Brown challenger off to decent fundraising start

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

It’s been a foregone conclusion that Mayor Byron Brown would continue to raise oodles of money in pursuit of a third term as mayor. The question has been whether his challengers would be able to raise enough money to mount a serious challenge.

Brown’s two challengers – Bernie Tolbert, a Democrat, and Sergio Rodriguez, a Republican – filed their first campaign finance disclosure reports this week, and they provided insight into their viability as candidates.

The numbers show Tolbert is well on his way to reaching his goal of raising up to $350,000 before the Sept. 10 Democratic primary. His report filed with the state Board of Elections shows he has raised $212,627 and borrowed since January and has $200,325 in the bank.

“We have a goal and we are two-thirds of the way to that goal and we are about half way through the time frame, so we are pleased,” Tolbert told me in an interview broadcast on WGRZ.

Two companies controlled by Michael Joseph, a player in Democratic circles, have given Tolbert a total of $10,000. Twenty-one other donors kicked in $5,000 a piece. Tolbert himself has lent the campaign $45,500.

“It represents my commitment to this process and to what we are doing,” he explained. “It’s difficult for me to ask others to support me if I don’t show a willingness to support myself.”

To put Tolbert’s war chest in perspective, he already has more money in hand than what Mickey Kearns spent four years ago when he ran against Brown in the party primary. Kearns had raised $89,919 by this point in the campaign four years ago and had banked only $15,994. Kearns went on to spend $195,514.

To put it in further perspective, however, Brown is sitting on $1.34 million. That, and the experienced campaign team he has assembled – say what you want about Steve Casey, he knows how to run a campaign – give the mayor two major advantages.

A recent poll commissioned by WGRZ and The Buffalo News would appear to give Brown an almost insurmountable lead. Sixty percent of poll respondents said they would vote for Brown vs. 26 percent for Tolbert. But that same poll found that Buffalo voters are an unhappy lot over the state of the city, with voters giving him poor grades for his handling of education and employment issues.

This suggests Tolbert has a shot at pulling an upset if he can exploit public dissatisfaction. That requires him running a very effective campaign and most veteran political observers are underwhelmed by Tolbert’s campaign to date. Not that he’s not working, they say, but because he has yet to really go on the offensive.

Rodriguez doesn’t have that problem. He’s quick to attack Brown and working his tail off knocking on doors and attending community events. Problem is, he is having a very hard time attracting money.

His reports show he has raised $17,360 and spent almost all of it, leaving him with just $1,084 in the bank.

His only large donor is Raddelys Ventura, who Rodriguez describes as a family friend. She’s contributed $4,200. Most of the balance of his contributions are small, in the $25 to $100 range.

“A lot of people have been hesitant to jump in or donate funds, they didn’t even know if I could make it to the ballot. We did. Last week we turned in enough, more than enough signatures to get on the ballot,” he explained.

With that uncertainty gone, Rodriguez said he expects his fund-raising to pick up. He wants to raise $300,000 by November, but that strikes me as a stretch.

Both Rodriguez and Tolbert are having a hard time attracting money from politicians and  deep-pocketed party donors. Betty Jean Grant, chairwoman of the Erie County Legislature who has been on the outs with Brown for years, is the only elected official who has given to Tolbert. Rodriguez, meanwhile, has managed to wrangle a measly $100 from the GOP.

I’ve got to hand it to Rodriguez. He continues to be honest to a fault in answering questions. Back in March, he told me in an interview that a GOP operative had pretty much offered him a job in an effort to dissuade him from running. That’s a crime, or would be if the Board of Elections ever got off its duff and investigated. But they didn’t.

Rodriguez was candid again when I asked him Tuesday about his tepid party support.

First his facial expression, then his answer was, well, priceless.

Here’s our exchange, which begins at the 2:35 mark of the first video in this post:

Heaney: Have the party higher ups warmed up to your candidacy at all in the last several months?

Rodriguez: To some degree. I guess, now that we have the endorsement things are a lot easier to come by now.

Heaney: So they’ve gone from cold to lukewarm?

Rodriguez: Yeah, that’s a good way to classify it.

Good for you, Sergio, you haven’t learned to lie yet. Kinda refreshing in a politician, if you ask me.