Brown a formidable, yet vulnerable candidate

Mayor's vote total has shrunk in recent elections and the issues are not working in his favor. One challenger has announced and India Walton won't be alone. Whither Tim Kennedy?
News and analysis by Geoff Kelly, Investigative Post's political reporter

Since 2005, Mayor Byron Brown has raised and spent more than $5 million to win and hold the mayor’s office. 

He spent $1.4 million to fend off Bernie Tolbert, his Democratic primary challenger in 2013. Four years later, he spent another $1 million in his primary race against then Comptroller Mark Schroeder.

As of July, however, when his campaign committee last filed a disclosure report, Brown had just $115,568 in the bank. That may sound like a lot of money — and for most Buffalonians it is — but for the four-term mayor of a medium-sized city, it is a sign of weakness. 


Kelly discusses his column on WBEN


Come January, Brown must announce whether he intends to seek a record-breaking fifth term. Candidates begin circulating nominating petitions in February. The Democratic primary — which has decided every mayoral race since 1981 — takes place in June.

If Brown seeks reelection, at his disposal will be as much money as he needs, a conscripted army of campaign workers, a seasoned political machine, and the backing of both business elites and unions.

Working against Brown will be the city’s precarious finances, exacerbated and exposed by the COVID pandemic, and a summer of unrest in which demonstrators marched nearly every night for three months to protest Brown’s management of the city’s police department. 

Also working against Brown are persistent, and perpetually unproven, rumors of corruption. That scuttlebutt is bolstered this election cycle by last month’s Buffalo News report that a grand jury is probing connections between city contracts and the mayor’s campaign finances.

Brown’s money shortage is easy to solve: The mayor has only to open the taps and cash will flow quickly from law firms, unions, developers, construction companies, various city vendors — the usual suspects. Indeed, Brown held at least one high-dollar fundraiser in October at Ellicott Development’s 500 Pearl Street.

But what will the money buy? 

The mayor doesn’t need to build name recognition. Quite the opposite: His name is too recognizable. 

Brown has served 15 years as mayor of a city with a lot of problems. That’s more than enough time for an elected official to become synonymous with the accumulated grievances of his constituency.

Got an issue with the way the city is policed

Mayor Brown. 

How about lead poisoning? Poverty? Housing?

Mayor Brown. 

How about fiscal disaster on the city’s horizon? 

Mayor Brown.

How about fines and fees that raise revenue on the backs of the city’s poorest residents? 

How about potholes? 

Did a snow plow ding your car’s fender in 2012 and you can’t afford to get it fixed?

Mayor Brown.

If ever incumbency could be turned against an office-holder, this is such a year.

Diminishing returns

Past election results show Brown’s base of support has steadily diminished.

Brown won his first Democratic primary for mayor in 2005 with 16,900 votes. 

That was a three-way race, in which attorney Kevin Gaughan got 9,624 votes and restaurateur Steve Calvaneso got 1,362. In the general election Brown handily beat Republican candidate Kevin Helfer, who is now Brown’s parking czar.

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Brown’s second primary campaign in 2009 — against then South District Councilman Mickey Kearns — was a vigorous affair that drove significant voter turnout. Almost 42,000 Democrats voted in that primary. More than 26,000 of those voted for Brown.  

That campaign cost Brown more than $600,000, and it marked the highwater of Brown’s popularity among city Democrats. Ever since, he’s had to spend more money to win fewer votes.

In 2013, Brown won 15,487 votes to beat his Democratic primary challenger, Bernie Tolbert. He spent nearly $1.4 million.

In 2017, facing a Democratic primary challenge from then city Comptroller Mark Schroeder, Brown won 13,999 votes. He spent just over $1 million.

That’s a 17 percent drop in votes between 2005 and 2017. It’s a 46 percent drop compared to 2009, the mayor’s best year.

Brown’s diminishing support is evident even among the African-American community. 

The mayor lives in the Masten District. He represented the district on the Common Council. The Grassroots political organization was born there. 

Masten’s voters — 3,851 of them —accounted for one quarter of his support in the 2005 Democratic primary. And Masten came out in overwhelming force, with 5,805 votes, to defend Brown against Kearns in 2009.

But in the last two cycles, Masten seems to have lost enthusiasm for Brown. In 2013, Brown’s Masten vote fell 16 percent compared to 2005. In 2017, it fell 31 percent.

The sum of this cursory tour of electoral numbers: The mayor’s universe of surefire supporters has shrunk. And that presents opportunities for challengers.

The outside lane

There is currently just one declared candidate for mayor of Buffalo. That’s India Walton, a registered nurse turned community activist. 

Walton let slip her plans to Buffalo News political columnist Bob McCarthy in mid-November. She officially announced Dec. 13 in typical pandemic fashion: with a Facebook Live event that attracted a couple hundred participants. 

In the week that followed, her announcement video was viewed more than 4,000 times. Her Act Blue campaign account raised a little over $3,000. Her Facebook page attracted more than 1,200 followers. And her list of campaign volunteers topped 120.

The dollar figure is negligible. She’ll need to raise far more.

But 120 volunteers in one week: That’s not bad at all. 

In fact, it’s promising. Those volunteers — actual human bodies offering to carry petitions, distribute literature, make phone calls, organize and staff events — are worth far more than any number of social media views and followers.

Those volunteers represent enthusiasm.

They are especially valuable because their commitment is actually voluntary. They do not owe Walton their livelihoods. Nor can they reasonably expect jobs or city contracts on the other end of the campaign. They are not cogs in a political machine — although, if Walton’s campaign gains traction, they may become that.

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It once was possible to be elected mayor of Buffalo without a machine. Francis X. Schwab was a Pullman porter, a traveling salesman, and a brewer whose mayoral candidacy in 1921 began as a joke. He served two terms.

Before Schwab, most of Buffalo’s mayors were bluebloods. After Schwab, the field opened up — a little. You had to be white and male, but you didn’t need to have a street or a park or a building named for your family. 

By the 1960s, the political apparatus became difficult to circumvent. Candidates were expected to have made their names by working campaigns, serving elected officials or winning lesser offices. 

Brown and his fellow Grassroots founders built an organization to challenge the political machine run by former state Assemblyman Arthur Eve. They weren’t reformers: They were outsiders looking to take the place of those on the inside. To accomplish that, Brown followed the established path: He served as a staffer to Eve, a city councilmember and the county executive; he became a city councilmember himself, then — like his two predecessors in the mayor’s office — a state senator. 

Walton is looking at a different path. She’s never run for office or worked in government. Until recently Walton was executive director of the F.B. Community Land Trust, which aims to provide high-quality, affordable housing in the city’s Fruit Belt neighborhood. She resigned that position at the end of November to run for mayor.

Walton will seek campaign money outside the city, from national groups looking to fund candidates, especially women of color, who espouse progressive positions. 

She’ll need outside money, because she has vowed to refuse corporate donations. That includes money from developers, who bankroll a lot of political campaigns around here.

The inside lane

If Brown chooses not to seek reelection — and perhaps even if he does — others will likely join Walton in the fray. Some of them will be outsiders, like Walton. There are a few of those every four years. There is likely to be a Green Party candidate in the general election, and word is city Republicans are seeking a mayoral candidate, too. If the GOP runs someone, that would break a long-held strategy to keep city voter turnout low in the general election to help Republicans in countywide races. There are two of those in 2021, for sheriff and comptroller. 

Then there are the Democratic Party insiders, the machine candidates who have been waiting their turn to take a shot at the mayor’s office.

The most formidable of these is state Sen. Tim Kennedy, who would bring to the race enormous amounts of money, political alliances and campaign experience.

Kennedy is tight with the mayor. So he’ll probably only run if Brown demurs.

But Kennedy also has an eye for opportunity, a million dollars in his campaign account and a history of ruthlessly abandoning political alliances. 

In 2009, as an Erie County legislator, the Democrat jumped ship to caucus with Republicans, giving then County Executive Chris Collins a majority to work with. In 2010, he jumped early into the race for the state Senate seat he holds now, even though it had been earmarked for then Assemblyman Mark Schroeder, his erstwhile ally in the South Buffalo political machine headed by U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins. 

So maybe Kennedy will challenge Brown, even if his longtime ally decides to “strive for five” — to borrow the slogan that reverberated in City Hall in 2019, then died after the pandemic hit and protestors filled Niagara Square.

As an incumbent, the race is Brown’s to lose. But he is weaker today than he was entering into any of his three previous reelection efforts. One can attribute that weakness to policy failures or to simple politics: Every elected official has a shelf life. 

Whichever the case, it’s not difficult to imagine Buffalo voters looking past Brown in search of the next new thing.