No clear choice for county comptroller
Dr. Kevin Hardwick needs to demonstrate that he will be a good comptroller, not just better than the incumbent. (Kyra Laurie for The Griffin)
Canisius professor Dr. Kevin Hardwick will be on the ballot this November. The former Binghamton political prodigy and Tonawanda alderman, and current Erie County legislator, will have the Democratic line for comptroller against Republican and current Associate Deputy Comptroller Lynne Dixon. Current Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw will try to continue his “Save the Skyway” campaign as the supervisor of Hamburg: seriously, he’s more obsessed with that hunk of concrete than a certain Opinion editor is with New Zealand.
As the current comptroller rides off into the Southtowns, er sunset, Democrats look to Dr. Hardwick, a former Republican and conservative radio host, to flip the office blue. With Democrats’ huge registration lead in the county, the mayor’s race boosting turnout in Democratic Buffalo and an unpopular Republican incumbent, this should be a slam dunk for Hardwick.
Despite Mychajliw’s actions, the comptroller is not in fact the chief Poloncarz critic nor official Skyway defender. The comptroller is supposed to audit county expenditures, ensure they adhere to GAAP (that stands for Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, not Greatly Annoy and Attack Poloncarz) and render financial advice to other county officials. The comptroller’s office has a $4.2 million annual budget and three dozen employees.
Hardwick has been a political science professor here at Canisius for decades and has served in public office since he was a teenager. Dixon, like current Comptroller Mychajliw, was a long-time journalist before seeking public office. Hardwick and Dixon served together in the Erie County Legislature, but their paths have since diverged. Dixon took the job in the comptroller’s office while Hardwick continued to represent Grand Island and the City and Town of Tonawanda in the Legislature (serving on the important Finance and Management Committee, among others).
They are both doing a good job filling out their ballot box bingo board — their social media posts are mostly a variation of, “Just stopped by the (annual event) in (Erie County municipality). Had a blast!” There’s more to a campaign than glad-handing, though, and the candidates distinguish themselves in their background and stated campaign goals.
The common knock on Hardwick is that he changed parties a couple years ago in response to Donald Trump’s takeover of the GOP. Republicans like Minority Leader Joe Lorigo shrieked of betrayal, but the truth is that Hardwick’s a good match for Erie County Democrats. Maybe the India Walton win means this is changing, but Byron Brown, Marc Poloncarz and Jeremy Zellner are cut from a more conservative cloth than downstate Democrats. In recent years, the GOP has moved while Hardwick hasn’t. As a centrist, he embraced the more centrist of the two parties — the Democrats.
That leads to another criticism of his candidacy: that he’s too buddy-buddy with the people he would be auditing. The comptroller is elected, not appointed, so that they are independent of the executive. The current comptroller has taken this to mean that he is County Cowboy, free to undermine the executive’s authority and generally be a subsidized nincompoop.
Lynne Dixon has listed 25 specific ideas on her website. Some betray an ideological obsession with opposing the “defund the police” movement, and others are of the cheesy and unrealistic “bring government to the people” variety, but there are some seemingly good ideas in there. Take, for instance, her proposal to aid ECC and reform the program that allows Erie County students to attend another county’s community college using Erie money.
Her proposal to target cyber crime on seniors maybe strays too far into legislative duties, but it’s worth looking into. The explanations of how the Automated Clearing House system functions and how we can exploit it to save money are useful. Auditing federal grant money and increasing asset tracking may be obvious, but the ideas do suggest a rejection of her predecessor’s ignorance.
Perhaps a ticky-tack critique, but a fair one for a potential comptroller, is the poor enumeration and evaluation of her own program. It’d be nice to have a numbered list of her proposals instead of an unimaginative powerpoint that frankly wouldn’t fly in a Canisius classroom.
Perhaps as a belated response to Dixon’s proposals, Hardwick recently published policy proposals on his site — less than one month before the general election and almost nine months after announcing his candidacy. Despite knowing he was the Democratic nominee for months, his website was strangely sparse until early October. Whereas before he cited a vague loss of “integrity” under the current comptroller, he now points to a “loss of talent” from the office as Mychajliw prioritizes politics over competence.
He urges further cooperation between the county and other local governments through New York’s Shared Services program, particularly to “obtain volume discounts on the disposal of household waste” and to“address the combination of untreated sewage and stormwater runoff being dumped into local waterways during high rain events.” Hardwick’s emphasis on county-wide services makes total sense given his long service in county government and doctoral dissertation on that very subject. The comptroller’s office, in his view, “could be the place where many good ideas begin.”
It often appears as if Hardwick is campaigning against Mychajliw. He had no problem dismantling the outgoing comptroller when he defended the legislature’s adopted 2021 budget: “Had [Mychajliw] been doing his job, he would have known that it is Sheriff Howard’s proposal that we adopted. He also would have noticed that the Republican Caucus did not lift a finger in their amendment package to restore these jobs.”
Unfortunately for Hardwick, his actual opponent, Lynne Dixon, has experience rivaling his own, without as much ideological baggage as Mychajliw. She could just as easily “return integrity” to the office; in fact, Hardwick himself praised Dixon after her final legislative meeting in 2019. It shows he’s a good person, yes, but for political purposes it undermines his “respect, leadership, integrity” schtick because his opponent has those qualities as well.
It’d be unwise to assume that Dixon will be Mychajliw 2.0 and that voters will see it that way as well. Some voters may also see an inherent advantage in electing a Republican “taxpayer watchdog” to monitor the Democratic county executive and legislature.
Dixon is matching him step for step on the campaign trail, and she easily beat him to the spot on publishing a platform. She displays an ambition for the job that is appealing after years of malfeasance on her boss’s part. Of course, that’s her weakness. Hardwick is banking that her connection to the current comptroller will doom her campaign.
He’s probably right, but his seeming unpreparedness is worrying for someone who calls for a more proactive comptroller’s office. He needs to demonstrate that he will be a good comptroller, not just better than Mychajliw. This is doubly true because he’s never worked in that office. His experience on the finance committee is valuable, but not as much as Dixon’s time in the actual comptroller’s office.
We know Dr. Hardwick would make a good comptroller; it’s just that he could do a better job convincing those who don’t already know him. He hasn’t distinguished himself from his opponent Lynne Dixon, who, in addition to time in the comptroller’s office, also has legislative and media experience. Most voters aren’t jazzed by county-level distribution networks, but that’s how the professor could stand out. His policies — now that they’re released — are better and more developed than Dixon’s. Our vote is still for Hardwick, but we can only hope Erie County’s is too.