What to look for in this year’s races for mayor, county comptroller, sheriff; maybe Hamburg supervisor too

As someone who has lived most of his life as a participant and an observer of local politics, I have to admit that the local scene isn’t quite as exciting or interesting as it was in years past.  I’ve been wondering why.

It may be that local and state politics is not attracting the sort of personalities that ran for office or helped get people elected in days gone by.  Or maybe the elected jobs that people seek are not what they were once cracked up to be.

Older readers have institutional knowledge of a different kind of politician.  There aren’t politicians like Joe Crangle or Stanley Stachowski or Arthur Eve or Ned Regan or Vic Farley or Alfreda Slominski active anymore.  They operated in a different manner.  Whether their styles would work in the 2020’s is anyone’s guess.

Maybe it’s that the issues in local politics are different.  Over time government programs get added or changed, costs go up, but revenues usually don’t rise accordingly.  So those in office or interested in running for office might consider that it is harder to promise things in a campaign that may be beyond being deliverable once costs are calculated and available resources are assessed.  The pandemic has exacerbated that problem.

Resource availability is most relevant in races for executive offices, and to a lesser degree, for legislative offices.  The subject gets vaguer when the public office in question is an administrative position such as comptroller, clerk or sheriff where costs are relevant but money decisions rest with other officials.

Among the approximately two hundred local offices on the ballot in Erie County alone in 2021, there are three with the most visibility as the election season begins.  Petitions are due to hit the streets soon.  More on that below.  It’s time for candidates and would-be candidates to show their hands.

In the race for mayor there will likely be a Democratic primary facilitated perhaps by legislation that might make it easier in a pandemic for a candidate to qualify for the ballot.  Having a primary, however, is no guarantee that the election will pose a serious challenge to Mayor Byron Brown winning a fifth term.

The city has multiple serious problems in terms of poverty, education, housing, management of the Police Department and its finances.  The issues did not develop overnight; it will take a long time to resolve them.  Overshadowing all the issues is the lack of money to finance city operations.

If President Joe Biden and the Congress can work out another relief package that includes state and local government aid one of the main questions will be how long such assistance will be available.  The Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority projects major deficits extending for at least the next four years.  Will the city use the time that any 2021 relief package offers to put itself in a better financial position or will city officials simply expect relief packages extending beyond 2021?

At this point in time it is hard to imagine Mayor Brown being seriously challenged.  He has his own well-established political organization, and as of July had $115,568 in his campaign account; the new financial report that was due to be filed on January 15 was not available as of the close of business on January 18.  Brown’s account is hardly an overwhelming number but India Walton has not reported a penny collected yet even though she has a committee established.  Two other potential candidates, Scott Wilson and La’Candice Durham, do not have campaign financial accounts created at this time.

Brown is in a position to raise considerable sums from people who have an interest in his re-election – think contractors and vendors who have business with the city and City Hall employees.  On the other hand insurgent candidates can often these days raise considerable sums from small dollar grassroots organizations if they can catch fire with voters.  At the moment such fires are not evident in Buffalo.

Incumbent Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw will not seek re-election.  The Democrats will nominate Erie County Legislator and Canisius College political science professor, Dr. Kevin Hardwick, who has been a Democrat for nearly three years now.  (Perhaps Republicans, who seem to have some sort of hang-up with recognizing that First Lady Jill Biden has a doctorate, will raise issues with Dr. Hardwick. :)  The more pressing issue for Republicans is coming up with a candidate for comptroller, unless they are just being secretive about a bid by Lynne Dixon, Mychajliw’s Deputy for Public Relations.

A financial check:  As of January 10th, Hardwick had $15,360 in his campaign account.  Dixon still has $6,402 left from her 2019 campaign for Erie County Executive.

The race for Erie County sheriff is getting more interesting.  Retired Buffalo police officer Karen Healy-Case seems to be the favorite of county Republicans while another former Buffalo officer John Garcia has been steadily building political support and finances.  His recent financial disclosure shows an impressive total of $135,422, including a personal $50,000 loan to his campaign.  Healy-Case reported $29,050, which includes a personal loan of $28,000.

The Democratic candidate for sheriff could be Buffalo Chief of Detectives Dennis Richards.  He does not have a campaign committee filed yet.  Former FBI official Bernie Tolbert, who came within 4,000 votes of being elected in 2017, is interested in running again.  Tolbert does not have a campaign financial report on file for 2021 at this time. 

The problem that Hardwick and the Democratic nominee for sheriff must contend with is that November Democratic turnout in the City of Buffalo is generally at its lowest in this year of the four year election cycle.  If the countywide Democratic candidates can push Buffalo turnout for their races to approach suburban turnout numbers then they will have a reasonably good chance of election.  Previous blog posts have highlighted this problem.  For Peanuts fans, this is your classic Lucy-pulling-the-football-away-from-Charlie-Brown problem.  Or for the more literary, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

And then there is Hamburg

The Town of Hamburg will elect a new supervisor in November. Incumbent Supervisor Jim Shaw, who has performed ably for the past four years, has decided not to run for re-election.

At the moment the Democratic Party has no candidate for supervisor.  The Republicans have settled on Stefan Mychajliw, who has $1,752 in his campaign treasury.  He spent $5,000 in campaign funds on legal fees to a Lockport firm in September, about the time of a legal proceeding concerning his campaign finance problems were being heard in court.

Mychajliw has set his sights on being the Erie County Donald Trump as he tweets away and stakes out Trumpian positions on local issues.  Was he one of those on local buses that went to Washington on January 6?

Given Mark Poloncarz’s quality management of the county’s finances, Mychajliw has little to talk about concerning his eight years as comptroller.  Politically he burned many bridges with his failed campaign for Congress.  And then there are some pesky issues related to the handling of his campaign finances, including the money swapping arrangements by his deputies between his state-regulated campaign account and the federal congressional campaign account.

It seems that Republicans would have had a more natural, quality candidate for Hamburg supervisor in Lynne Dixon, but she declined.  Now the question is who will the Democrats in the town put up for the office?

2021 election procedures

While the start of COVID vaccinations offers hope for improvements in our lives in 2021, the election calendar in New York State is not playing along.

Petitioning for mostly local offices begins on February 23.  It might be snowing and blowing that week.  People may not be willing to open their doors to sign petitions.  It seems likely that some changes will need to be put in place prior to February 23 to make it easier to qualify for the ballot this year.

In 2020 the number of required valid signatures for petitions was reduced.  That may happen again this year.  Another option would be a bill on file in Albany which would permit “a system for qualified voters to sign a designating petition for a candidate by way of a secure internet portal.”  Or perhaps as an alternative, candidates in 2021 might, as in some other states, be allowed to pay a fee to qualify for the ballot.  Has anyone checked with Rudy Guiliani or Jenna Ellis about such things?

Legislation to set up alternative procedures for 2021 seems likely before we get too deep into February.  Stay tuned.

Joe Crangle and the Democratic Party

Along with many other people in Western New York, I lost a friend yesterday with the passing of Joe Crangle, a long-time leader of the Democratic Party. It is not possible to count the number of local, state and national Democratic politicos whose careers were encouraged, assisted and inspired by Joe’s efforts.

I am re-publishing an article that was originally posted on December 15, 2015. It was one the most viewed of any of this blog’s posts and not a week has gone by in the past five plus years without readers searching for that article.

So here’s some history of Joe Crangle and the Democratic Party.

Ken Kruly

I have written some posts over the past couple months about the turnout in local elections –some of the reasons for that situation, some of the consequences. I categorized the issue in an election preview on October 30 when I projected a 25 percent turnout: abysmal.

All of this leads me to recall what was going on in years past when turnout was so much better than it is today. That gets me thinking about the man who played such an outsized role in generating those large voter turnouts in Erie County, Joe Crangle.

I first met Joe in 1967, when as a student at Canisius College, I got a summer job at Democratic Headquarters working on the campaign of Mike Dillon for County Executive. It was the campaign when JB Walsh wrote the campaign song, “Dillon will do it,” which still rattles around in my head. Aside: why don’t any candidates have their own campaign song anymore?

Joe Crangle in 1967 was only two years into his 23-year tenure as Erie County Democratic Chairman, so he had not quite attained the image of “Boss” Crangle at that time. He had, however, already figured out all the mechanics of getting out the vote, and throughout his time as chairman he continued to refine and develop the techniques.

Joe did not have the playing field all to himself in those days. Republican Chairmen Tom Ryan, Ray Lawley, Tom McKinnon and others knew their stuff too. But those were the days when Republican leadership in the county was more unstable, while Joe was very effective in solidifying his hold on the party.

The campaigns

There were a whole lot of campaigns for Joe Crangle. Here are notes about some of the more memorable ones:

  • In 1965, Joe’s first year as Chairman, there was still an active Republican Party in the City of Buffalo. Joe orchestrated Frank Sedita’s win, reclaiming City Hall for the Democrats.
  • In 1968 Joe chaired Senator Robert Kennedy’s campaign for president in Michigan.
  • In 1969 Alfreda Slominski was riding high as the Republican candidate for Mayor. Sedita was re-elected.
  • In 1973 Stan Makowski succeeded Sedita with a campaign victory.
  • In 1974 as Chairman of the State Democratic Committee, Joe led the effort to elect Hugh Carey governor, with an accompanying victory for control of the State Assembly by the Democrats – the first time in decades.
  • In 1976 Joe and Congressman (later Senator) Paul Simon of Illinois worked to draft Hubert Humphrey for president. The campaign failed but the effort was recognized.  Vice President Humphrey told WBEN at the 1976 Democratic Convention that “one of the real sad points in my life is that I did not have Joe Crangle aboard running my campaign in other years.”
  • In 1976 Joe drafted Pat Moynihan to run for Bobby Kennedy’s former Senate seat. Moynihan went on to serve in the Senate for four terms. And a Crangle-recruited campaigner got his start working for Moynihan. You may have heard of him – Tim Russert.
  • There were other campaigns that did not work out so well, but the party banner was carried high: the county executive campaigns of Al Dekdebrun, Frank McGuire, Dave Swarts; the mayoral campaigns of Les Foschio and George Arthur.
  • In 1980 Joe played a major role in Senator Ted Kennedy’s campaign for president.
  • In 1982 Joe was one of three main contenders for national party chairman.

The politicos who got their start with Joe Crangle

When I think about the politicos who got their start or got a boost in their careers through Joe Crangle’s effort, I think about how classic sports coaches and managers extend their legacies through the people who worked for them, people like Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi. The list of officeholders and political leaders who got their start with Joe is very long. At the risk of unintentionally leaving off some names, here are a just a few of the folks whose careers were boosted by Joe Crangle:

  • Members of the House of Representatives Henry Nowak, John LaFalce, Brian Higgins
  • Mayor Tony Masiello
  • Mayor Byron Brown
  • County Executive Dennis Gorski
  • County Clerks Jane Starosciak and Dave Swarts
  • County Chairman Len Lenihan
  • State legislators Robin Schimminger, Dick Keane, Vince Graber, Bill Hoyt, Joe Tauriello, Jim Fremming, Ray Gallagher

What we remember

            Lyndon Johnson in Buffalo 1966 – Steve Banko recalls an earlier day

The crowd in Niagara Square as President Johnson addresses the people of Buffalo,  August 1966.

It was August, 1966.  The sun shone brightly over Buffalo that day, as befitting a presidential visit to the Queen City of the Great Lakes.  The bright sun would have sparkled in the reflected glow of the white marble    of Niagara Square – if the square hadn’t been packed with people crammed into the heart of the city to see President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The president was in Buffalo campaigning for local Democratic candidates and was obviously pleased with the mass of humanity that filled the Square. Between waves to the crowd, Johnson leaned over to Buffalo Mayor Frank A. Sedita. “You’ve certainly done a fine job, Mayor,” the president said.  “This crowd is magnificent.” Mayor Sedita paused from his own waves to the admiring masses and beckoned over his shoulder to a cherub-faced Irishman standing in the background. “Thank you, Mr. President,” Sedita responded, “but if you want to thank someone, someone who put this whole rally together, thank that young man back there.  Thank Joe Crangle, our county chairman.” The president was obviously impressed.  As the Buffalo portion of the tour ended and the executive entourage was assembled in the limousines for the drive to the next stop, Johnson asked his advance man “Where’s Crangle?”  The aide answered “he’s back in the VIP bus, Mr. President.  He’s right behind us.” “Well, I want him here in the car with us,” Johnson said.  About that time, Lem Johns, the Secret Service agent-in-charge turned from the front seat and spoke. “We’re behind schedule, Mr. President. Can’t we just leave him on the bus for now?” The president stared into the face of the agent and spoke softly. “Young man, this car doesn’t move without Joe Crangle.” And in a very real sense, that anecdote is an encapsulation of Joe Crangle’s leadership of the Erie County Democratic Party. The vehicle of the party often sped down the byways of electoral success like the well-oiled machine it was called.  Sometimes, it meandered a bit, traveling some uncharted and unknown backroads.  And once in a while, it sputtered and misfired, limping into another election only to get fine-tuned and back on its way. But no matter what direction or route taken by the party during those twenty-three years, it was always clear that the driving force behind the Democratic Party was its chairman, Joseph Francis Crangle. And all along those twenty-three tumultuous years, three mileposts would recur as the absolute guidelines by which Crangle would steer the party.  Those mileposts are the benchmarks of the Crangle era in Democratic politics: dedication, leadership, and service.

Coming to know and respect Joe Crangle

Blog Editor Paul Fisk, who posted an article on this blog recently about JB Walsh, tells a story about how he came to know Crangle.

Back in the 1960’s, before I ever met Joe Crangle, I concluded that the simplistic impression I had formed of him solely from reading the local papers probably cost me an internship with Bobby Kennedy.

To explain – as an undergraduate at UB I was one of two political science majors nominated for an internship. I was told that it was UB’s “turn” for one that year, and I knew that the other person didn’t really want it. I naively thought I was a shoe-in.   I thought the interview with a Kennedy staffer was going well when I was asked what I thought of Joe Crangle. I replied something to the effect that the local papers made him sound like a political boss of the old school mold. The interview concluded quickly and I didn’t get the job. Only later did I learn of Joe’s longstanding relationship with the Kennedy family, and of the key role Erie County Democrats played in the convention that nominated John Kennedy.

A few years later, fresh out of graduate school with a master’s degree in Public Administration, I found myself working at Erie County Democratic Headquarters, drafting position papers and press releases for the Frank Sedita campaign for county executive, under the supervision of Joe. At that time, and for a few years thereafter, I sat in occasional meetings with Joe concerning political ads, policy papers and news releases as he fielded unceasing phone calls from all levels of the political world. I marveled constantly at his ability to shift his attention effortlessly between the smallest details of the material at hand, minor squabbles among local committeemen, and calls from Washington seeking his input on such matters as potential vice presidential candidates. I saw him have enough national prestige to pull in to local campaigns the likes of Bobby Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Speaker Carl Albert, House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, even Mayor John Lindsay.

Later, in a new job at city hall, I was in the position of interviewing candidates for management analyst jobs.   Three graduate students in Business Administration had worked on an analysis project for us that semester and one of them had clearly done the bulk of the work, and had good training and skills. Still quite naïve, I wasn’t sure I could offer him a job, wondering if there might be some political screening involved and knowing that he was a registered Republican. I mentioned this to Joe, who asked me “Is he good?” (Yes) “Do you want to hire him?” (Yes) “Then do it.” (End of conversation.)

In my years of working on City of Buffalo budgets under the direction of Jim Burns, I got the impression that the process for proposing budgets that were austere and politically difficult often included Jim having a heated discussion with Joe about the necessity of doing politically tough things. When Joe was finally convinced something of the sort had to be done, he would sometimes gather the Democratic council members to explain why some potentially onerous things were necessary and urge them to suck it up and do them without making things worse by publicly complaining.

After seven or eight years in local government and politics and various appointive positions I moved on to a civil service job in the state Budget Division. And after thirty-five years in government and ample reason to become cynical, I probably remain naïve but am optimistic that politics and government can accomplish positive things for people.   And I no longer believe that strong, skilled political leadership is necessarily a bad thing. I’ve seen it have positive effects.

A few words from the blogger

I have lots of fond memories of the times of Joe Crangle. A lot of us got our doctorates in political science at Crangle University. We learned that we needed to be accurate and thorough and able to express ourselves in ways that were meaningful and understandable. We learned the importance of thinking before speaking or writing, something that is lacking in the new millennium. Joe gave us some simple and incredibly important advice: never say or write anything that you are not prepared to read in tomorrow’s newspaper.

There is a great deal of grunt work involved in politics – list gathering; envelope stuffing; telephone calls; literature drops; running and serving as a party committee member, etc. It is part of the business that modern politics seems to be returning to in a serious but obviously more sophisticated way. Joe was a master of those essential political duties.

There are sometimes fun times in campaigns, or at least what passes as fun times for political junkies. I particularly enjoyed the opportunities that Joe gave me and others to participate in the presidential campaigns that tried to draft Humphrey in 1976, and the Kennedy for President campaign in 1980. We worked for stretches of 90-100 hours per week and had the time of our lives.

Steve Banko recalls the Kennedy campaign in Michigan:

A large segment of Joe’s crew had been summoned to Detroit. The logic behind the Kennedy campaign was one that would demonstrate the Massachusetts senator’s unrivaled strength in the industrialized states of the east and Midwest as an indication that incumbent President Jimmy Carter was vulnerable both in a primary and in the general election to come. Michigan loomed as the fulcrum in that strategy. Due to strange caucus regulations in that state the entire voting population was about 45,000. Immediately Crangle determined that every one of those 45,000 people would get a minimum of three contacts in behalf of Kennedy. When I arrived, we were in the process of stuffing the first of those three contacts – a letter from Kennedy detailing his worth as the Democratic candidate to oppose Ronald Reagan. I arrived at 7 p.m. at the campaign HQ in Southfield. Work had already begun on the tedium of folding, stuffing, stamping and sealing 45,000 envelopes. Around midnight, I was ready for the sack and virtually everyone else was also. Crangle sensed the lagging in production and started a competition to see which side of the room could hit 25,000 first. In hindsight it was pretty silly. Joe had assembled a pretty high-priced and highly experienced bunch and to think we’d get engaged in some silly stuffing competition was ludicrous. But at 2 a.m. one side of the room hit the magic number after a blizzard of paper cuts and accelerated stuffing.

I stumbled back to my motel room that night bone weary but still marveling at the genius that turned exhaustion into competition. The post script to that story is that we snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat in Michigan, due in no small part to Joe’s deft handling of staff and strategy.

I would add this to Steve’s narrative of that evening: sometime after midnight some of the volunteers spontaneously broke into singing, Frank Sinatra’s My Way. Except that the chorus of the song was changed a bit: “we did it Joe’s way.”

IMG_3031 (1)

Joe Crangle and Jacquie Walker, Election Night at WIVB-TV.

After Joe left the party chairmanship in 1988, he didn’t just fade away. He began a new aspect of a political career, that of commentator. For more than 20 years he worked every primary and general election night, and at various other times of the year, as political analyst for WIVB-TV, Channel 4. Joe jumped into that work with the same vigor that he approached campaigns. He recruited hundreds of party committee members to call in to a bank of experienced hands who tabulated the results.   Joe set a very high bar for that political commentating. Campaigns tuned into Channel 4 to find out what and when Joe was forecasting for that evening’s results.

I’ll leave with some final words to Steve Banko:

For the better part of a decade, I learned chapter and verse about campaigning from Joe. While my field was media and communications, it was hard not to pick up the expertise of guys and gals like Ken Kruly, Sheila Kee, Dave Swarts, Sue Hager, and too many others to mention. We didn’t always win but we never stopped competing and we never stopped learning. Under Crangle’s leadership, the Democratic voter in Erie County was never taken for granted. No campaign was ever undertaken without tons of mailings, phone calls and door-to-door contacts. Issues might have been over-communicated in those days but they were never under informed. Voters knew what the truth was and who was telling it.

When Ed Rutkowski was at the peak of his popularity as Erie County Executive, no one was willing to step forward and make the sacrificial run. But Joe would not allow the election to go uncontested so David Swarts was our “lamb.” Margaret Sullivan was a reporter for the Buffalo News back then and asked to accompany the candidate for a weekend. After a hectic Saturday that saw Swarts head from one boundary of the county to the other over 12 grueling hours, Margaret said one day was enough. As she was being driven back into Buffalo, she marveled at the schedule Swarts was keeping “while you guys have no chance of winning.” She was told it wasn’t always about winning. It was about competing, about getting the message out, about showing the party’s colors.

That is Joe Crangle’s lasting legacy to his community and his party. He competed harder than anyone else. He worked harder. He made sure that everyone knew the issues and more importantly, the truth.

 We could use a carload more of that these days.