Strive for five or time for a change?  The race for Mayor of Buffalo in 2021

In the 188 years since the City of Buffalo was incorporated fifty-eight men have occupied the office of Mayor of Buffalo.  There has never been a woman mayor.  During the past 43 years there have been only three officeholders.  The majority of residents of the City of Buffalo have only known Mayors named Griffin, Masiello and Brown.

In 2021 city residents will elect someone to take office next January 1.  Byron Brown has not officially announced his candidacy for re-election but that move is considered a foregone conclusion by most local politicos.  Three other candidates are in various stages of getting a campaign started to win the office.

The city and its residents face a multitude of serious problems, some of which a mayor can impact; others require a major role by other levels of government.  Hanging over all this are serious financial problems.

Mayor Byron Brown is in his sixteenth year in the office, so it is fair to say that he has ownership of what exists in the city.  If he, as expected, seeks a fifth term he has some explaining to do about the state of the city in 2021.  The conversation needs to go on beyond the platitudes.  The city’s problems did not develop overnight, but his watch has been long enough for him to bear responsibility for many of the things that need attention.

The potential challengers at this time include India Walton, a registered nurse and community organizer; Scott Wilson, a 20 year-old who worked briefly for former Comptroller Mark Schroeder; and La’Candice Durham, a local business owner.

The questions for anyone looking to challenge a four-term mayor are significant.  What issues will I focus on to get city voters interested in my candidacy, and what solutions will I offer for the city’s problems?  How will I organize my campaign and recruit volunteer help?  How much money will I need to run the campaign and how can I raise it?

Mayor Brown has a fifteen year track record he will seek to promote and that he will also need to defend.  The challengers have the freedom to start with a blank page on the issues since they are not known to the general public but they will also have to provide specific answers to questions about what they want to accomplish, how they will do it, and how they will pay for it.

Mayor Brown begins with a built-in advantage of a large and time-tested group of supporters, some of whom work for the city.  The others will start with a smaller core group of family, friends and volunteers attracted to the issues that they will highlight.

Mayor Brown already has a campaign treasury of $170,544, having raised $157,925 since July, with an average donation of $969.  He spent $102,949 in that time period, with the largest expense items for rental of the Convention Center ($17,359); holiday gifts ($15,696); and various fundraiser venues. And this item: $40 for “gas to Electoral College vote.”  Brown is accustomed and well-positioned to raise considerably more money from friendly contractors, vendors and City Hall employees.

Walton has a campaign account established with a balance of $7,947 as of January 10th after having raised $11,288 (average donation of $353).  Wilson has a campaign committee filed with the state Board of Elections but did not file a financial report as of January 15th.  He is working to collect funds through ActBlue.  Durham did not have a campaign finance committee established as of January 15th.

All of the challengers face the same obstacles to their candidacies.  They need to create some excitement, which can lead to volunteer recruitment and money being raised.  That will be difficult in a city where there are limited opportunities for earned media, with newspaper pages and electronic airways highly focused on pandemic-related matters.

The Republican Party has walked away from elections in the City of Buffalo for many years, which at the same time is both a cynical and practical way of managing a political situation where the party is far outnumbered in party registrants.  The strategy has consistently paid political dividends to the party’s countywide candidates in local election years.  The Democratic Party primary, therefore, basically determines who the new mayor will be.

The public’s interest in city issues can be measured in part by voter turnout for the Democratic mayoral primary elections.  Here is a summary of Mayor Brown’s share of the votes and his winning percentages in his four primaries for the office.  Note the decline in the number votes he received from 2009 through 2017:

  • 2005 – Brown received 16,900 votes, which was 55.8 percent of the total (30,308 votes).
  • 2009 – Brown received 26,314 votes, which was 63.1 percent of the total (41,671 votes).
  • 2013 – Brown received 15,487 votes, which was 67.3 percent of the total (23,018 votes).
  • 2017 – Brown received 13,999 votes, which was 51.2 percent of the total (27,721 votes).

In 2020 there were 102,213 registered Democratic voters.

It seems quite likely, five months out from the June 22nd Democratic primary election, that the 15-year build-up of opposition to Mayor Brown for grievances real and imagined can produce at least thirty percent of the total vote for an opponent or group of opponents.  Whether any one of the challengers can break out from the pack and push that number higher is not obvious at this time.

A June primary election schedule compresses everything about what needs to be done in an election.  Mayor Brown has built-in advantages that are ready to go.  Whoever else navigates the petitioning process and becomes a candidate on the June ballot has a lot of catching up to do in a very short time.

There is, of course, another avenue for the challengers should they be able to secure the nomination of the Working Families Party or if they choose to run as an independent in the general election, which would extend the campaign through November.  Only the depth and quality of a challenger’s campaign can take it that far.

For detailed reporting and analysis of local news, check out the latest articles on Investigative Post, including my Money in Politics reports.

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