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Dixon campaign manager defends mailers, Hardwick responds

By Patrick Healy, Opinion Editor

The race for Erie County comptroller got a whole lot more interesting over the weekend. While Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was rallying India Walton supporters in Buffalo, mailboxes around the city were being filled with the face of Dr. Kevin Hardwick, the Canisius professor and outgoing county legislator. Running as a Democrat for comptroller, Hardwick scrambled to respond to mailers that appeared at first blush (and, to many, second and third blush) to be from his own campaign.

They were actually sent by his opponent — “Paid for by Friends of Lynne Dixon” was printed in as-small-as-legal white print on the side of the oversized mailers. The Griffin spoke with Dixon’s campaign manager, Chris Grant, who called the various controversial features of the mailers a “clever and creative” way to draw attention to an otherwise boring race.

One picture of Hardwick appears to edit him into a rally for former President Donald Trump. Grant took issue with this characterization, saying instead they were two separate images laid side by side. The Hardwick image was lifted from a photo of him with fellow Democrats Bill Conrad, Mark Poloncarz and Joe Emminger. Asked if that context is important, Grant replied bluntly: “No, it’s not.”

Perhaps the most controversial image on the mailer was an unmodified 2014 picture of Hardwick with former President Trump. Hardwick acknowledged to The Griffin that Trump was considering a run for governor, but he “didn’t take him seriously, just like a year or so later when [Trump] was mulling a run for president.” All Republican county legislators were in attendance, and he saw it as a way for him and his wife to meet the host of a popular TV program.

Objecting to this strongly, Grant said, “Kevin Hardwick was a Republican and it was a Republican fundraising event.” Everybody knew, Grant continued, that Donald Trump was more than a TV host or long-shot gubernatorial candidate; that he was considering running for president of the United States.

Grant says the debate over the Trump picture represents a broader “inconvenient truth” for Democrats: they are backing a long-time Republican who “magically” changed in order to keep office and thus secure a nice public pension. Where Hardwick deems himself an independent, Grant said Hardwick left the Republican Party “because the party would not kowtow to him.”

Hardwick said he could have easily kept his legislative seat if he hadn’t seen such a glaring need to restore good government to the comptroller’s office: “I had a Republican base and a lot of Democrat crossover appeal” in the 4th district, he explained. The pension argument is nonsensical, Hardwick continued, because he could have kept winning his legislative seat instead of risking it for a county-wide seat.

“There was no deal” to exchange party allegiance with Mark Poloncarz and the Democrats for a more secure legislative seat, Hardwick said, and he admitted that he knew becoming a Democrat would actually hurt him electorally. “If I stayed a Republican, there was a good chance I would not have had a Democratic opponent because they knew they couldn’t beat me,” comparing his 4th district races to uncontested Buffalo councilmanic elections.

Asked why the Democrats wanted him for comptroller when he could win in the moderate 4th district, he said “they couldn’t stop me” from running. Though “they’ve been supportive,” he did note that he defeated the current chair of the Erie County Democratic Party — Jeremy Zellner — for his legislative seat in 2011.

It was immediately apparent that the mailers were exclusively sent to Democrats in the city of Buffalo. But Grant said that the mailers were “designed for a very specific subset of Democrats who have progressive values” and who would be especially taken aback by the mailer’s references to Donald Trump and anti-gay marriage message. Pressed on how progressive Democrats were differentiated from the average Democrat, he stated, “You can tell by people’s voting history what people’s political leanings are. All the data we used was publicly available.”

Hardwick, who in 2012 supported Rick Santorum’s presidential candidacy, told The Griffin that, like former President Barack Obama, he was previously opposed to gay marriage but has since “gradually evolved” on the question. He can’t pinpoint one precise moment but instead said, “By the time I became a Democrat, I had moved on that issue.” However, referencing the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hughes case, Grant noted, “The issue isn’t gay marriage; the Supreme Court ruled on that 5 years ago. The issue is that Kevin’s hypocrisy is evidence of his fraud.”

What Grant calls flip-flopping Hardwick deems open-mindedness. He said his position is easy to defend: “When you look at polls from 10 years ago, to where people are now, … people moved on gay marriage.” Polling data from Gallup show that support for same-sex marriage increased from 48 percent in 2011 to 70 percent in 2021. Hardwick said, “Part of the problem in government is that people refuse to change their mind.”

His support for Rick Santorum had nothing to do with gay marriage, the former Republican continued, noting that Santorum was honest about problems with the GOP — “He was a populist, and I was open to that message,” having grown up in a blue-collar family. Hardwick said, “you evolve over time, you change, you grow through experiences.”

Hardwick explained, “This sort of tactic showed a lack of respect for voters.” Grant argued Hardwick’s past — and subsequent rejection of it — is the true slap in the face to voters, especially those outside his district who had never voted for him before. He said Dixon isn’t concerned she might lose credibility if she wins with voters who view the mailers as a trick, because “she’s not a puppet.”

Spurning any comparison between Hardwick’s movement on gay marriage and President Trump’s notorious issue-switching, Grant maintained that Hardwick “can’t handle accountability.” The Dixon campaign wants voters to know the truth of Hardwick’s “flip-flopping.” Are the mailers a sign of a desperate Dixon campaign? “The only sign of desperation in a campaign is a candidate whining that he’s losing thousands of votes because people are finally looking at his record.”

With all the attention the mailers have received, Grant crowed, “It’s pretty clear who won this battle.” Hardwick said if Dixon was able to “trick” voters, then “mission accomplished.” Both agreed they will cost Hardwick thousands of votes. Canisius professor Richard Horner disagreed. Noting that the mailers were sent to targeted Democratic voters in Buffalo, the longtime political consultant said, “If one piece of mail affected low-information voters that much, every election would be competitive.”

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