The new year is inauguration season. At City Hall, the council chamber was packed for the swearing in of two new councilmen, bringing new blood and new competence – if not, sadly, gender balance – to a body that sorely needs all of those things.
Such events are not only happy occasions, but can provide valuable insights into those taking office. Some years ago I attended the swearing in of a newly elected official whose speech went into great detail about how he got where he was by aggressively seizing every opportunity that came within his grasp. He later left office after trying to aggressively seize an opportunity with a staffer. As the saying goes, when someone tells you who they are, believe them.
Although that dictum is almost always used negatively, in some cases it applies positively. County Executive Mark Poloncarz, for example, is one of a sadly rare breed of politicians who tells you – repeatedly – who he is and what his priorities are and then acts consistently with what he told you.
He did just that New Year’s Eve morning after he was sworn in for his third term as Erie County executive, becoming the only person other than Dennis Gorski to have been elected to the office three times. That Poloncarz was solidly re-elected in the face of a brutal challenge by a Republican smear machine that has become not just the local but statewide embodiment of Trumpism represents a pivotal moment in Erie County government and politics.
That moment is best symbolized by the striking contrast between Poloncarz’ inaugural address and another well-known inaugural address given four decades ago. That address ushered in four decades of right-wing, anti-government ideology that became so normalized in America that even mainstream Democrats tacitly accepted it. Today in much of Washington, DC the full flowering of that ideology seems to be running rampant and running roughshod – although it also appears to be riding for a fall. It all traces back to that January, 1981 inaugural address in which Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government IS the problem.”
In a very real way, Poloncarz’ inaugural address was a direct repudiation of Reagan’s – and the “Reagan Revolution” it signaled. In his address Poloncarz said,
Too many people look at government as being the problem. They say government is incapable of solving any issue. They believe government should only provide the bare minimum of services. They don’t believe government can be a force for good.
I reject that notion because when you say government is incapable of solving problems, you are actually saying people are incapable of solving problems, because a government is the collective embodiment of its people. I believe that government, when run effectively, can be a force for good. It must lead when others will not. Moreover, it has to lead to address the issues we face. We have proven that a government built on the principles of compassion, inclusion, service to others, and fiscal stability can succeed.
That should be engraved somewhere. Not because it’s a novel thought – a half-century ago this would have been widely accepted and even applauded by both major parties. But because it so flies in face of the “triangulation” that came to be accepted political wisdom for so long. Making a statement like this could have been political suicide in an time not so long ago when Democrats believed they had to be relentlessly centrist to avoid frightening away independent and right-leaning voters. Seen through that lens, Poloncarz’ statement reads like a manifesto, which is probably how it was intended.
But the real significance of Poloncarz’ speech was not as a commentary on national politics, but rather as a delineation of a sea change in county politics in which he played an essential role. His speech not only showed how different county politics are now than they were just a decade ago, but made it clear that they would stay on their current trajectory and not regress.
To appreciate just how different requires a look at the effects of the Reagan Revolution on politics down to the local level. (Or skip ahead to read about the Rath Building open house and what Poloncarz might accomplish in his third term.)
Just how did politics get to the point where mentioning the social compact or suggesting government be used for the common good could seem almost radical? While Reagan was the champion of hard-right politics, and put a friendly face on it, he was far from alone in creating it. To dismantle the social compact meant getting people to vote against their own interests, and that required disinformation and media manipulation on a vast scale. It was aided early, unwittingly, by C-SPAN, as Newt Gingrich cheerfully described here. It was boosted in 1987 when the abandonment of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine paved the way for right-wing talk radio, and again a decade later with the debut of Fox News. Over the airwaves, the right winged its way into every home. And right-wing politics wormed their way into every community.
To redirect government policy from public to private interests required efforts like those of Roger Stone and Paul Manafort (as recounted here) to create powerful DC firms that would lobby the same politicians they helped get elected. That made politicians ever-increasingly beholden to those who could help them raise the ever-increasing amounts of money necessary to get into office and stay in office with campaigns dominated by ever-increasing amounts of broadcast media. (In a way it was analogous to the “Dreadnought Race” leading up to WWI, where the few big countries that could build dreadnought battleships extorted smaller countries into buying them to protect themselves from the dreadnoughts their rival countries were buying.) Such firms would not stay confined to DC.
Central to the effort was a new right-wing dogma on taxation, developed and promoted by Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), which he began in 1985 at Reagan’s behest. Norquist and ATR created the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” and then bullied nearly all Republicans – and many Democrats – into taking it. His aims were made clear in his famous quote: “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Under Reagan and Bush the wealth didn’t “trickle down” but such demonization of government did, undermining support and funding for government at every level.
But trying to starve government wasn’t enough for some. The TEA Party, the House Freedom Caucus and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were determined to straight-up sabotage it. When Barack Obama was elected president, despite the crisis of the recession their priority was not helping those hurting, or reforming a lax regulatory system, but rather preventing Obama from being re-elected and preventing Democrats from using the machinery of government. What the ever-more-radical right discovered was just how easy it could be to monkey-wrench that machinery which, like all machinery, is complicated to build and challenging to operate effectively. And waiting in the wings was the ultimate political saboteur: Donald Trump.
Trump was the culmination of all these trends, taken to their ultimate extreme. If you’ve seen the award-winning documentary Get Me Roger Stone, co-directed by friend-of-Buffalo Morgan Pehme (and if you haven’t, you must), you know that Stone believed that Trump could become president and that Trump embodied the kind of America he wanted. And sure enough, Trump did just what Stone knew he would: set about entirely discrediting and tainting our national government. He has exposed just how precarious is our system of checks and balances, and just how much our government is about custom and culture and tradition – all of which he has systematically violated.
Why would the GOP go along with that – essentially, burning down their own house – given that Trump was elected only by winning a few states by razor-thin margins? Simple: because for nearly four decades the groundwork had been relentlessly laid. Now, those moderate Republicans who still believe in decency and good government are increasingly isolated and even unwelcome in their own party – including on the local level. Many have left.
When working for the president of the Monroe County Legislature, I had a front-row seat to watch this political storm inundate Monroe County. We could see it rolling in from the 4th floor of the County Office Building in Rochester like you can watch a lake effect storm roll in from the 16th floor of the Rath Building in Buffalo. First, Democrats lost the county executive post to a rabidly right-wing Republican. Then Republicans took control of the legislature. Of course that meant those of us on the president’s office staff lost our jobs, but that was a trifle compared to the effect on the county.
The new regime hamstrung county government and devalued large segments of the population they were supposed to be serving. At the same time, corruption and cronyism became rampant. The ascendant Republicans used wedge issues, politics of division, and smear tactics to take power and keep power for a generation. Here in Erie County, Republicans tried similar tactics in last year’s county executive race, and while they had a big impact, they ultimately didn’t work. Voters are getting wise to them.
But voters didn’t get wise to those tactics soon enough to prevent much damage from being done. Over four decades the right has been able to unravel much of the project that Democrats began a century ago under Woodrow Wilson, that continued under Roosevelt and Truman, and culminated under Kennedy and Johnson, to make America an equitable nation of opportunity for all. Just how far we’ve regressed is evidenced by this statement from a Bloomberg News analysis released at the end of the year: “In the U.S., the richest 0.1 percent control a bigger share of the pie than at any time since 1929.”
In light of all this the significance of the Poloncarz re-election and inaugural address come into sharper focus as a repudiation of not just the Reagan Revolution but also the neoliberal, market-based triangulation that the Democratic mainstream adopted in response to it. If that makes Poloncarz a throwback, he’s hardly alone. In the Democratic presidential nomination contest, why are some of the oldest candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren attracting some of the youngest voters? They represent a direct link to the time of the social compact, when Democratic leadership and policies created the middle class and provided many paths into it. Many younger voters have found the opportunities available to their grandparents taken away from them and their parents.
Poloncarz’ electoral success is a demonstration that Democrats can embrace traditional Democratic values and still win – even in the face of gale-force winds from the extreme right. Former County Executive Chris Collins, our local avatar of Reagan orthodoxy taken to its Trumpist extremes, was so convinced that he couldn’t possibly lose to someone who openly scoffed at the idea of “running government like a business” and openly espoused using government to solve problems that he didn’t even have a concession speech prepared. He wasn’t alone – many Democrats were just as surprised. But eight years later, most local Democrats are now on the same page as Poloncarz.
The voting machine on the 16th floor (pictured above) illustrates the change. Still set for its last election in 2009, when Poloncarz ran for re-election as comptroller, it shows prominent Democrats cross-endorsed by the Conservative Party. Over the last decade, the once-common practice of Democrats seeking the endorsement of a third party that does not reflect their values has largely ended in Erie County. Democrats came to realize that it’s better to risk standing for something than hedging their bets.
One result is that now Poloncarz finds himself with a solid Democratic majority in the county legislature – meaning not just solidly Democratic but consisting of solid Democrats – and also a solidly Democratic suburban inner ring that provided a firewall in a brutal re-election challenge. Similarly, just down the road in Monroe County the election of Adam Bello as county executive ended three decades of right-wing politics of division that kept Republicans solidly in control of county government there despite having a minority of registered voters – and Democrats nearly re-took the majority in the county legislature. Bello was present for Poloncarz’ inaugural, as was Attorney General Letitia James, formerly Public Advocate of New York City, one of the most progressive statewide elected officials in New York history.
At the end of his speech stating that government is the embodiment of the people, Poloncarz invited the people to an open house in the Rath Building, the embodiment of their county government.
Welcome to the people’s house
Echoing his inaugural eight years before, Mark Poloncarz opened the 16th floor of the Rath Building to the people – who are, of course, the owners of the building and, as he likes to say, his bosses. On arrival, his bosses got to experience a classic 16th floor moment: a winter storm rolling in. (Why classic? Poloncarz frequently tweets pictures of the weather from the 16th floor.)
The receptionist, whose wide workspace windows provide a panoramic view of the lake, showed me the line in the water marking the front edge of the storm, behind which the storm was turning the water dark with churned-up silt from the shallow lake bottom.
Just down the hall, in Press Secretary Peter Anderson’s office, I found the “Inaugural Brawl” in progress, with figures from the classic era of All Star Wrestling and a dance card showing their bouts. The display was the brain child of Dick Derwald, once a pro wrestler who just retired from his position as the Coordinator of the Erie County Senior Fitness Program (he will stay on part-time). At 85, he appeared to be in much better shape than anyone else present.
I also got to meet Twitter pal Charles Sickler, now “retired,” the county’s former director of engineering who also served as interim commissioner of public works for a time. But “retired” in quotes, because Sickler still pitches in on a voluntary basis in whatever way he can be helpful – which is lots of ways. He is especially active on Twitter (follow him here), tweeting about county projects. He told me that he served under four county executives in his career, and that he found Poloncarz to be the best of them – one of the reasons he keeps his hand in things.
A highlight of the visit was Poloncarz autographing my copy of his book, Beyond the Xs and Os, about the negotiation of the lease agreement that kept the Bills in Buffalo when the team was sold. I wrote a review of the book for the September issue of Buffalo Spree (synopsis: it’s a good read). He signed the book at his desk as if he were singing a bill into law.
Another highlight was meeting Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James in Poloncarz’ office. I can now say I’ve met every NY attorney general going back to Eliot Spitzer (whose recount against incumbent Dennis Vacco I helped coordinate in the Rochester area), which is as good a reason as any to stay on the right side of the law.
And, of course, there was a large contingent from the county executive’s family. He has a wonderful, solid, very genuine extended family who keep him grounded. To know them is to know Mark. I would say they’re his secret weapon, but that would be giving away the secret.
Their influence may be felt in another way: at the open house I was struck by just how much the officials in the county administration gave the sense of being a family – much more so than in any political or governmental organization I’ve ever seen. That may be why officials like Charles Sickler and Dick Derwald, who have earned their retirements, want to keep their hand in.
What should government do?
If government can be a force for good, as Poloncarz asserted in his inaugural address, what can (and should) it do in Erie County in his next term? This is a central question, as Poloncarz would seem to be better positioned now than in any of his previous terms. He has the advantage not just of longevity, but a well-deserved reputation for competent government, even among those who may not be members of his fan club. He and his political allies have also built a solid Democratic majority in the county legislature – not just solid in terms of numbers, but composed of solid Democrats untempted by factional, self-serving mischief that in earlier versions of the legislature was more of a feature than a bug. He is well regarded at the regional, state, and federal levels, as well.
It has taken two terms to lay that groundwork. And every bit of it may prove essential for a couple of heavy-lift projects coming up in his third term: a new convention center and a new Bills lease, which certainly will involve major facilities investments and perhaps even a new stadium. Let’s look at each of those briefly.
Regarding the Bills lease, the big opportunity at hand is to move the team back into the city for which it is named. One of the most talked about locations for a new stadium is in the Cobblestone District, which makes the most sense. (Although not perfect, the 2014 Artvoice cover story showing a proposed plan and rendering for a Cobblestone District stadium is about as close to being right as any proposal I’ve seen, as I discussed here.)
Unfortunately, talk about a new stadium often seems to get lost in the weeds. People talk about losing the tailgating tradition, or how good “the bones” of the current stadium may be, or parking, or whether the public should contribute to constructing a stadium for a team owned by a billionaire, or how a stadium could site idle on non-game days. But all of that is missing the point.
A primary reason to move the team into the city is not just for identity, but because the city is where a stadium can have a multiplier effect – especially downtown. In Orchard Park, fans drive in before the game, park, maybe tailgate, attend the game, then drive home. But with a downtown stadium, on game day families could make a day of it, with things to do near the stadium for those not attending the game. And a downtown stadium would be much easier to keep active on non-game days. It would also have spillover effects on downtown development, helping justify public investment. And it wouldn’t be like the current stadium: a concrete island in a parking-lot sea. That’s because downtown already has plenty of garage and surface parking, and thousands of attendees can be brought in by rail from satellite parking areas (where the tailgating tradition can live on).
A new downtown stadium for the Bills would be a big lift, but that’s the kind of thing government can accomplish. Especially a county government that Poloncarz has spent two terms putting back on a solid footing.
As for the convention center, it’s not only a big lift project, but it really should be an even bigger lift. How so? We need to be building not just a new convention center, but also some amount of dedicated parking (perhaps underground) and a convention hotel. All that taken together could be considered a civic center project, which is why Providence, Rhode Island is such a good model to consider. There, local government needed those facilities but couldn’t afford to build them, so the state stepped in by creating a civic center authority to bond for the construction and operate the entire facility. Each piece has a revenue stream that can be used to pay for the bonds.
But here, from what I’ve seen so far, we may not be thinking big enough. As I wrote here, a convention center project is worthwhile if it’s big enough and comprehensive enough to help transform a section of downtown and include new facilities and amenities for the city we wouldn’t be able to justify otherwise. The apparent smallness of the thinking on this so far may not be entirely the fault of the administration, as two years ago a recalcitrant county legislature wouldn’t provide the additional funds necessary to expand the scope of the study as the administration requested. That’s something that may need to be revisited.
That’s especially so as the two sites the county focused on are both fatally flawed, as discussed here. There is only one site downtown that, in terms of location and size, could accommodate a civic center project but it was taken out of consideration. It needs to be reconsidered. I’ll have more to say this year about the convention center.
Aside from being heavy lifts, a civic-center project and a stadium project have something very important in common. Because each could be built by a state authority that could issue bonds for the construction, each also represents the opportunity for county government to get out of a business it has no business being in. Think about this: does Erie County control the airport and construct projects there? Thankfully, no. In Monroe, where the county does own the airport, projects often become political footballs, and distract from other pressing matters of government. But not here, because the airport is controlled by the NFTA, an independent authority. When the airport needs new facilities, the NFTA issues bonds for the construction, and whatever is needed gets built.
So why is Erie County in the stadium business? Or the convention center business? If a new stadium were built downtown, it could be constructed and operated by a state-created stadium authority. That authority could bond for its share of the construction costs. A stadium authority could also get involved in upgrading facilities for the Sabres or the Bisons. It could contribute to other projects deemed necessary to make the sports district function, like streetscapes, parking, and rail hubs. Likewise, as in Providence, RI, a convention center/civic center project could be constructed and operated by a civic center authority. As it stands now, the current stadium and convention center are giant, concrete millstones around the neck of county government that distract from other priorities.
What other priorities? Here are some Poloncarz mentioned in his speech:
We will continue to invest in our village, town and city centers to fight the sprawl that wastes resources and instead promote the advancement of clean energy, and the return of walkable, livable communities built to withstand the growing challenges of climate change. Furthermore, we will invest in the creation of ErieNET to improve broadband access and choice in our community so Erie County is not left behind in the global, technologically rich economy of today.
Such priorities, that have a much greater impact on the day-to-day lives of most county residents, tend to get lost amid the distraction of big-ticket, high-profile projects and are often given short shrift by the media. In fact, the media didn’t ask about them at the inauguration, but they did ask about the Bills lease and stadium. No one asked about investing in the parks, or protecting agricultural land from encroaching development, or planning a countywide greenway network, or reproducing the success of the health mall in any other community of need, or re-opening libraries that were closed during “Red-Green,” or farm-to-table initiatives, or helping the City of Buffalo with its looming budget crisis, or a lead abatement “moon shot,” or solving the structural issues at ECC.
With Poloncarz entering a new term at the same time as we enter a new decade, it’s reasonable to ask what his legacy in office might look like a decade from now. A well-done civic center project in the central business district and a new stadium in the Cobblestone District would help transform large swathes of downtown, the hub of the region. That might be enough of a legacy for anyone.
But imagine, at the same time, county government unshackled from these projects and free to be a much more effective force for good – a phrase repeated in Poloncarz’ speech – in the lives of the people it collectively embodies.
Now that’s a legacy.