OLEAN — It’s called the November surprise. It can also be called dirty politics.
Just before an election, flyers are mailed out disparaging a candidate.
But this time, Cattaraugus County Legislature candidates in the city — a Democrat and a Republican — appear to be victims of the same mailing.
The flyers mailed at the Olean Post Office on Friday and delivered Monday make claims that Frank Higgins, a Republican incumbent county legislator from Olean was in arrears with his federal income taxes, property taxes and city water bills. The flyer implied it was from Democratic challenger John Crawford, as the reverse appeared to be a campaign ad for the current Common Council president.
Crawford contacted the Olean Times Herald Monday morning to complain that the flyer linked him with the attacks on Higgins. Crawford said photos on the flyer came from his public Facebook page, the logo from an earlier point in the campaign and quotes from a previous race for alderman.
“Someone bought a couple of thousand dollars in stamps to mail all these,” Crawford said, “plus the cost of the printing.”
Most candidates and political parties use a bulk mailing to cut postage costs, and bulk mailings are registered — thus easier to track the sender.
“There’s no way to track this,” Crawford said.
Crawford said he suspected two former Cattaraugus County officials were behind the mailer.
“This is a way to take down two candidates at once,” Crawford said. “Sending out something in someone else’s name should be criminal.”
Crawford said one of his Democratic running mates, Adam Jester, called him early Monday after Republican candidate Rick Smith asked him why Crawford “would do something like this.” Crawford spoke to Smith, telling him that was not his handiwork. Kelly Andreano is the other Republican candidate in District 8.
Linda Witte, the Democratic council member for Ward 1 and ex-mayor, said she firmly believes the mailing came “from a third party who doesn’t live in Olean trying to intervene in an Olean election.”
“It’s a hack job to get two birds with one stone,” Crawford added.
Crawford said he and the other two District 8 Democrats, Jester and Gerald leFeber, have campaigned as a team, right down to their campaign flyers. They also offered who paid for them and that they were mailed in bulk.
“None of our flyers had stamps on them,” Crawford added.
Crawford said he spoke to the Olean postmaster to complain.
“There’s no way to track it because first class stamps were used,” he said.
The postmaster referred Crawford’s complaint to the Postal Inspectors Unit in Buffalo. They may check area print shops to see who paid for the printing, Crawford said. He also filed a complaint with the city police, who are investigating.
Kevin Burleson, Democratic election commissioner for the Cattaraugus County Board of Elections, said he hadn’t heard about Crawford’s complaint, but that it sounded like it would fall under the state Election Law financial disclosure section, which mandates a report to the state for an expenditure over $99 to try to influence a campaign.
Crawford plans to file a complaint with the state board over the matter.
Crawford said he had heard rumors of the claims presented on the flyer, but had seen no evidence they were true and had no intention of invoking them in the race.
“You don’t go negative in a local election,” he said. “I’ve never gone negative.”
When contacted by reporters, Higgins said he did not believe Crawford sent the flyer and his suspicions coincided with those of Crawford and Witte — but he did not identify the actor or actors.
“I’m not pointing fingers right now on the mailer,” Higgins said. “I’m not going to accuse someone until I have the facts. I plan to dig deeper after the election.
“It’s a political smear and I am appalled,” he said. “There’s another source out there that’s responsible. I wish someone would stand up and say who did it.”
All of the allegations on the flyer are untrue, Higgins said, but some of his tenants may have an unpaid water bills.
“I’ve never stiffed anyone on anything,” he said, denying he has unpaid taxes.
“You try to stay positive,” Higgins said. “This is a small community. Let’s talk about what we have done. It’s unfortunate going negative the day before the election.
“Someone spent a couple of thousand dollars on postage and the flyers for a shot piece the day before the election. We’ll do what we can to figure out who is behind it. There’s no room for this stuff.”