** An article from November 4, 2015 – written by Michael “Vass” Vasquez at Binghamton Political Buzz Examiner.com **
With the 2015 elections over, the news is abuzz with the final tallies. For some the results are a surprise, but for many it was a predictable result. Of course it isn’t all quite over yet.
The headline of November 4, 2015, in the Broome County region of New York State, will easily be the landslide victory that was the 52nd State Senate District race. The race was a special election to replace State Senator Tom Libous, effective immediately. In 2016 there will be a normal election process to return the seat to the standard election cycle. The winner of the race, with 78% of the votes, is Fred Akshar.
From the start of the special election, the very selection process, revealed the problem for Democrats. Without apparently any prior notice, Gov. Andrew Cuomo selected Barbara Fiala as the choice for the Democrat ticket. It was an act that was stunning (as no one had a chance to request consideration), unexpected (Ms. Fiala had not even made a statement that she was considering the position – nor would she until 5 hours after the Governor had publicly made the choice), and rushed. The last part most evident in the poorly executed campaign that Fiala would wage.
The weight of the problem became obvious shortly thereafter. Though Gov. Cuomo had picked Barbara Fiala, he did not open the deep pockets in Albany or New York City. The underfunding went hand in hand with poor choices in attempts to sling mud at Mr. Akshar’s job performance (his work undercover to fight drug dealers), and major gaffes. Perhaps the most stunning political misstep was the fact that Ms. Fiala touted several times to news media her plan to fight the growing heroin abuse – an issue that garnered national attention in August 2015. The gaffe was that Ms. Fiala had no plan, at least available for the public and/or news media to see. It was not on her website, nor her campaign literature. That’s just political campaigning 101.
In light of the situation, it surprised few that polls reflected the disarray in the Democrats. First was the poll showing a 28% lead for Akshar before the first debate commenced. The final poll just a week ago showed a 52% lead for Fred Akshar. By the time the votes were counted it was clear that voters took the lead of Gov. Cuomo and abandoned any chance Fiala had of winning.
For first time candidate Fred Akshar, formerly the Undersheriff of Broome County, money was not an issue. By October 2, 2015, Mr. Akshar had more than 20 times the donations versus those for Barbara Fiala. Mr. Akshar used the funds to effectively send out over half a dozen campaign mailings, several television commercials, and allow the candidate to be constantly on the move meeting votes in all 4 Counties that comprise the 52nd State Senate district. No gaffes and a smooth campaign operation that many established incumbents could not produce, placed the election well beyond the grasp of his opponent.
As well executed as the Akshar campaign was, the real question being asked by pundits and political analysts is why the Fiala campaign was so bad? Given the big name initial announcement, the desire for Democrats to gain a foothold on the NY Senate, and a neophyte candidate, why was there so little there? The after the fact quarterbacking is giving an answer that will surprise, and even anger, many.
Barbara Fiala was a straw man. She was never meant to win the race, and if she did she was meant to be a placeholder for a Democrat to take over in 2016. The only purpose for Barbara Fiala, whether she knew it or not, was to be used as bait for the Republican Party.
The theory is summarized along these lines, Fiala was strong enough of a name as a candidate that Republicans would have to amass a strong chest of funds to combat her. Given that Akshar was unknown to the general public, this would mean even more money than for more established potential candidates. Every dollar dedicated to the Akshar campaign would be that much less for other Republican candidates across the State. Potentially, the 52nd State Senate special election could have used up enough money that the 2016 prospects would be damaged for the seat as well, allowing a Democrat challenger to step in with fresh funds and dominate.
In the case that Fiala won (which was never intended according to the theory) as the biggest city in the district is Binghamton and commands the lion’s share of votes but is a Democrat stronghold in the region, based on her age and mixed history while serving at the DMV she would step down for another Democrat to step in. In this unlikely outcome, Fiala was just a placeholder to allow an easy transition to a more formidable candidate to take over without a costly election campaign and resources being used.
If this theory is correct, it explains the initial push by Gov. Cuomo. It explains his notable absence immediately after Fiala accepted the nomination. It explains the lack of campaign donations and endorsements. It fits why there was an apparent lack in the quality of her campaign staff, and the poor choices they made.
If the straw man theory is correct, it may well backfire on Democrats. With the massive landslide victory by Fred Akshar, the new State Senator has strong name recognition and high likeability numbers. He is now firmly in control of the State Senate seat, for a shortened term which will allow him to gain experience without the burden of high expectations in the remaining year of his initial tenure. If State Senator Akshar is able to get any high profile Bill considered – on combating heroin abuse, repeal or alteration to the reviled NY SAFE Act, or any measure addressing much needed jobs – regardless of the success of the Bill, he will be nigh unbeatable. In addition, while the spending on the special election was quite high, in the hundreds of thousands, the State Senator now has a well established war chest that rivals other incumbents without adding another dime.
Worse, if the straw man theory is correct, it highlights the deceptive nature of New York politics. That the Democratic Party would use such tactics makes the abandonment of supporters in the 2014 Congressional race for the 22nd District seem subtle by comparison. But like many theories, there is no proof. Just a set of circumstances that fit the situation.
There is no question that State Senator Fred Akshar ran a solid campaign. But there is also no clear answer why the Barbara Fiala campaign was so poor in every aspect.