Apathy, Democratic HQ winners in primary

News and analysis by Geoff Kelly, Investigative Post's political reporter

Back in January, this looked to be a dynamic election cycle for Buffalo Democrats. 

There were two long-time incumbents vacating their seats on the city’s Common Council and two more leaving the Erie County Legislature, creating the potential for wide-open races. 

That doesn’t happen often. In response, a host of candidates signaled their intention to run and began circulating nominating petitions in the bitter grip of midwinter. 

Many of these prospects were entering electoral politics for the first time, driven by a variety motivations: a wish to elect women to the all-male Council, for one example; for another, a desire to elect progressives independent of the Democratic Party’s power structures. 

Some prospects had their eyes on the vacancies, others aimed to take a run at incumbents. It looked, for a brief moment, as if there would be contests in every Council district, led by first-timers with energized support bases.

That happens almost never, and it didn’t happen this year either. Instead, insiders successfully navigated the political waters, outsiders were cast overboard, and voter participation was anemic.

Most of those first-time prospects were undone by the nominating petition process; some candidacies died of self-inflicted wounds. By the time Tuesday’s primary came around, there were meaningful primaries in just four of nine Common Council districts and in just three of 11 Erie County Legislature districts.

Only a few of those showed the potential to be close. One of those was the four-way battle to replace the retiring David Franczyk in the Council’s Fillmore District. And, realistically, that was a two-way race, between Council staffer Mitch Nowakowski, the endorsed Democrat, and real-estate investor Gerhardt Yaskow. Nowakowski won, finishing with 36 percent of the vote to Yaskow’s 26 percent. Tina Sanders came in third with 24 percent of the vote, and Pharaoh Paige finished with 13 percent. 

(Note to Paige: Those campaign flyers your team left on car windshields that looked like parking tickets? Yes, they made people remember your name, but not in a good way.)

The total number of votes cast in the Fillmore District race: 1,806. That’s a vast improvement in turnout over the 2015 three-way primary in the Fillmore District, in which 1,186 people voted. Still, it’s just 16 percent of registered Democrats in the district. 

It was probably the most active race in the city.

In the Lovejoy District, the race to replace the retiring Rich Fontana drew 13 percent of registered Democrats to the polls. The winner was Fontana’s chief of staff, Bryan Bollman, with 63 percent of the vote, over Esther Smothers, who was a staffer for former Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant.

The race to replace District 1 Erie County Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, who resigned to become interim Buffalo Comptroller, also drew just 13 percent of the district’s registered Democrats. Howard Johnson, her interim replacement and the party’s endorsed candidate, won that three-way race handily over challengers Katrinna Martin and Tara Craig.

The race to replace District 3 Erie County Legislator Peter Savage, who resigned to become a City Court judge, drew 11 percent of the district’s registered Democrats. Lisa Chimera, the endorsed Democrat, cleaned the clocks of her opponents, David Amoia and Cindi McEachon.

So, let’s take stock. 

The two vacant seats on the Common Council were won by Nowakowski and Bollman. 

Nowakowski is the first openly gay man elected to the Common Council. That is a significant change.  

Still, both were endorsed by party leadership, and both are Council staffers. Both are white men, like their predecessors. They ran for office with knowledge of and support from the institutions to which they belong.

Even if Bollman and Nowakowski choose to buck Mayor Byron Brown rather than to accommodate him, as is the current tendency on the Council, they’d be alone in that most of the time. The other seven seats on the Common Council are unchanged.

Next, the city-bases seats on the Erie County Legislature, which are traditionally won in the Democratic primary. 

Endorsed Democrats Johnson and Chimera beat off their outsider challengers. Their wins, too, represent little threat to the institution they’ll join once the formality of November’s general election is complete. (To be fair, neither did the candidates they beat.) 

Johnson and Chimera are net gains for the Democratic Party headquarters and Jeremy Zellner, the party’s chairman. Johnson replaces Miller-Williams, a staunch ally of Byron Brown, who runs his own political machine often at odds with Zellner’s. Chimera replaces Savage, who cut his teeth in Brown’s machine and always kept one foot there, even as he realigned himself with party headquarters in order to become chairman of the Legislature.

Johnson and Chimera strengthen Zellner’s hand in the Legislature, which is good for Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, by whose grace Zellner is party chairman and a commissioner on the county Board of Elections. 

Ironically, arguably the greatest challenge to the status quo in county politics is also the Legislature’s most powerful member. Chairwoman April Baskin, of District 2, trounced Duncan Kirkwood in a rematch of their race two years ago. She won both races with support from party headquarters. (She was recruited into electoral politics by Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte.) But Baskin, the youngest and possibly the most politically progressive person to occupy the chair, has an independent streak, and a growing political base, that’s a mile wide and just as deep.

Not that you’d know it from turnout on Tuesday night. Turnout among registered Democrats in District 2 was less than 14 percent. Baskin won two-thirds of those votes. That means about 9 percent of registered Democrats in the district returned her to office.

That’s just dismal voter participation. Ultimately voters themselves bear the greatest share of the blame for that. The change in primary date, from September to June, surely caused some confusion. 

Institutional exclusivity is to blame, as well. All institutions — political, governmental, cultural — protect their membership’s interests. That’s natural. 

But once in a while you’ve got to throw open the doors, invite some new people over, liven things up a little. Or people will stop giving a damn about your party when you really want and need them to come.

And then your party’s over.