Brown’s prospects for a 5th term as mayor

The Democratic Party's weak bench seemed to give Byron Brown a clear path to another term. But a growing list of troubles might give the mayor second thoughts.
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a column that published in the current issue of Buffalo Spree.

It wasn’t long after Byron Brown was re-elected to a fourth term that talk started circulating around City Hall of a “Drive for Five.” As in, a fifth term.

Talk quieted down, at least until the mayor held a fundraiser Oct. 5 at 500 Pearl Street, owned by none other than Carl Paladino’s Ellicott Development. Tickets started at $600, and a table of 10 cost $10,000 and came with a half-hour of schmooze time with Brown. Does the fundraiser signal the mayor is gearing up for another run, or did he simply think it was time to replenish his campaign fund, which had dwindled to $115,568 from a one-time high of more than $1 million?

At age 62, Brown has more than enough time on the public payroll to draw a generous state pension if he were to retire. Has he had enough, or is there allure for going for a record fifth term and 20 years on the job? 

He came close to landing a spot as lieutenant governor on the Cuomo ticket back in 2014, but rumors about FBI investigations into doings at City Hall derailed that. News broke last week that a federal grand jury is looking into allegations of corruption involving the Brown administration. That could put the kibosh on any move to Albany or Washington, D.C., to join the incoming Biden administration.

The probe raises questions as to whether Brown will even want to run for mayor again. Face it, he has lost some of his Teflon. There’s the federal investigation. The city is in deep fiscal trouble, due in part to the pandemic’s impact on revenues, but even more so because of a decade of bad budgeting. Misconduct by his police department and resulting protests have also tarnished him. 

So perhaps he’s had enough; I mean, the mayor has never been one to tackle tough problems. His practice has been to kick the can down the road, and he may be running out of road.

On the other hand, there’s not much of a bench in the city’s Democratic Party. While the mayor keeps getting re-elected with fewer and fewer votes, no one has come close to unseating him in the all-important Democratic primary.

If Brown opts out, look for state Sen. Tim Kennedy to jump in. Keep in mind that Buffalo’s last three mayors — Jimmy Griffin, Tony Masiello and Brown — were all state senators before they ran for mayor.

Kennedy reportedly covets the job and has nearly $1 million on hand in campaign funds and the ability to raise still more. He and Brown are political allies, so don’t look for Kennedy to challenge the incumbent. But if and when the mayor bows out, Kennedy is likely to jump in. 

Soon-to-be state Senator Sean Ryan is also said to be interested in the job, but he’d have to start running for mayor shortly after assuming his Senate seat, and that’s not going to happen. Community activist India Walton wants to run, but she faces a long road.

Police reform appears stalled

About 100 demonstrators picketed Brown’s fundraiser last month demanding police reform. The mayor thus far has given them less than half a loaf. He’s now given himself political coverage by appointing a citizen committee to study the issue and make recommendations. The committee’s makeup has a “don’t rock the boat” look to it, so I wouldn’t expect calls for major reforms. Certainly not what the Buffalo Police Advisory Board, which advises the Common Council, has called for, starting with an independent review board.

I’ll give Brown this much: he’s done more than the Council. Its Police Oversight Committee has met a grand total of twice since protests started May 30 in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Meetings – on Zoom, of course – consist mostly of rhetoric and bluster. Clearly, the Council is not serious about real police reform. All it really has to show for itself is the adoption of Cariol’s Law, which requires police officers to intervene if one of their colleagues is using excessive force. 

Our Weekly Newsletter

The most meaningful reform requires changes in the city’s contract with the Police Benevolent Association. Negotiations are in the mediation stage. Major changes are needed to restore some modicum of management rights. The present contract makes it too tough to discipline bad cops or manage work assignments. 

Brown, during his 14 years in office, hasn’t even tried to negotiate the necessary changes. Whether he has the gumption, or the PBA the willingness to compromise, is questionable. In fact, it might be easier to change the City Charter, which defines the structure of the police department, than to bargain the necessary changes with the police union.

Cost of a weakened Council

Ah, the City Charter. Buffalo’s constitution, if you will. The last time it was amended was in a 2001 referendum in which voters downsized the Council from 13 to nine seats. The vote eliminated four citywide seats — the Council president and three at-large members, leaving nine district seats.

The move saved money, but, in retrospect, has come at a cost.

One reason Brown has assumed so much power is because he’s the only citywide elected official, save the comptroller, who has no legislative power. The Council president and at-large members — there once were five — often proved to be a check on mayoral power. They had a citywide base and were less susceptible to arm-twisting by the mayor than district representatives, who ran the risk of a curtailment of city services and investment in their districts if they crossed the mayor. You want potholes filled and sidewalks replaced? A community center? You play ball with the mayor.

Think of the real players in the Council back in the day. They included Delmar Mitchell, Eugene Fahey, George Arthur, Gerald Whalen, James Pitts, Barbra Kavanaugh and Vincent Lovallo. All elected citywide and powers in their own right. No one on this downsized Council enjoys that same kind of power base.

Also lost is diversity. When the seats for president and at-large seats were eliminated, three of the four were held by African Americans. Two were held by women. There are no women on the Council anymore. 

I’m not saying expand the Council. But let’s recognize how the downsizing has changed the dynamics between the mayor and legislators and left the city with a chief executive who all too often goes unchallenged – at the polls or in running city government.