Sunday, November 06, 2011

Decided, in a sense

Let me try out a theory here.

The election for Erie County Executive will be held on Tuesday. The latest poll says the vote is the proverbial too close to call, 48 to 48 percent.

Off the top of my head, I'd say that Mark Poloncarz, the challenger, has a decent chance of willing the election. (Brilliant, eh?) I'd also say that Chris Collins, the incumbent, has -- if the poll numbers are correct -- already lost it.

Let me think this through. Four years ago, Collins ran as something of an anti-politician. He promised he would bring fiscal sanity to government, in an effort to solve the financial problems that sent Erie County to "adult supervision" in the form of a control board before that. By the way, it's interesting that a Republican, Joel Giambra, was in charge before that election, and that party wasn't "blamed" for those problems by voters.

Collins won that election by a 64-34 margin. That's pretty impressive under any circumstances, and gave him a lot of political capital that he has wielded in the past four years. That's fine, it's the way the game is played.

Since then, there's no doubt that Collins has more or less done what he said he would do in several areas. The control board is gone, albeit because Collins took some of the federal stimulus money and, instead of hiring people, used that money to help balance the budget. Some funding for cultural organizations was cut, causing all sorts of games to go on over budgets. Most of the last round of layoffs came at the expense of social services, which could be considered "playing to the political base" by cynics.

Collins has lost about 16 percentage points of support of the electorate. He has gone from 64 to around 48. If it's 15 points, he'll win according to the poll. If it's 17 points, he'll lose. Either way, is that a whole lot of comfort?

Maybe some local voters have learned the lesson that government shouldn't be run like a business in every way because it isn't a business. Run efficiently? Yes. But the functions are obviously different. For example, a government probably shouldn't try to cut out funding for eyeglasses and hearing aids for the needy, as Collins tried to do, even if it might save some money. If people can't see, they can't work many places.

And County Executives can't be CEO's, no matter what they think. CEO's are used to doing whatever the heck they want, including giving contracts to friends, without any of those pesky checks and balances provided by legislatures and courts.

The campaign, particularly in the television ads, became a referendum on Collins' tenure. Collins has dragged out the national Republican playbook of saying Poloncarz is beholden to unions and will raise taxes, but Poloncarz hasn't provided a whole lot of ammunition there. The most effective ad for the Democrat might have been done by a union, which put up a counter on the screen that went from 0 to 13,000 in 30 seconds -- reflecting the job losses in Erie County in the past four years. Even if Collins can't be blamed for all of, or even many of, the economic ills of the area, it's not exactly a sign of effective job creation either.

What can you do if people seem to like you less the more you appear in public? Keep your face out of TV commercials on Monday? Stay in the (Delaware Park) Rose Garden? It's a tough one, and the answer to how well Collins did it may come on Tuesday.

No matter what happens, losing 16 percentage points of your popularity while fulfilling your campaign promises is a neat trick. It might make some people a little more humble, a little more willing to compromise. But even one friend of Collins says that the current County Executive has trouble talking without using the word "I." Hard to picture that changing, but he may have to do so. Opponents would certainly notice the numbers during a second Collins Administration, if there is one. Even the allies could afford to be a little more independent.

The turnout figures could change what the final numbers look like, and Collins could win by as many as 10 points -- although I doubt it. No matter what happens, though, from a little more than a day out from the election results, it sure looks like the county's political landscape is about to shift. Will be drastically or slightly? I'll get back to you on that one.

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