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.

Follow me on Twitter @kenkruly

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.