It’s the last day of August and I find myself outbound on Route 33 expressway in rush hour traffic that’s as anxious to rush out of city as I am to get out my car and stop driving. I’ve been driving all day but here I am anyway surrounded by cars under a clear summer sky on my way to Mark Poloncarz for Erie County Executive campaign headquarters.
The weather here has been perfect for weeks and tonight is no exception, but that doesn’t seem to factor in the turnout for a volunteer meeting at campaign headquarters at Harlem and Genesee in Cheektowaga. The building is situated right next to a Rite-Aid, and it’s pretty much kitty corner to 1,000 acres of cemeteries divided by the 33.
It’s 5:30pm and volunteers are slowly amassing in what seems to be a former furniture showroom that proudly displays the three most dominant interior design elements in the free world: drop ceiling, fluorescent lights, reddish industrial carpet. If there’s a heaven and a hell, they both have waiting rooms exactly like this for people to ponder their lives. The Big Three.
Inside, there are a few desks reserved for campaign employees, a random assortment of tables and chairs that look like they were donated by an insolvent church. The bathrooms have to be opened by keys which are left in the handles, and the doors don’t lock from the inside. The ghosts of former wealth and vitality hang in the room and converse with old campaign lawn signs in the corner of the room for Poloncarz’s father, Charles.
But this is politics and politics is money and money for Poloncarz, compared with his well-heeled Republican opponent, Chris Collins, is tight. While Collins’ thus far has well over a million in his campaign coffers, Poloncarz is lucky to have a quarter as much.
What Poloncarz HQ lacks in interior charm, it makes up for in exterior frontage. The windows are covered in huge translucent Poloncarz banners, announcing itself to the four lanes of traffic outside on a stretch of Harlem Road that connects several well-populated first-ring suburbs to each other and connects everybody to the 33. It’s also directly under a major flight path for the airport, for whatever’s that worth these days.
The median demographic for the event is white, female, and 50 years old. At 30, I’m pretty sure I’m the youngest person in the room aside from two Poloncarz staffers. A quick survey of the crowd yields that most people are motivated to help the cause not out of passion for the democratic candidate, but because they loathe Chris Collins. Somewhere along the way, Collins has committed a transgression that is unforgiveable in Western New York: He’s put on airs, he thinks he’s better than everyone else.
The Poloncarz event, perhaps in effort to rebuff Collins’ various self-aggrandized refineries, serves pizza and Labatt Blue Light in cans. (Missed was a golden opportunity to serve wings and round-out another Big Three.) In true volunteer fashion, the three sheet pizzas were served at 5:45pm and gone by 5:55pm. The beer gift was a bit more giving.
And just at the moment when the pizza disappears, the talking begins in the middle of the room. In a baby blue Poloncarz polo shirt and khakis, Mr. Comptroller says his piece. Perhaps his campaign’s greatest hope lies in his ability to highlight his own track record of fiscal responsibility in office, and his plans for economic development, and then compare those to Collins’s legacy of reckless, costly lawsuits against everyone who disagrees, use of juked stats, and financial and political patronage for his inner circle. Poloncarz needs to be picking these ripe grapes right off the vine and swallowing the seed.
The other ace in the hole for Poloncarz is his focus on first-ring suburbs. As a Lackawanna boy, he must feel he can relate to and attract voters from the hard-hit, working-class towns that surround Buffalo. It certainly can’t hurt as a Polish-American that he’s set up such visible shop along the historical Polish corridor that extends east from Buffalo to Cheektowaga and out to Depew and Lancaster.
The youngest man in the room, Poloncarz staffer Ben Swanekamp, predicts that the winning candidate will require 145,210 votes from the 915,000 people who live in the county. Poloncarz declared with the muted enthusiasm of a gentle coach, “If the election were today, I win.”