Assessing Buffalo’s mayoral primary

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

A win is a win, and Byron Brown certainly did that Tuesday, capturing a little more than half the vote in a three-way Democratic primary for mayor. The victory sets Brown up for a fourth term, equalling the tenure of Jimmy Griffin.

That’s about where the good news ends for the mayor. The numbers are not otherwise kind.

Let’s start with his 13,346 votes – the lowest of his four primary runs and little more than half of his total eight years ago. (Mickey Kearns garnered more votes eight years ago in losing to Brown in a landslide. Think about it.)

Ditto for Brown’s share of the primary vote this year – 52 percent, down from 67 percent last time around.


Jim Heaney discusses the mayoral primary – and the Higgins non-factor – with Susan Arbetter on The Capitol Pressroom.


Low turnout suggests the voting public has largely lost whatever excitement Brown may have once generated. It’s a lot more complicated than that – let’s face it, turnout has been lousy in city elections for decades – but you can’t say Democrats are wild about Brown when only one in eight can be bothered traipsing to the polls to vote for him. Repeat: one in eight.

That he’s poised to win a fourth term is a testament in part to how shallow the Democratic bench is in the city. Schroeder ran a respectable campaign, better than Brown’s challengers in the previous three primaries. But he didn’t exactly exude charisma, couldn’t seize any issues that captivated the public’s attention, didn’t garner any significant endorsements, or otherwise generate any kind of serious buzz.

That left him to deal with a largely indifferent voting public and an entrenched, well-financed incumbent who, through little doing of his own, is presiding over a modest revival of the city. Little wonder he couldn’t break through.

Betty Jean Grant, well, she tried. Perhaps the most street savvy politician in the city, save Council President Darius Pridgen, her heart is in the right place, but her campaign never got close to gaining traction.

I broke down the voting patterns across the city and here’s what struck me:

  • Schroeder and Brown both did exceptionally well in their home bases. The comptroller garnered a whopping 80 percent of the vote in the South Council District, which had the city’s highest voter turnout of 37 percent. The mayor, meanwhile, took 68 percent of the vote in Masten, although Grant cost him, grabbing 21 percent of the vote there. Turnout in Masten was on par with the city as a whole at 26 percent.
  • Schroeder won only one other Council district, Lovejoy, although he failed to capture a majority.
  • Beside Masten, Brown ran particularly strong in the Ellicott and University districts.
  • Add it all up, racial voting patterns remain strong. Schroeder did best in predominantly white districts, Brown in those heavily populated with African Americans.

For more details, check out these charts:

Also, The Buffalo News produced some nifty maps of election results worth looking at.

A final thought. Tuesday’s turnout continues a sad trend of poor voter participation. Back in the day, more than half of voters turned out for the mayor’s primary; now only about a quarter do.

Turnout is even worse for other city races, including the Common Council and Board of Education, as I documented in this story in 2013.

Of course, it’s bad in a lot of places; turnout Tuesday in the mayoral primary in New York City was in the mid-teens. And it’s been worse.

The lackluster turnout here is a sign of how stagnant our city political culture has gotten. Despite progress, Buffalo faces serious, stubborn problems, but the voting public can’t be bothered with City Hall, which in turn, mostly hides from tackling the tough issues.

I suspect the politicians like it that way.

Hell, five of nine Council members ran unopposed two years ago, and the Council, in turn, is little more than a rubber stamp for the mayor, who, in turn, has hardly had to break a sweat in retaining his seat all these years.

The School Board, meanwhile, is well, a circus. Getting rid of Carl Paladino helps, but still …

Buffalo deserves better, but as the saying goes, people get the government they deserve. So long as voters sit out elections, the Democrats fail to recruit qualified candidates and the Republicans sit out city elections altogether, we’re stuck with the current state of affairs.

I suspect change will begin when a few brave souls with the chops to make a difference get in the game and run for public office. Until then, as one sage keeps reminding me, we’re doomed to be “ruled by inferiors.”