Over the past few weeks, I have been interested in the Buffalo News coverage of the nominating process for New York State Supreme Court justices. They are on the mark that party bosses are driving the process in order to add certainty to the outcome, decrease the cost of elections and reward political allies.
Since Erie County Democratic Party Committee chairman Jeremy Zellner can’t seem to win too much at the ballot boxes, cross-endorsements are a great way for him chalk up a rare victory. I am sure that Democrats across Erie County are proud of his success.
When word got out that four of the five State Supreme Court races would be all but decided due to cross-endorsements, the race was on to secure one of the spots. As the Buffalo News reported, then-Commissioner of the Erie County Board of Elections Dennis Ward’s last act before attending the endorsement meeting to seek an endorsement was to give out raises to Arthur Eve, Jr., Connie Zellner (Chairman Zellner’s mother) and Robb Poloncarz (County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s brother). Each had influence on the judicial convention. Ward’s rationale: “We took a pretty big hit, and everybody took at least one and maybe a two-step decrease in pay in the 2012 budget. My decision was to restore where we could.”
Curious, I wondered how big of a hit that the Board of Elections took in 2012. In 2012, the Board of Elections budget for personnel increased $165,000 from 2011. That doesn’t sound like a “pretty big hit,” except for the taxpayers of Erie County. However, the Board of Elections personnel line did drop $440,000 from 2012 to 2013. That might be the big hit that Ward meant to speak about. In fact, that represents about a 13 percent drop from 2012 to 2013. In 2014, the personnel line returned to $3,330,000, just slightly below 2012 levels.
Clearly, Ward’s reasoning for giving out raises to the politically connected party faithful falls short. For example, why did Robb Poloncarz receive a raise? If I recall correctly, he was hired by the Erie County Water Authority in 2012 to put his sandwich chef skills to use monitoring contracts. He was not at the Board of Elections when the “big hit” occurred. For Ward to assert that he was making him whole for a budget cut which occurred when Poloncarz was not even at the Board of Elections rings hollow.
Further, the personnel line decreased 13 percent in 2013, forcing Ward to take such extreme measures such as working within a budget. One would assume that while upsizing salaries, Ward would give everyone 13 percent more. Instead, he rewarded Eve with an 18% raise and Ms. Zellner with a 23 percent increase. Again, Ward did a lot more than make certain individuals whole. Coincidentally - or perhaps not - these higher raises were given to individuals with clout over the judicial nominating convention.
Also interesting: nowhere in the reports is there mention of Republicans at the Board of Elections getting raises. Did the Buffalo News simply overlook that fact? Doubtful. Is Commissioner Ralph Mohr just a better manager that he didn’t need to make cuts and restorations? Undoubtedly, but that does not explain the timing of raises for Democratic insiders.
Here's the fact: Ward had a full budget with which he could have increased salaries all year. The fact that he waited until moments before a judicial convention at which he sought a nomination is worthy of the News, and voters, skepticism.
The process for selecting judges may be flawed. Although politically expedient, all parties need to do a better job understanding how their choices for endorsement reflect on the parties and its other candidates. Is Judge Dennis Ward going to be just as fine a jurist as Judge Donna Siwek? I won’t hold my breath. The cross-endorsement of Ward for judge leaves voters with more questions than answers. Or maybe it doesn’t.
Judge Fred Marshall has his faults, but he is more than competent. By refusing to hear a redistricting case because it was political, he showed cowardice. As such, because the Republican’s refusal to hear the case in the short term helped the Democrats, he probably was the most deserving of a political cross-endorsement. That said, the cross-endorsement of Dennis Ward is a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
Voters have the ultimate decision as to who will be judge. I am confident that they will choose Dennis Ward, not because of his ability as a jurist, but for his ability as a political manipulator.
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