While there have been some seriously contested elections for Mayor of Buffalo from time to time over the past forty years, you really need to go back to the campaign of 1977 to see what a real fight for the office entailed.
The 1977 election for Mayor featured four candidates: Democrats Leslie Foschio, Arthur O. Eve and Jimmy Griffin, plus Republican John Phelan. Eve won the Democratic primary, but Griffin won the three-way race (Eve, Griffin, Phelan) in November.
Since the 1977 election, a forty year stretch, Buffalo has had only three mayors, a remarkable thing to note in local politics: 16 years of Jimmy Griffin, 12 years of Tony Masiello, and 12 years (thus far) for Byron Brown. There have been six Erie County Executives and six New York governors in that same time period.
During those forty years the population of the city has shrunk and the demographics have changed. City government struggled with its finances and was bailed out more than once by the state. Then things stabilized and the city regained its footing, with the reluctant help of the state-imposed control board which essentially took over management of city finances for several years.
The downtown section of the city has thrived, aided by various government grants and tax credits. Developers including Louis Ciminelli, Carl Montante, Rocco Termini, Sam Savarino and others have built new and renovated old. Housing in the form mostly of condominiums and loft rentals has sprouted up all over the downtown area and along the Medical Campus corridor. The baseball stadium is over 25 years old but still going strong and the arena is an actively used venue. The theater district does well.
But the City of Buffalo is 40 square miles large and it is a lot more than the downtown community. Some areas such as the Elmwood Village and Hertel Avenue are doing quite well. But the progress has been uneven. There are a number of city neighborhoods that are struggling. There are hundreds of properties that could be torn down if there were funds and the will to do so.
The population of the city has many prosperous sections, but the fact remains that the city is consistently ranked among the top three mid-sized cities in the country in terms of poverty. The Buffalo school system faces substantial challenges in improving educational opportunities and graduation rates.
In the midst of all these “best of times, worst of times” features, Buffalo will have an election for mayor this year.
It looks like there will be a serious contest. Byron Brown plans to run for a fourth term. City Comptroller Mark Schroeder is getting ready to challenge him. No other names have immerged.
Anyone holding an executive office who seeks a third or fourth term comes up against something best described as “shelf life.” The campaign for another term in many respects becomes a referendum on the incumbent, regardless of how well the city/county/state is functioning. To some extent, though, it seems that the third/fourth term campaign becomes a question of thanks-but-its-time-for-you-to-leave versus we-are-fine-with-who-the-executive-officeholder-is. If enough of the voters who choose to turn out to vote opt for the former reason, the incumbent is a goner. If they think along the latter lines, the incumbent will coast to victory.
Some observers suggest that Mayor Brown’s legal issues concerning the lawsuit filed against him and the City by an out-of-town developer who was denied a contract for housing could do some political damage to the Mayor. In the absence of more public and definitive information about that suit no conclusion can be drawn at this time. There is little that has been publically presented in the form of subpoenaed testimony by Brown and former First Deputy Mayor Steve Casey that raises the type of questions which lead to serious charges.
Business First reports as of January 2017 that the City of Buffalo population is 259,517. They further note that of that number, 44.9 percent are white and 36.6 percent are black. Adding those two percentages tells you that there is also a substantial number of residents who are of other races.
As of April 2016 the Erie County Board of Elections reported that there was a total of 139,480 registered voters in the City of Buffalo, a total that grew larger with registrations that resulted from the 2016 presidential election. There were 99,972 Democrats; 13,169 Republicans; 6,988 voters affiliated with the six minor parties; and 19,351 people who were not registered with a party.
Of the past four elections for mayor, only one, in 2005, was seriously contested. The Republicans ran Kevin Helfer against Byron Brown. In that election voter turnout exceeded 50 percent. Turnout was much lower in 2001, when Masiello had only a minor write-in opponent; in 2009, when Brown only had a minor write-in opponent; and in 2013, when there was a there was a Republican candidate, Sergio Rodriguez, who had little or no Republican organizational support.
There were Democratic primaries in each of the last four elections for mayor. None of them were close. In 2001 Masiello received 72.4 percent of the vote, defeating Beverly Gray, who had 27.6 percent. In 2005 Brown received 60.6 percent of the vote; Kevin Gaughan 34.5 percent of the vote; and Steven Calvaneso had 4.9 percent. In 2009, Mickey Kearns lost the primary to Byron Brown, 63.9 percent to 36.1 percent. In 2013, Brown defeated Bernie Tolbert in the primary with 68.5 percent to 31.5 percent.
The recent past elections show that an incumbent is not only hard to beat, but it is also difficult to get voters interested enough to come out to vote. Turnout was best in the 2005 contested election, but the challenger to the endorsed Democratic candidate did not perform well.
So what does the state of the city and recent political history tell us about what might happen in 2017? It says that Byron Brown will be hard to beat. Let’s size up the potential line-up.
Begin with the team that is usually missing from elections in the City of Buffalo, the Republican Party. Reportedly Mark Schroeder has approached Nick Langworthy about an endorsement, but that seems unlikely to occur. There will be three countywide offices on the ballot this year, for Sheriff, Comptroller and County Clerk, with Republican incumbents in two of those offices. The Republicans will prefer their traditional game of doing what they can to reduce voter interest in Buffalo while trying to boast their chances in the suburbs. That usually works, but with local voter turnout trending downward, the theory might not work quite as well as it used to work. Assume a blank line for Republicans when it comes to mayor.
Both Brown and Schroeder have in the past run with Conservative Party support. While they Conservatives might speak about leaving their options open at the moment, it is hard to imagine the Conservatives endorsing a Democrat who also happens to be the Chairman of the New York State Democratic Party.
The Conservatives could endorse one of their own or they could endorse Schroeder to get into the game. Their friends in the Republican Party would likely lobby the Conservatives not to endorse Schroeder to keep that City of Buffalo vote total low in November.
A Conservative endorsement of Schroeder would give him options that would extend right through November even if he were to lose a Democratic primary to Brown.
A Democratic primary will find Brown with the strong support of the Erie County Democratic Committee plus Brown’s own large base of support. Schroeder’s challenge would be to win the primary, or to at least run strongly enough in a primary to live to fight it out in November if he has the Conservative line. Schroeder would need to look to Council Districts in the city when turnout is usually the best such as Delaware and South.
If Schroeder ran a competitive race in the Democratic primary, then a Brown versus Schroeder showdown could prove very interesting in November. That could turn into a judgment by the voters between continuing what is going on in the city versus shelf life. Schroeder could be successful in articulating a new vision for the City. Issues might arise about city services or other matters. But at the end of the day, whether it be in September or November, the 2017 election for Mayor of Buffalo is most likely to come down to a yea or nay referendum on Mayor Byron Brown.