My take on the Fahey-Kearns contest

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

A fair number of elections for state office are stinkers. They’re over before they start because of lopsided party enrollments or one of the candidates, typically the one offered by the minority party as the sacrificial lamb, is clearly not up to the job.

That’s not the case in the race between Chris Fahey and Mickey Kearns to succeed Mark Schroeder in the 145th Assembly District. No, folks, we have a real race with real candidates. Kind of a nice change of pace.

The seat has longed belong to a Democrat, thanks to a big enrollment edge (43,200 to 20,000 over Republicans, with 19,100 independents and minor parties). That gives Fahey, the endorsed Democrat, an advantage, one that is further aided by the strong support of Congressman Brian Higgins, his former boss.

Normally, that would do it. But the Republicans can’t be counted out because they’ve got Kearns, a Democrat, running on their line. He enjoys name recognition, not only because of his six years on the Council, but his run for mayor a couple of years ago. That helps to level the playing field  to some degree.

Fahey, on the other hand, is an unknown, although the family name carries some cache thanks to his cousin, Gene Fahey, the widely respected judge and former city councilman.

Reason No. 2 this is a real race: Both Kearns and Fahey are capable candidates.

Kearns can be rough around the edges, but that’s almost a point of pride among South Buffalo pols, and ran what most consider to be a poor campaign when he challenged Byron Brown. But he has done a respectable job representing South Buffalo on the Common Council and knows how to handle “retail politics,” as they’re known in the business.

Fahey has never run for public office, but he’s a sharp guy, the brains behind much of the research Higgins used to do battle with the state Thruway and Power Authorities.  He’s already got a better grasp of some of the more complicated issues than many of the incumbents he would join in the local delegation if elected.

So, real race, real campaign.

What else is there to say?

I’ve covered a lot of elections over my 34 year career, most of them in daily newspapers where the byword is “objectivity.” Which is to say, all too often the coverage is sanitized and summarized, often to the point where the reader puts down a story lacking enough information to make an informed decision. I’m not going to do that here.

For starters, this is a blog, not a straight news story. Moreover, in founding Investigative Post, I wanted to find new ways to present news. I’m not a fan of “he said, she said” journalism. It’s easy to churn out, but often not terribly helpful to readers and viewers.

So what I’m going to do here is tell you what I know about the two candidates; assess the issues, separating fact from fiction as I see it; and report what I find telling in their campaigns. Hopefully you’ll feel informed when you get done reading the post.

The candidates

I can’t tell you a whole lot about Fahey based on personal experience, as I haven’t dealt with him all that much. He’s struck me as a smart, serious guy when I have.

I’ve gotten to know Kearns from his time on the Council and running for mayor against Brown in 2009. I summed him up in this blog post I wrote in August 2009 assessing his qualifications for mayor.

Kearns has shown some progressive sensibilities and comes across as an accessible, decent sort. But he’s still pretty green and largely untested.

He’s no dummy, but not the sharpest knife in the drawer, either. He has, however, shown a healthy curiosity about issues and displayed a willingness to learn.

While he points to Jimmy Griffin as his role model, and is a South Buffalo guy through and through, Kearns doesn’t have Griffin’s nasty streak.

If The News were to do another survey asking community, business and political leaders to rate the Council, I suspect Kearns would end up in the middle of the pack, perhaps a tad better, in what is a pretty pedestrian body. But he is hardly regarded as a star.

So, that’s Kearns.

The issues

On policy issues, Kearns wants to cut state taxes and otherwise make New York more business friendly.

“The number one thing is jobs,” he said.

Fahey supports raising the state’s minimum wage, saying its important to the working poor. If elected, he also wants to help push through legislation that’s now stalled that would earmark a portion of New York Power Authority proceeds for economic development in Western New York. He also wants to reform the process that determines how the Independent Operating System prices electricity purchases, which he said drives up costs by 10 percent.

The ISO …  electricity costs … hydropower proceeds … yeah …  whatever. Yawn.

But not really.

I covered some pretty complicated state issues during my time at The Buffalo News and I’ll tell you, it was scary what a poor grasp most of our local lawmakers had of them. So when I hear a candidate talk like a policy wonk, I think, “Yeah.”

But I digress.

Let’s talk about the other issues, the smack the candidates are saying about each other.

It’s just starting, but in the coming weeks, the Fahey forces are going to remind voters that Kearns is running as a Republican, with the implication to Democrats that “he’s not one of us.” This has Kearns fuming.

“I’m not a Republican, I’m a Democrat running on the Republican line,” he said. “I’m an independent Democrat with an independent record.”

That is true. So is the fact he’s running on the Republican line with the backing Carl Paladino and the folks who worked for the re-election of Chris Collins.

To underscore where his loyalties lie, Kearns said that, if elected, “I’m going to caucus with the Democrats.”

How does all this play with voters?

I’m sure some city Democrats who like Kearns as their councilman will look past the GOP line and vote for him. Many Republicans will likewise pull the lever for Kearns, but some may stay home knowing he plans on aligning with the Democrats if elected.

Then there is the Paladino factor.

Kearns is Paladino’s candidate, as evidenced by his endorsement and $3,500 thus far in campaign contributions. Just as Paladino was Kearns candidate when the Mad As Hell One ran for governor last year. Carl is going to win Kearns some votes and lose him others, particularly among Democrats who remember Mickey breaking with the party in the governor’s race.

In summary, Kearns’ party politics remind me of Jimmy Griffin. Hizzoner was first and foremost a Democrat, but played the field when it suited his interests.

So what is the Kearns camp saying about Fahey?

He describes Fahey as “hand picked by the party bosses” despite his lack of qualifications.

“He doesn’t have a track record. He doesn’t have experience.”

Kearns also charges that Fahey will fall in line with the Assembly’s Democratic leadership.

“Sheldon Silver wants to control the seat from Albany,” he said.

Let’s examine the claims, point by point.

After legal maneuversings, the endorsement was put to a vote of the Erie County Democratic Party’s Executive Committee and Fahey prevailed over Kearns and a third candidate in a lopsided vote. Another tally was taken of party committeemen within the 145th Assembly District and Fahey was again the choice.

That’s not to say political influences weren’t at play. Higgins had a lot to do with Fahey winning party support. Keep in mind, he’s the region’s most powerful Democrat who has a history of bringing candidates up through his organization.

Six months earlier, when Higgins and Party HQ were on the outs, Fahey may not have gotten the endorsement. But Higgins and Democratic Chairman Len Lenihan eventually made nice, and Fahey no doubt benefited.

Kearns probably helped his opponent out, as well, by talking to Republicans about running on their line before the Democrats made their decision. That’s not a way to win support.

As for Fahey having no track record, well, Kearns is right in that his opponent has never held public office and is thus untested in the world of retail politics. How does he handle constituents? How does he handle the pressure of Albany politics? Yet to be determined. That can be said of any first-timer.

Fahey, however, is no a stranger to government and many of the issues he would deal with in the Assembly. He’s been boning up for years doing research for Higgins, serving on his staff for eight years before resigning in early January to campaign full-time. Fahey can hit the ground running on issues such as waterfront development and the New York Power Authority’s dealings here in WNY.

“Chris is very smart, very serious,” Higgins said.

Finally, there’s the issue of Silver, and here, Kearns is taking a page out of Paladino’s playbook. Problem is,  politicians out of the Higgins camp have been no friend of Shelly Silver.

Higgins, if you recall, was one of those who hung tough in a failed coup against Silver in 2000. Mark Schroeder, who succeed Higgins, was downright hostile to the speaker during his tenure in the Assembly. There’s no saying how Fahey would interact with Silver, but the track record of the Higgins camp runs counter to what Kearns is predicting.

 The campaign

Fahey, from all appearances, has the better organized and financed campaign and is pulling away full-time.

“I’m trying to spend as much time on the doors as possible,” he said.

The count is at least 12,000, and rising. In addition to meeting and greeting, Fahey has put together a sophisticated campaign that borrows from the Higgins apparatus.

He raised $67,512 through the middle of February, the most-recent reporting period. Major donors include Higgins ($4,550); Howard Zemsky, a business executive aligned with Cuomo ($4,100); Sen. Tim Kennedy ($3,660); attorney Anthony Colucci III ($1,250); Schroeder ($1,100); and business executive Louis Ciminelli ($1,000). Other notable donors, at $500 each, include Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and former Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello.

Ten unions have pitched in a collective $7,424.

A complete list of donors can be found here.

Find Fahey’s campaign website here.

Kearns said the core of his campaign team is the crew he relied on in his races for the council and mayor. If Paladino and his Tea Partiers are pitching in, he’s not saying. Ditto for GOP HQ.

“I’m basically doing this on my own,” he said.

I can’t vouch for what role Paladino and the party are playing at this point. But with an apparently close race, I can’t help but believe both, especially Paladino, are going to jump in, if they haven’t already. I mean, Paladino doesn’t do anything halfway.

Kearns has raised $41,690, according to his filings with the state Board of Elections. He has a narrower base of contributors than Fahey.

Native American smoke shop operators have contributed $30,000. Paladino, through seven  of his companies, has given $3,500. The only other major influx of money is $5,500 Kearns transferred from another of his campaign committees.

Here is the complete list of Kearns’ contributors.

Find his campaign website here.

Turnout is always a key, especially in special elections, where no more than 15 percent of voters typically cast ballots. Fahey would seem to have the advantage in that regard, in that he appears to have the better organized of the two campaigns. But that’s one of many factors that’s going to decide this race.

After talking to both camps, I come away thinking this is going to be a close election. That can happen in real races with real candidates.