Could embattled Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz lose to an unknown GOP challenger?

Poloncarz was expected to easily win a fourth term, but a series of scandals have boosted Republican newcomer Chrissy Casilio.

Office of Erie County Executive; Chrissy Casilio for County Executive

The race for Erie County executive will reach its head in the coming weeks. Three-term incumbent Mark Poloncarz, a Democrat, faces communications executive Chrissy Casilio, a surprise Republican challenger. While no Erie County executive has ever won a fourth term, Poloncarz was heavily favored to win. Then came August. 

In a race many thought would be devoid of controversy, Poloncarz took flack two months ago for his handling of the migrant influx after an asylum seeker was arrested for sexual assault in Cheektowaga. Around the same time, Poloncarz was accused of violence by a former girlfriend in Buffalo. For good measure, a complaint was filed with the Erie County comptroller’s office alleging that Poloncarz had steered county funds to the nonprofit of a different woman he was dating. 

Casilio has pounced on the controversy. A recent advertisement for her referenced the Cheektowaga incident and how Poloncarz called her “morally repugnant” for questioning his welcoming of migrants to the county. Another released after their most recent debate asked why he isn’t in jail following his domestic violence allegations.

In August, GOP strategist Chris Grant released a heavily disputed poll that put Casilio within four points of Poloncarz. 

Casilio was a surprise entrant to the race, with some suggesting that she was chosen by default after no one else wanted to challenge Poloncarz. Her platform is focused on lowering taxes, improving public resources and public safety and helping small businesses, according to her campaign website. She has also said that she would enact term limits for Erie County executive.  

Casilio has never held public office before, but her social media history has been scrutinized. In posts on X, she’s suggested that the cardiac arrest of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin was part of a failed PR stunt and even compared abortion to the Holocaust and chattel slavery.

Erie County Republican Party Chair Michael Kracker told City & State that he still likes Casilio’s chances this November. 

“We’ve done our own polling and we feel confident that we’ve got a great path forward,” he said. “I’m very confident the County Executive’s numbers reflect a campaign that’s concerned about their prospects. It’s very abnormal. For a three-term incumbent to be going so negative so early on in a campaign suggests to me that their numbers suggest that they’ve got reasons to be concerned. And that would square with everything that we’ve seen not only in our internals but also from what we’re hearing from people every day across Erie County.”

He added that even though Poloncarz has a Democratic voter enrollment advantage in Erie County and can rely on urban centers like Buffalo, “voter fatigue for Mark doesn’t really have any boundaries.”

Casilio and Kracker have also been able to call upon the help of the state party operation.

David Laska, communications director for the New York State Republican Committee, said in an email, “The State Committee has been working closely with Chairman Kracker. We have put resources into the county, we will continue to put resources into the county and we will defeat Mark Poloncarz and kick this abusive extremist out of county government.”

Republicans may claim that Casilio has room to grow, but recent campaign filings show that Poloncarz has out-fundraised the newcomer by a large margin. Poloncarz raised 

$534,153 this year compared to Casilio’s $154,278. 

Lisa K. Parshall, professor of political science at Daemen University, said that Casilio was a “sacrificial lamb” for Erie County Republicans but that the race is now much closer than expected. 

“We probably shouldn't be sitting and looking at something where a newcomer challenger is creeping up on him in the polls, but that's sort of what's happening,” Parshall said. “He's had some challenges in his campaign that have entered into it and I think she's following the lead of the Republicans in a lot of suburban counties playing up economic issues as well as concerns about crime and immigration. But it's become maybe a little more contentious and nasty than I would have anticipated a few months ago.”

Between Casilio’s inexperience as a candidate and public figure, Parshall thinks Poloncarz will be reelected – albeit less comfortably than first imagined. “It's an off-year, low-turnout election race,” she said. “So I would expect him to at the end of the day comfortably carry this.”

Jack O’Donnell, managing partner of O’Donnell & Associates, a government relations firm with an office in Buffalo, also said he also liked Poloncarz’s odds to win in November. 

“I think the general consensus is that the county is doing fine,” O’Donnell said. “I mean, I don't know that there are huge accomplishments that people say, ‘this wouldn't have happened without Mark Poloncarz.’ But I think at the same time, I think what a lot of people want from municipal government is for it to run smoothly and it appears to be.”

Poloncarz’s platform, according to his website, is focused on improving public safety and emergency preparedness in Erie County, providing resources for housing and Erie County's low-income population and improving infrastructure.

O’Donnell said while Casilio ran a better campaign than some expected he didn’t have a sense that the race was close. 

The two candidates faced off for a debate at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in Tonawanda on Thursday and traded barbs in front of high schoolers. Panelists at the debate asked Casilio about a tweet that some interpreted as her wishing she could attend the Jan. 6 attack on the capital. She said the post was made in November 2020 and referenced a different protest in response to President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, adding that she was pregnant at the time.

Poloncarz responded by highlighting a dedicated website, https://chrissytweets.com/, where those curious could find Casilio’s old tweets. He also encouraged the young audience members to be careful what they say on social media. “This is a teachable moment to each and every one of you. If you post something on the internet, even if you delete it, it's gonna be out there and it can come back and haunt you,” he said. 

The county executive was also asked about the county’s ethics laws in light of the allegations that he had steered county funds towards his girlfriend's non-profit. Poloncarz said that Erie County had some of the strongest ethics laws in New York, which he helped develop, and their purpose was to stop county officials from benefiting financially from their positions. 

Casilio then accused Poloncarz of benefiting sexually from his position in government. “I’m glad you clarified that it is a financial ethical issue but you seem to leave out the sexual benefits that you get by giving out money to people you’re having relationships with,” she said. 

The two candidates have another debate scheduled for Oct. 24 on Buffalo’s News 4, days before early voting begins on Oct. 28. The Buffalo Association of Black Journalists also attempted to organize another debate in advance of the election, but Casilio reportedly declined to participate.

As both campaigns ramp up in the final weeks before  Election Day on Nov. 7, Erie County residents are left wondering: Will Mark Poloncarz be the first four-term county executive in Erie County, or will Chrissy Casilio do the unthinkable and defeat Poloncarz as a relative unknown? Only time will tell.