The Dunn Deal Will the Erie County Dems Change Strategy? By Peter Livingston

I do not like how the Democratic Party brands itself. The answer to every question is more spending; the solution to debt is more taxes. President Barack Obama says we need to increase spending on solar energy, and it is the responsibility of the "wealthy and well connected" to pay for it. Governor Andrew Cuomo says we need to raise the minimum wage for teenagers, and taxes for millionaires should be increased to pay for it. County Executive Mark Poloncarz says we need to spend more money on theater, and larger property owners should pay for it.

I find this message frustrating, because it punishes success and vilifies successful individuals. And it works.

President Obama was recently re-elected in a landslide. Governor Cuomo has stellar approval ratings, which diminished recently due to his rushed and poorly crafted gun prohibition law. County Executive Poloncarz was elected last year by defeating an incumbent who didn't raise taxes for his last three years, lowered the county's debt and increased the county's surplus account during the worst national recession since the Great Depression.

Out of fairness, Poloncarz campaigned promising not to raise taxes. Perhaps instead of printing "Paid for by Friends of Mark Poloncarz" on the bottom of each of his campaign flyers, he should have printed "Past promises do not guarantee future performance."

Clearly, the message is effective. When Rep. Chris Lee lost his shirt and common sense, Kathy Hochul won a special election in a Republican district by portraying Jane Corwin as super-wealthy and out of touch with the average voter. This is despite the fact that Corwin's wealth came from working at a company that her grandparents started when she was a child. Corwin grew up seeing how with hard work, success can be achieved. Her hard work and success were vilified and Hochul was elected to Congress.

Rather than make the recent County Executive campaign solely about Chris Collins' record as County Executive, Poloncarz focused more on Collins' endeavors as a business owner. Poloncarz painted Collins as an aloof business owner, unsympathetic to the plight of the working man. This is despite the fact that Mr. Collins started his business career by buying the failing business at which he worked, maxing out his credit cards to make payroll for his employees before turning the business around. Like Corwin, Collins' hard work and success were vilified. Poloncarz was elected County Executive, despite Collins' solid record in office.

In the 2012 Congressional race, Hochul stuck to the script which had proved successful in the past. We all know how that turned out. However, the district was even more Republican that it was previously. Based on enrollment alone, Collins should have won the race by 9 - 10%. Instead, he won it by about 1%. Clearly, the negative message resonated with voters.

Some blame Hochul's loss on freshly minted Erie County Democratic Party Chair Jeremy Zellner. In fact, Hochul had no business even being close. Zellner should be acknowledged for keeping the race as close as it was.

Rather than stick to the tired, old and highly successful script, it appears the county Democratic Party wants a change - or it's being forced to change - with its choice of candidate for County Sheriff, Bert Dunn.

Bert Dunn is originally from a successful Orchard Park family. His father started Bert's Bikes and Sports and his uncle opened Dunn Tire. Bert took business classes at Orchard Park High School and continued taking business classes in college, earning an M.B.A. Bert is still involved in his father's business; you may have seen him on television commercials.

Dunn works hard at his family's business, because, undoubtedly, he wants it to continue to succeed. Now he wants to run for Sheriff. As a Democrat.

Headquarters, we have a problem.

If Sheriff Timothy Howard was not running for re-election, the Republicans might have offered Dunn an endorsement interview. He has good name recognition. He lists Ronald Reagan as his favorite president. His father is willing to put up $250,000 to fund his campaign and his uncle is willing to put up $250,000 more. He is not a fan of President Obama or Governor Cuomo (either Governor Cuomo, I would presume).

Ultimately, Dunn would not get the GOP endorsement. The correct answer to favorite president is actually Abraham Lincoln. Ronald Reagan only needs to be in the top four. And Republicans prefer their Sheriff candidates with more law enforcement experience.

So the Republican loss is a Democrat gain. But, given the Democrats' brand over the past few election cycles, how will they change moving forward?

In Bert Dunn, the Democrats have chosen a candidate from a self-made wealthy family, who is a successful businessman himself, and who does not drink the party Kool-Aid. But headquarters Democrats will face a number of primaries this year, so his self-funding ability is clearly attractive and probably the primary reason Democrats selected him as their candidate.

But if the Democrats are to consider Dunn's candidacy seriously, they must refrain from vilifying wealth and success. Given his relatively limited amount of law enforcement experience, his campaign will likely make his business success a focal point.

Dunn's candidacy will surely affect the county-wide ticket, beyond the checks the down ballot candidates hope to get from Dunn. Ideally, the county candidates will complement each other and campaign together. Democratic success in the Sheriff's race depends on city turnout,

Dunn draws more questions than he answers for the party faithful. Will Legislators Timothy Hogues and Betty Jean Grant want to campaign with Dunn, who contributed to Carl Paladino's campaign for Governor? Will Hamburg Democrats campaign for a candidate who contributed to the Hamburg GOP? Will Democrat voters back a candidate who donated $1000 to incumbent Sheriff Tim Howard's election campaign? The Board of Elections list these, along with a donation to Democrat David Shenk, as all of his campaign donations since 2000.

I look forward to seeing Democratic Party campaign literature that praises wealth and success. It will be a novel approach for them. They may have to spend some of Dunn's money to hire a firm with experience with this kind of message. Maybe Zellner can get a recommendation from Erie County Republican Chair Nick Langworthy?

I wonder how Erie County Legislator Terry McCracken will handle this new brand in his campaign against businessman Ted Morton? That is, if he survives his primary against businessman Wes Moore.

I also wonder how many elected officials will embrace this new message. Last year, Poloncarz wasted no time breaking his campaign promise not to raise taxes by demanding larger property owners pay significantly more taxes. Will he release a budget with a tax increase during a campaign season when Democrats are embracing wealth and success? Can he even help himself?

That would hurt Dunn's election efforts, for sure - but maybe the Democrats aren't serious about his candidacy after all.

Comments? Please email me at I occasionally comment via Twitter @PRLivingston.

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