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Clear Skies, Clean House

Mark Poloncarz takes the oath of office, becoming Erie County's eighth chief executive.

A brilliantly clear sky, bright sun, and mild temperatures greeted downtown Buffalo on the morning of January 1, 2012, where hundreds of people made their way into the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center for the new Erie County executive’s swearing-in ceremony. With the hangover from four years of divisive and myopic rule by the outgoing chief executive, Chris Collins, still lingering in the air, the New Year’s crowd present in the basement of the center was eager for the aspirin that Mark Poloncarz would provide. Indeed, in the invocation provided by Father Joseph Bayne, chaplain for the Buffalo Fire Department, the plea to “make all things new” extended even beyond the 16th floor of the Rath Building, and to the community as whole. The clear skies out on the street couldn’t erase the specter of recent holiday violence in the adjacent Chippewa district.

The large basement hall was stuffed to the gills with hundreds of local politicians, Democratic supporters, news media personnel, and a one-man protest in the form a man in all black with “STOP POLICE CORRUPTION” emblazoned in white letters across his hoodie, who stood behind a phalanx of seats and filmed the entire ceremony. An adjacent room was set for a coffee and cookies reception, absent any trace of mimosas or bloody marys to make up for the election night booze shortfall at the Adam’s Mark Hotel.

This correspondent saw Poloncarz during the preceding week in a local coffee shop sporting some Christmas scruff, the kind of fuzz a campaigning politician would never allow himself. Now cleanly shaven for his inaugural address, Poloncarz reiterated some of his campaign’s chief talking points before making it new with comments on the importance of social services for the poor and elderly. Especially noteworthy was his acknowledgment of government’s responsibility to serve everyone, not just taxpayers. Poloncarz emphasized the need for government to provide a safety net for society’s weak and provided an example of the importance of Erie County Child Protective Services, which has been no stranger to staffing cuts and loss of resources. By voicing support for poor folks and children—two demographics that don’t often have their own voices—Poloncarz symbolically announced the official end of his campaign; it might be time to grow that beard and get to work.

Noticeably absent from Poloncarz’s thank-you list, however, were the emerging political players in Western New York: the culturals. Although the heads of several organizations were present, and Buffalo Phillharmonic Orchestra chairwoman Cindy Abbott Letro mc’ed the event, they weren’t mentioned until the benediction by Reverend Dr. Chris W. Brown, who made a loose analogy about the arts and culturals being brought back from the valley of the shadow of death.

The inauguration was also a chance for the local Democratic Party to make a show of unity in the face of the lingering feud between factions centered mostly on longtime chairman Len Lenihan and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. As they did during Governer Andrew Cuomo’s campaign stop, the Democrats attempted to make nice in front of the news cameras, pledging a spirit of cooperation that often appears absent in their actions. But perhaps auld acquaintance should be forgot.

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