“These are the times that try men’s souls…” Thomas Paine, December 1776
And women’s souls too.
And thus we find ourselves in 2020, in troubling times. The confluence of a pandemic, a major economic recession and turbulent days and weeks throughout the land make most everyone do their own assessment of where they stand; where the community they live in stands; and where the nation stands.
The issues are global and national but the reflections are mostly local and personal. How do we feel about things like wearing masks and social distancing; about what is important in our lives; about how we will operate and manage in communities that are transforming in real time before our eyes?
The national events became local events last week. Protesting and violence were brought home in ways that we have not seen in Buffalo in a very long time. A phone-captured video from WBFO reporter Mike Desmond focused the nation on Buffalo in the most disturbing of ways.
The aggressive movement of the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team which resulted in the serious injury of a local man attending the protest in Niagara Square last Thursday was tragic. How Mayor Byron Brown and his administration, District Attorney John Flynn and others responsible for the follow-through handle these matters will serve as a major marker on this community. Talk is cheap; changes in policies and actions are much harder.
The events have thrust the administration of Mayor Brown into issues that will test him and his staff greatly. Some of the forces at play will be out of their direct control, but they have nonetheless put him in a political spotlight he will not enjoy and cannot avoid. The conflicting views of community organizations and police unions are long-standing, and for that reason the dilemmas offer no simple solutions. Trust is required but it may be in short supply at this time.
Given all the public health and safety concerns that exist, Brown will also simultaneously need to deal with serious financial management problems that he has mostly avoided. The electronic and print media have only given a passing glance at the financial issues, but that does not mean that they are not very serious and do not exist. Jobs and community services are at stake.
The mayor proposed and the Common Council approved a budget for the year beginning July 1. Budgets are often described as “spending plans,” but the 2020-2021 city budget can best be described as a wishing plan.
The inclusion of $65.1 million in “federal disaster relief” and the inclusion of $11 million in casino revenues are intended to cover more than 14 percent of all anticipated revenues for the year. The next federal relief legislation that is widely anticipated appears to be farther off than it was even just a week or two ago. Mitch McConnell’s stubborn resistance is a road block. So too will be Donald Trump’s victory lap mentality about the stock market and the still record-high unemployment rate.
When the Common Council approved the mayor’s budget last week by a six-to-three vote they also attached a “memorandum of understanding.” The MOU noted the Council’s concern about the budget’s potential revenue crater. The Council wants weekly reporting and meetings on the status of the disaster relief and casino funding, along with the administration’s contingency plans for spending cuts if the money does not arrive in a timely fashion and in sufficient amounts. Every month that goes by will make subsequent spending adjustments harder.
The Buffalo Common Council has stepped up, noting their requirements for information in preparation for action. The administration has resisted such cooperation in the past even as the city’s finances deteriorated.
There has been discussion among Brown loyalists about the “strive for five,” meaning that the mayor will seek another term – which would be his fifth – next year. The twin crises concerning policing in Buffalo and a financial meltdown would seem to make such an effort unlikely.
We still have the election of our lifetimes nearly five months away, but politics being politics, don’t be surprised if some names start circulating as potential candidates for mayor in 2021. The 2021 Democratic primary is just 12 months away.
What happens when you make it easier for people to vote?
School budget and board member elections in suburban and rural districts are occurring this week, but the announcement of the results may not be known quickly because of some procedural problems related to the voting process for 2020.
There is also a political sub-story emerging, however, as the budget votes and board member elections proceed with a different kind of voting arrangement. All districts were required to mail ballots to all eligible voters in their districts along with return envelops.
Whether budgets are approved or defeated or whoever gets elected to the boards of education, democracy seems to be coming out ahead. The Buffalo News has reported that there will be a record number of votes cast in a several school districts this year.
Last year in the Williamsville Central School District about 2,400 residents voted on the budget and board candidates. Already by the end of last week the District had received about 7,000 ballots.
Voter turnout in the Orchard Park School District has ranged between 1,200 and 1,400 people in recent years. As of last Thursday the District had already received approximately 5,000 returned ballots.
In the Depew District in 2019 just 386 people voted. At the end of last week they had already 2,000 returned ballots. It seems likely that such voting patterns might hold for other districts outside of Buffalo.
The June 23rd party primaries and special congressional election could also see a surge in voting, even though in those elections it was just applications to request absentee ballots that were sent to registered voters, not the actual ballots. The increased voting in school board elections indicates that making it easier to vote can improve turnout in other elections.
The school district balloting may be an interesting test for the primaries and special election that will occur in two weeks, and perhaps right through November if absentee voting options are extended for voters in the general election. Who could possibly be against making it easier for people to vote?
Donald Trump, of course. But regardless of their pledged loyalty to Trump, Republican Party leaders and candidates would seem to operate at their own peril if they do not make their play for an increase in voter turnout that that mail voting offers.