There is a shift in the political makeup of the Erie County Legislature after longtime Republican Kevin Hardwick announced Tuesday that he will be caucusing with the Legislature's Democrats, as of Jan. 1.
Hardwick, whose 4th District represents Grand Island and the Tonawandas, cites what he calls a toxic environment in the national party and among his Republican colleagues in making the decision.
"I think I was, just up until a few weeks ago, [thinking I would] stay a Republican and fight for the heart and soul of the party formerly known as the Party of Lincoln. But events in the county Legislature and in the Republican caucus, the toxicity there, caused me to make this decision,” Hardwick told WBFO.
Hardwick, a political science professor at Canisius College, says he has routinely crossed the aisle to work with his Democratic colleagues, with whom he shares many common interests. He says his desire to compromise and work across the aisle over the years has not been well-received.
“I feel a kinship with a lot of them. I’m not a Democrats are alright, Republicans are alright kind of person. I like to speak to both people, both sides of the aisle. That’s one of the problems I have in my caucus. They equated compromise with a sell-out,” Hardwick said.
Before the announcement, Democrats held a 6-5 majority in the chamber. Hardwick's defection is expected to strengthen the party's position of power.
Erie County Republican party chairman Nick Langworthy, on Twitter, accused Hardwick of making back room deals and selling out. He says he will be looking for a "top flight" candidate to run for the seat in 2019.
"It comes as no surprise after his many secret meetings and back room deals with [Erie County Executive] Mark Poloncarz which got more pork for Kevin and hurt his Republican colleague’s districts. Simply put, Kevin sold out," Langworthy wrote.
"Or perhaps (Hardwick) left a party that on the national and local level has become racist, xenophobic and full of hate and anger, much like the listeners this station caters to on a daily basis," the County Executive commented about a WBEN tweet." There is no room for a Jack Kemp/Quinn type member of the GOP anymore."
Hardwick said he knows the decision is politically risky.
"Now I’ve got a situation where I’m going over to a different party. I’m almost assuredly looking at two tough elections, rather than one easy one. I’ll have a general election. They’ll recruit a candidate to run against me in November, the Republicans will. And I’ll probably have a Democratic primary also. I’m up for that,” Hardwick said.
Republicans in the Legislature are slamming Hardwick for the decison. In separate statements, legislator John Mills said Hardwick's departure was "long overdue" and Joseph Lorigo accused Hardwick of holding the caucus' agenda hostage for years, adding he is not sad to see him go.
The Legislature's Democratic caucus issued a statement of support Tuesday, saying "we know Kevin will be an outstanding addition to our side of the aisle because he shares our belief in governing responsibly and for the benefit of the people who put us here."
WBFO's Avery Schneider contributed to this report.