The local political battles of 2017

As Tip O’Neill once famously said, “all politics is local.” Well, not exactly, but in 2017 it sure is.

Coming in 2017 there is a wide variety of local elections in Erie County and Western New York. Among them are races for Mayor of Buffalo; Erie County Comptroller; Erie County Sheriff; Erie County Clerk; two State Supreme Court seats; the Erie County Surrogate Judge; and dozens of town offices, some of which might rise to prominence during the course of the year. Here’s a more detailed review.

Mayor of Buffalo

Mayor Byron Brown is approaching the final year of his third term. We have had a string of long-term mayors over the past forty years, with only three mayors in that time frame. Jimmy Griffin served for 16 years, followed by Tony Masiello in office for twelve, and now twelve for Mayor Brown.

There are many people who had speculated that if Hillary Clinton had been elected president Brown might join her administration. The Mayor’s political stock has risen with his close association with Governor Andrew Cuomo and Brown’s selection as State Democratic Chairman.

While the Clinton option is gone, perhaps there are possibilities for Brown in state government. Some local former elected officials in Western New York have done well entering the private sector through lobbying firms. There have been stories about what Steve Casey might be saying about Brown as Casey tries to fend off his legal problems. At the moment, however, political realities point toward a Brown campaign for a fourth term in 2017.

After years of financial and operational problems, City of Buffalo government has settled down. City budgets hardly ever make news. The Fitch credit rating service recently raised Buffalo’s rating to the highest in recent memory. Mayor Brown, Comptroller Mark Schroeder and the City Council all deserve pats on the back for that result, as does the City Control Board.

Economic activities in the downtown area and in the medical corridor have been plentiful. While the connection between the region’s unemployment rate and the activity of local politicians is debatable, the lower unemployment rate is certainly welcome news.

In the face of the positive core city development, though, there are some continuing issues that do not seem to go away.

Buffalo consistently ranks as one of the three poorest cities in the country in terms of household income. Cranes in the sky have not had an impact on this issue. Some local neighborhoods are thriving, but others are struggling.

Related to the high poverty rate are the problems that exist in the school system in Buffalo, which struggles with low achievement scores and graduation rates.

The key question the city faces is how to get past the glitz of the big building projects to find a way to see some progress with poverty and education projects. Mayor Brown and County Executive Mark Poloncarz have offered separate programs to deal with poverty issues. What comes of all that remains to be seen.

For the most part Brown’s presence as a likely candidate for re-election will freeze out other Democratic contenders for mayor at this time. But there might likely be at least one other candidate.

City Comptroller Mark Schroeder has been in public office for fifteen years now, as a member of the Erie County Legislature for three years, State Assemblyman for seven years, and Comptroller for five years.   Schroeder has been elected twice as City Comptroller, both times without opposition.

Mark Schroeder is not what you might call a shrinking violet. He has challenged the powers that be, even when he became a party of one for his opposition to now-deposed Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

As of the last required campaign committee filings in July Brown had $370,417 available. Schroeder had $138,659 as of October 24th. Nice sums, but hardly overwhelming. Mayors usually have easier access to campaign donations than challengers.

Council President Darius Pridgen is also mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor in 2017. Pridgen isn’t likely to challenge Brown in a Democratic primary. The Council President would become interim mayor in 2017 if Brown were to leave office for any reason.

Buffalo has not seen a seriously competitive election for mayor in a long time. Will 2017 be different?

Erie County offices

There will be three countywide offices on the ballot in 2017. The terms of incumbent Sheriff Tim Howard and Comptroller Stephon Mychiljiw are up, and there will be a race to fill an impending vacancy in the office of County Clerk as Chris Jacobs moves to the State Senate. Jacobs’ term does not expire until 2018, so whoever is elected Clerk in 2017 will need to run again in 2018.

The Sheriff’s office continues to deal with jail management issues and there has been another prisoner death which may lead to prosecution next year. Such issues have come up before, but Sheriff Howard was re-elected anyway. The cold way of looking at this is that there is not enough interest in such matters to move voters.

No names have yet surfaced as potential Democratic challengers to Howard. The office is, however, likely to be contested. Retired police chiefs or officers are the most likely source of Democratic candidates for sheriff.

There are also no known potential Democratic candidates for comptroller. Professionally qualified candidates for the position who are armed with accounting and financial training and experience are likely to shy away from an office paying less than $80,000.

The same is true for the office of sheriff and county clerk. It is about time for the County Legislature to come up with salaries that are more appropriate for countywide offices, including county executive.

When Jacobs leaves the Clerk’s office on December 31st the duties of the office will, at least temporarily, fall to the First Deputy Clerk, currently County Hall veteran Peggy LaGree. The governor has the option of appointing an interim clerk to serve in 2017, as was done in Monroe County recently. It is likely that whoever might be appointed by the Governor will be the Democratic candidate in November. Names mentioned for appointment have included county legislators Tom Loughran, Pat Burke and Peter Savage. As State Democratic Chairman, Mayor Brown is likely to have influence over the selection. Speculation is that Peter Savage may be Brown’s choice. Mrs.LaGree will not be a candidate; the Republican candidate for Clerk remains to be seen.

Off-year elections lead to substantial drops in voter turnout. The countywide turnout in 2015 was only 25 percent. This works to the Republicans’ advantage in county races, since turnout in heavily Democratic Buffalo is even lighter than the rest of the county.

Judicial races

There will be two State Supreme Court seats plus the Erie County Surrogate Court Judge position up for election in 2017. The Supreme Court seats are currently occupied by Justices Sharon Townsend and Erin Peradotto. Townsend will be retiring. Peradotto, who is serving as a member of the Appellate Division in Rochester, is likely to seek re-election.

Both Townsend and Peradotto are Republicans. Incumbents often receive cross-endorsements by the Democratic and Republican parties. How this plays out in 2017 remains to be seen. Other candidates have not come forward yet.

Surrogate Judge Barbara Howe will retire in 2017. Speculation about her successor has for months now centered on Court Administrator Acea Mosey, to the point where Mosey’s candidacy and election are thought by many to be a lock, perhaps with a bipartisan endorsement. Maybe.

The Surrogate Court Judge has lots of appointments to distribute as the Court’s representative in estate matters. The Judge also controls the lucrative appointments to the Statler Foundation. Given that, it is hard to believe that the Surrogate Court judgeship will go uncontested in 2017.

It pays to advertise

Outgoing State Senator Mark Panepinto will be leaving office on December 31st, perhaps with some issues unsettled concerning an ethics matter in his office that was raised earlier this year.

Time Warner News recently noted that the Senator has sent out some letters to past contributors on his law firm’s stationary as he prepares to leave office. The letter noted “If I can ever be of assistance to you in the future, please do not hesitate to call. I have included my personal business card if you ever need me for any reason. Again, thank you for your faith and support in me.”