Mayor Byron Brown seems determined to act as though there’s no primary election next week.
No opponents, no contest, no question that he will cruise to an unprecedented fifth term.
He’s barely bothering to raise money, nor is he spending much. There were no television or radio ad buys through the end of May, though some are coming soon, according to the mayor’s campaign finance filings. There have been few mailers and a paucity of lawn signs. Brown barely mentions the June 22 Democratic primary in public, unless compelled by reporters. He has flat-out refused to debate India Walton, his principal challenger.
The mayor’s diffidence is not a political innovation, as the Buffalo News editorial board recently pointed out:
“…the mayor is pursuing the time-honored “rose garden” strategy – doing his best to ignore opponents in an election where the incumbent sees no advantage in subjecting himself to a confrontation with those seeking to replace him.”
It’s a sound enough strategy. Walton’s biggest hurdle is lack of name recognition. According to a May 25 poll conducted by the Working Families Party, which has endorsed her, three out of five likely Democratic voters polled said they didn’t know enough about her to have an opinion of her.
The good news for Walton: 70 percent of those who did know her had a favorable impression.
The poll — which has been referenced in social media but not published — found Brown leading Walton 43 percent to 21 percent, with 5 percent choosing Le’Candice Durham, a City Hall employee whose candidacy seems designed to benefit the mayor by siphoning anti-incumbent votes from Walton.
The good news for Walton: 31 percent said they were undecided.
The better news: The survey, which contained classic elements of a “push poll,” demonstrated those undecideds can be convinced to break her way.
In a push poll, a respondent’s answers are less important than assumptions contained within the questions. Sometimes the questions are framed to spread specious and scandalous rumors. More often, they aim to define the candidates in a way that favors one of them.
The latter was true of the May 25 poll. After nine fairly neutral questions, there followed five more that cast Walton in a positive light, while disparaging Brown. According to the questions, Brown “has failed,” “has done nothing,” and “is funded by…corrupt real estate developers,” while Walton “has been on the front lines” and “knows what it’s like” for workaday voters struggling to pay the bills.
After hearing those loaded questions, the number of undecideds dropped from 31 percent to 24 percent. All those undecideds migrated to Walton, while Brown and Durham’s numbers were unchanged.
Two takeaways from this: 1) Push polls work. 2) If Walton gets a chance to talk to voters and define Brown on her terms, she wins them over.
Given those results, the mayor isn’t going to help her reach more undecideds by sharing a stage with her.
But there are risks to the mayor’s strategy.
Refusal to debate
The League’s president told Investigative Post the mayor’s campaign never responded to emails or phone calls — not even to say, “No, thank you.”
Brown told reporters a debate was unnecessary.
“I feel like my record is up for debate every single day,” he told WGRZ-TV’s Claudine Ewing.
He didn’t feel that way during past re-election campaigns, when he faced opponents with greater name recognition.
In 2017, Brown took part in two debates with his primary opponents, former Buffalo Comptroller Mark Schroeder and former Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant. Four years before that, when Brown faced Bernie Tolbert in a primary, there were three televised debates.
Brown also told reporters the League’s debate came too late in the election cycle. However, in both 2013 and 2017, Brown took part in debates within two weeks of election day.
Last week wasn’t “too late.” Brown just didn’t want to do it. He didn’t want to draw attention to the election or to Walton and their policy differences. That’s the rose garden strategy.
Limited fundraising, spending
The mayor has been keeping a low profile on the airwaves, as well. In the four and half months leading up to the 2017 primary, Brown spent almost $360,000, including $84,000 to the late Democratic strategist Joe Slade White for TV ads and another $30,000 on polling.
In the first four and a half months of this year, Brown spent just $71,000. Until the end of last month, he’d purchased no TV or radio advertising and commissioned no polling.
The Brown campaign’s biggest expense in 2021 through mid-May: $9,730 for lawn signs. That’s $1,500 less than the campaign spent on lawn signs in 2017.
The mayor committed a lot more energy to fundraising in 2017, too. That year, with the primary election just two weeks away, Brown held two fundraisers in one week: one at Riverworks, followed by one at MT Pockets, which was at the time still a frequent stop on the Democratic fundraising circuit.
Those were in addition to four other fundraisers over the summer, according to the events calendar maintained by the Erie County Democratic Party, for a total of six.
This year, Brown’s campaign has held just two, and it shows: By mid-May he’d raised $179,000. In the three weeks since, he added another $158,000, according to the latest campaign finance filings, which became available Saturday.
That may sound like a lot of money, but consider again Brown’s past re-election campaigns: All told, Brown spent $890,000 in 2017 in pursuit of his fourth term.
Walton has raised about $130,000, as of last week, most of it in small donations averaging a little over $40.
That’s pretty good, considering she is a first-time candidate who has vowed not to accept contributions from real estate developers and corporations, and who is taking on a powerful incumbent who nurtures grudges against those who oppose him.
(And here’s a curiosity: Among her mid-range donors in the last month is Masten District Councilmember Ulysees Wingo, a Brown stalwart, who gave her $250. Wingo also gave the mayor $250.)
In his effort not to draw attention to his opponents, Brown has drawn unflattering attention to himself.
The League of Women Voters invitation didn’t come too late for Walton or Durham. Both showed up, though only Walton was prepared. Durham seemed to know little about city government, the job of mayor, or even how to maintain an internet connection. The conversation kept stalling as Durham would lose her signal, then dial back in on another device, then lose her connection again.
It was awkward. Whoever convinced Durham to run ought to be ashamed.
Walton kept her composure and made the most of it. Happily for Durham, though not for the League, not many people saw it. The YouTube livestream approached but never quite reached 100 viewers.
Brown’s debate-dodging has reached a far wider audience.
On social media and in press interviews, Walton and her supporters have cast Brown as arrogant, disengaged, and cowardly. His refusal to debate is “nothing short of a disgrace,” Walton said in a press statement.
The Buffalo News editorial board agreed. On June 1, Brown met with the Buffalo News to seek the newspaper’s endorsement. In the meeting, Brown explained to the editorial board it would be a “dereliction of duty” to take time to debate his opponents.
“That’s how busy he is,” the editorial board wrote sarcastically, noting Brown’s endorsement interview with the News “lasted no longer than a debate would.”
Brown’s intransigence “disrespects both voters and democracy” and amounts to “cheating the public” of the opportunity to compare the candidates, the editorial board wrote.
Walton is a former nurse who became a community organizer focused on fair housing, equitable development policies and criminal justice practices.
Her platform, as presented on her webpage, is a compendium of big, progressive urban reforms: sweeping changes to the city’s police department, new protections for renters, a citywide land trust that would entrust decisions regarding property development to neighborhood councils, designation of Buffalo as a sanctuary city for refugees, and the creation of a public bank.
She also offers some more modest proposals, such as plowing sidewalks and requiring food stores to carry fresh produce as a licensing condition, in order to increase access to healthy foods in poor neighborhoods. She has said on day one she’ll stop using a Buffalo police officer as a driver and bodyguard, as has has been Brown’s practice.
Walton has been endorsed by the 3,800-member Buffalo Teachers Federation and The Challenger, the region’s leading African-American newspaper, as well as by the Working Families Party. She also has the endorsement of a half-dozen national political organizations that support progressive candidates, especially women of color, challenging entrenched political machines. Last month, the actress Cynthia Nixon, who ran a left-flank challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2018, appeared at a virtual fundraiser for Walton.
Brown has spent the past 25 years in elected office, having been elected to represent the Masten District on the Common Council in 1996. He spent several years prior to that as a government staffer.
Brown’s website is bare bones. It doesn’t offer a platform, or any summary of his policy positions, or any plans for the future. There are links for donating to the campaign or requesting a lawn sign. The site doesn’t list his endorsements, which include several unions, the Erie County Democratic Party, and — despite the scolding it gave Brown for hiding from his challengers — the Buffalo News.
Walton supporters started an online petition calling on Brown to stop ducking a debate. It attracted close to 900 signatures in one week. Some signers expressed outrage at Brown’s refusal to debate, others cynical amusement.
Many shared the reason Rita Groetz, a mechanical engineer, gave for signing the petition.
“Mayor is a job title, and a debate is an interview,” Groetz wrote. “Byron needs to make time for his interview.”