Our man on the ground, Aaron Lowinger, sent in this dispatch last night about the debate between Mark Poloncarz and Chris Collins:
The warm night was sharply countered by A/C on full blast inside WNED studios, where the stage was set for the first of two debates between incumbent Erie County Executive Chris Collins and current Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz. The ghosts in the room were alive and well, as a WNED director informed the audience before showtime that the last debate they hosted was Spitzer vs. Faso, October 12, 2006, the night of the October Storm. I was asked to sit next to Jim Domagalski, the former Republican chairman who resigned to run unsuccessfully for State Senate. Jim tells me he was in the audience that night and that Faso really kicked ass, but no one saw it. On such a warm night five years later, it becomes easier to understand the myriad contradictions that thrive in Erie County.
There were at most 100 people in the room between media members, supporters of both candidates, and representatives from the League of Women Voters, a sponsor of the debate. Before going to air, both candidates stood behind their podiums like boxers in their now silent corners, contemplating the sudden strangeness of solitude. I asked Domagalski his opinion of which candidate had better hair. He said that he wouldn’t know. I say it’s a toss-up. What Poloncarz has in his more youthful ‘do, Collins makes up for in his vintage light salt and pepper. In terms of height, however, the all-important measure in a tight race (ask John McCain), Poloncarz has him by a shade.
Counting down to air, Poloncarz appeared steady, staring expressionlessly into his notes. Meanwhile, Collins mimicked speech actions and gestures, talking to himself, and visibly breathing irregularly. The early tell on body language was that Collins looked nervous.
Collins may finally have legitimate reasons to be nervous. After a turbulent week for both campaigns, this has all the looks of a tight race. First came the disclosure of Collins’s $1.27 million war chest, more than a million dollars more than Poloncarz. That was followed by the publishing of the results of a Siena Research Institute poll indicating that Poloncarz was within the margin of error with Collins. Mouth-for-hire Stefan Mychajliw jumped all over the results, pointing out perceived flaws in the polling methods and to other elections that Siena got wrong, claiming the secret formula they were using indicated a wide lead for Collins, and openly denigrating the impact of city voters. Meanwhile, Poloncarz quietly celebrated the results, which seemed to prove that, as the New York Yankees have learned, you can’t always buy a victory.
But money helps, and Poloncarz must know that a strong showing in the debate could only help him to garner more money for advertising to dump onto various media outlets, including the other two sponsors of the debate: WGRZ-TV and the Buffalo News.
What exactly does a strong showing in a debate look like? It’s mostly in the dance: subtle movements, facial expressions, strong hands, tender eyes, poise under pressure, sublime comfort under the lights. The dancers must stay graceful at all times. Nerves, anger, unbridled emotion, pessimism, bitterness, linguistic fumbles will cause a deduction of style points and lead a fickle voter resolutely in the other direction. It doesn’t take much, as they say. After all, most people who deeply care about the issues have already made up their minds. Just as in national elections, wins and losses are decided by the undecided, or “swing,” voters.
The dancing edge has to go to Poloncarz, who made a concerted effort to stay even-keeled and composed. Poloncarz supporters were probably disappointed that he rarely projected his voice, but it might have helped him sketch out his painting of Collins as arrogant and “out of touch,” an expression he must have used 10 times to describe the county executive. For his part, Collins never faltered or winked, stayed on the attack and even employed the night’s only shred of humor by calling Poloncarz’s video taken in the women’s room of a county park “creepy.” But Collins never appeared as comfortable as Poloncarz, whose experience as an attorney unquestionably gave him an advantage in his preparation and presence. As a yardstick, Collins went over his time limit (signaled by a hotel-front-desk bell on a moderator’s table) eight times, compared to Poloncarz’s three overages.
Poloncarz also made a series of strong rebuttals against his opponent. When Collins said Erie County was out of the hospital business, Poloncarz said we were not, that Erie County is still responsible for $100 million in ECMC debt. When Chris Collins said he had been in negotiations with the Buffalo Bills for about a year, Poloncarz quoted a Buffalo News story only a few weeks old where Collins stated he was waiting for the Bills to approach him. When Collins said that outsourcing urban clinics and WIC into private agencies was a cost-saving measure, Poloncarz pointed out that these urban clinics made money for the county both in many state reimbursements and in savings created by the avoidance of ER visits.
The man who really exhibited some nice footwork on the dance floor was the Buffalo News’ Bob McCarthy. His first question was a softball lob right into Collins’ wheelhouse. To paraphrase: Does that fact that Mark Poloncarz has received enormous labor union support mean that Erie County will be beholden to unions and their contract demands? As Poloncarz responded something to the effect that he would go all Andrew Cuomo and tell labor things they don’t always want to hear, the room could feel Chris Collins salivating, mentally leaking words like “unsustainable,” “lifetime health plans,” and “anti-taxpayer.” Indeed, Collins specifically greeted McCarthy before the cameras rolled. I had an inkling the fix was in.
That’s why McCarthy’s second question came as surprise: “Is it just coincidence that Harris Beach [the law firm to which Collins awarded the Erie County Industrial Development Agency contract that has paid out at least $840,000] has contributed about $80,000 to your campaign accounts and to that of the Erie County GOP?”
Collins appeared surprised as well and refused to address it: “Now Bob, I’m glad you brought that up because when I did come to office…” When asked again to address the appearance of these campaign contributions, Collins offered only a rebuttal of Poloncarz’s most recent statement. It took a third follow-up for this response: “Very quickly no, there’s pay-to-play in my campaign, everyone knows that’s not who I am.”
Another variation of that phrase (“Anyone who knows me knows…”) was used in at least one other critical moment, when the truth mattered most and the pat response given rang false (in response to an e-mail question, asking if either candidate really knew what it was like to live paycheck-to-paycheck, without financial security).
Another dubious moment for Collins came early in the debate when the men were asked if they both planned on serving their full four-year term if elected. Poloncarz answered simply, “Yes. Yes, I will.” Done. Period. The contrast to Collins’s subsequent response was stark: “That’s a good question, Edward, absolutely I am focused on serving the taxpayers of Erie County, I’ve already done that for four years; very, very proud of the accomplishments that we’ve had in taking this broken county and bringing it back to life, and I have every intention of serving out my four years as county executive.” It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out the more convincing answer here.
The debate ended with an unusual request from moderator Jim Ranney for Collins and Poloncarz to pair up and do a quick slow dance together: “I’d like you take 15 seconds and say something nice about your opponent. And for about 30 seconds, after being asked by Mom to hug and make up, they stopped going it alone and danced together. Collins praised Poloncarz’s strong family ties, saying that they were instilled with very similar “middle-class” values as children. I half-expected Poloncarz to slap him on the back and call him brother. Instead, Poloncarz praised Collins for achieving the American dream and being successful in business, which resonated as an underhanded commentary on how “out of touch” his wealth has made him.
Domagalski had told me before the contest started that he prefers a more nuanced debate, one in which candidates agree on many issues and have to work harder to separate themselves from the crowd. I have to disagree: Watching Poloncarz and Collins go at it was very much like many family gatherings I’ve attended in Western New York over the years. Like when one of your uncles gets a little buzz on and drops an innocent, conversational morsel of politics and before you know it one of the cool-headed aunts have to talk everyone down. I felt the debate did a great job of revealing the living paradox of what it means to live here, and, as the six tents I saw pitched in Niagara Square on my way to the debate from Occupy Buffalo suggest, perhaps this is all a microcosm of the unrelenting conflict of the world. But no—at the end of the day, I believe Western New York’s contradictions have a flavor all its own.
Then the lights went down, the audience clapped, the men quickly shook hands and returned to their corners, both attempting to exude conquest. Jim Domagalski had split, and I went outside to check if it was snowing.