond ratings for the county in a long while he plans on taking advantage of.
“My goal is to continue to effectively manage county government, to provide the services that the public needs in an efficient manner,” Poloncarz said, “but to push a progressive agenda that I think should be done elsewhere and benefits our entire community as well as our entire region.”