Tim Howard has been polling regularly enough over the past 4 years to know that his favorable rating among voters has remained stubbornly at the 50 percent mark, while his unpopularity has climbed. Based on his actions over the past six months, it would appear that he is pursuing a two-pronged approach to victory in 2013 that is positively Nixonian: 1) gin up enthusiasm among the right-wing fringe and 2) do what he can to face-off against the weakest Democrat possible.

In order to nail down his first objective, Howard has staked out an extreme position on the SAFE-ACT, stating that he refuses to enforce the law. Press him on this statement and he dodges and weaves like an expert pol, saying that he has not issued any orders to the Sheriff’s Office as a whole, but that he personally won’t enforce the law.   Given that the number of times the Sheriff has been actively involved in an arrest during his time in office can be counted on one hand, it is unlikely that he will be personally enforcing any of the laws on the books – a distinction that is likely to fly right over the heads of red meat conservatives. By waving this bloody shirt in defiance of the law (George Wallace and Orval Faubus would be proud), he hopes to swell turnout from the gibbering Tea Party types. We shall see.

That leaves the second line of attack, and here he is relying on Erie County Democrats’  storied tradition of eating their own.  There are two candidates for Sheriff in this year’s primary.  Bert Dunn is a young law enforcement professional with a background in business and finance.  He has stated, loudly and often, that he has no interest in playing the same old patronage and favoritism games that have plagued the office for decades. His opponent is Dick Dobson, who retired from the Sheriff’s office sometime before the turn of the century and comes across like a genial fellow who is being played for a fool by those who claim to be his supporters.

Dobson has no money, no organization, no plan for the Sheriff’s Office and no path to victory in November.  His supporters barely managed to qualify him for the ballot this year; he certainly cannot possibly expect them to deliver a victory in November. In fact, a quick look at those who are supporting Dobson’s efforts reveals that they have a vested interest in keeping Tim Howard firmly ensconced at 10 Delaware Avenue.  Consider:

  • “Chito” Olivencia, who gathered hundreds of signatures on Dobson’s qualifying petition, last weekend  brought Tim Howard onstage at the annual “greased pole”  festival (only in Erie County, folks) and declared, “This is who I am supporting for Sheriff.” The fact that his nephew, Wilmer Olivencia is a once (and future?) employee of the Sheriff might explain this curious about face.
  • G. Steven Pigeon, the Voldemort of Erie County Politics, has given Dobson $1000 through his shadowy “Landen Associates” group – the same outfit that supported the efforts of the felonious Pedro Espada. Pigeon’s niece, Angelo Cerroni is a top “Management Confidential” employee of Tim Howard. With Pigeon’s involvement, Dobson should expect that same result as Chuck Swanick last year – a bruising defeat and a blow to his reputation. Good times.
  • Kevin Weber and Tim Elling, close associates of Senator Tim Kennedy, who effectively ran the “Democrats for Howard” effort in 2009.  Why would there be Democrats in South Buffalo who support Tim Howard?  Brace yourselves gentle reader, but there are a lot of hungry mouths to feed in South Buffalo, and many of them have relied on benefactors in Sheriff’s office for their daily bread, regardless of party or their ability to effectively manage the office.

Given his supporters’  feeble track record at the ballot box, it would seem that Dobson doesn’t have a chance. Perhaps he is a stooge and a stalking horse for Howard. But maybe he thinks he can really win this. There are rumors that Dobson is going to receive a last minute infusion of cash from folks connected to Governor Cuomo, via his local representative, James Eagan. Will Cuomo intercede on Dobson’s behalf?  Given Howard’s statements against the SAFE-ACT, it would seem that Cuomo would want the strongest possible Democrat in November, but perhaps the Guv has fallen victim to Pigeon’s siren song.

Anyone who believes that Dobson can defeat Howard is fooling themselves.  Ignoring the pathetic campaign structure that he has in place, the public has been given a similar choice in 2005 and 2009. Charles Fieramusca and John Glascott were both éminence grises – officers in their autumn years who exuded the same grandfatherly charm of Dobson (and Howard for that matter).  Both were defeated by voters in the General Election. When given the choice between the same character types, the public has chosen Howard both times.  If the Democrats hope to win in November, they have to put forth a new kind of candidate.

The question is whether or not Primary-voting Democrats are going to fall for this charade.  The Sheriff’s Office appears to be a shambles, a poorly managed patronage pit that poses a danger to its employees and the public at large.   We need new leadership, but Tim Howard is going to fight to the death to maintain his hold on the office.  And sadly, there will some Democrats (the same selfish group who have opposed efforts to bring the party into the 21st century) who will support him.

If Tim Howard can manage to use Cuomo’s money to defeat Bert Dunn, thereby ensuring the doddering Dick Dobson as his General Election opponent, he will be a master of political jujitsu. And Tricky Dick will be somewhere, down there, smiling.