At long last, and after a few flirtations, the Erie County Republican Committee has a candidate for County Executive: New York State Assemblyman Raymond W. "Ray" Walter will announce his challenge to incumbent Democrat Mark Poloncarz on Saturday morning.
Party officials confirmed the announcement will take place April 18th at 11:00am at The Mill, 56 Spring Street in Williamsville, New York.
Walter, an elder law attorney, represents the 146th Assembly District, which includes the Village of Williamsville, the Town of Amherst and portions of Niagara County. First elected to the seat in a 2011 special election, he defeated a well-funded opponent backed by the powerful Sheldon Silver machine. In a Democratic leaning district, he won re-election in 2012 with 55 percent of the vote and 59 percent in 2014.
That’s important: Erie County is overwhelmingly Democrat, so any countywide Republican candidate needs to be persuasive across the aisle for any hope to win. Walter's a fiscal conservative, but many of my Democrat friends think highly of him – even The Public’s Alan Bedenko recently called him "a mensch" in a Facebook exchange. (If you don’t know Bedenko, that’s no small praise from the high-spirited blogger who lights up area liberals.)
Of course, this is an uphill battle for Walter. Insiders say 20 percent-plus polling deficits turned away Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw and Clerk Chris Jacobs, the GOP's two popular countywide officeholders. Importantly, Jacobs could have brought significant financial resources to the table, which was a plus since Poloncarz has more than $400,000 in the bank.
But neither stepped into the race. Both said it wasn’t their time – and they were both probably right. Poloncarz is coming off a strong performance in Winter Storm Knife, which gifted him with a buoyancy that doesn't seem to quit. And many believe he's been a handy chief executive otherwise.
Still, Poloncarz is not invulnerable: county roads are a wreck, there’s been scandal and tragedy at the Department of Social Services, there’s no real job growth in Erie County, and he thinks thousands of longtime residents leaving town forever under his watch is just fine because they've been replaced by foreign immigrants. Of course, there's the perennial acrimony in the Erie County Democratic Committee (ECDC) and if you look at other area races, there’s no real motivation for the party’s urban base to turn out.
And where’s Governor Andrew Cuomo? We don't know yet, but he could sit the State party out of this one. He's not a traditional ally of Poloncarz or his county party pals; he's far more closely allied with estranged former county chairman Steve Pigeon. And the state's most important union, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), is not happy with the county executive.
The teachers union has actually been working with Walter in Albany to fully fund public schools and combat Common Core. He even opts his own children out of the high stakes standardized tests the union despises. NYSUT backed Poloncarz in 2011 in his tight race against Chris Collins - the union's PAC Vote-COPE donated over $150,000 to the ECDC in support of Poloncarz. But the County Executive dumped on a NYSUT anti-Grisanti mailer in last year's contentious Senate Senate race. So, who knows where the teachers go?
All this makes for an interesting race, and has GOP chairman Nick Langworthy in good spirits. "The more I talk to Ray and the closer I look at this, the more confidence I have that we’re going to give Poloncarz a race this year," he told me.
One wildcard in the deck: the Erie County Conservative Party. Poloncarz and party chairman Ralph Lorigo are talking, and an incumbent endorsement could spell trouble for Walter. Of course, Lorigo is talking with Walter, too, so what comes next is anybody's guess.
First appointed to an Erie County Legislature vacancy in 2009, Walter worked hard representing the Fourth District to help move the county away from the bad-old-days of green and red budgets and was later elected to his seat with 65 percent support. He helped stop tax increases and crossed party lines to restore $5 million to county libraries. And he built bipartisan coalitions to make Erie County safer: he stewarded the Silver Alert System, led a texting while driving ban and helped give law enforcement new tools to battle cyber-bullying.
In his three and half years in the State Assembly, Walter battled the New York State Insurance Fund to return $31 million to Town of Amherst taxpayers. He fought successfully to restore funding to the Office of People with Developmental Disabilities and his bill to expand EPIC was included in last year's budget, providing seniors much needed relief. Walter voted to usher in the Buffalo Billion, freeze property taxes and institute the lowest income tax in 60 years for middle class families.
And Walter continues to cross party lines in Albany: He was one of the first Assembly Republicans to actively support the Compassionate Care Act. And there's his working relationship with NYSUT, which is no small potatoes.
Walter built a successful career in the hardscrabble world of car sales before going back to school and pursuing a law degree at the University at Buffalo. He graduated magna cum laude and has worked for Magavern Magavern Grimm LLP since 2007.
Walter has been active in many civic and charitable organizations. He served on the Amherst Traffic Safety Board, the Amherst Senior Citizens Foundation Board, the Erie County Cultural Resources Advisory Board, and the County Executive’s Council on Economic Development. Today he coaches Amherst Youth Basketball.
Walter and his wife Jennifer live in Amherst, where their two boys attend public schools. And people tell me Jennifer is Ray’s secret weapon.
A word of warning for those wagering: conventional wisdom had incumbent Republican County Executive Chris Collins beating Poloncarz comfortably in 2011. This is a very different race, of course, but I'd still caution against conventional wisdom in Erie County, where we're anything but conventional.