Jun 25


Rallying to save their patronage jobs

The show of support for Mayor Byron Brown at the downtown ballpark Thursday wasn't exactly a grassroots effort. Numerous members of Brown's senior staff participated and spoke.
News and analysis by Geoff Kelly, Investigative Post's political reporter

Wondering whether Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown is giving serious consideration to mounting a write-in campaign to keep his job in November?

The answer might have been in plain sight Thursday night at Sahlen Field, where Brown threw out the first pitch before the Toronto Blue Jays went on to drop the Baltimore Orioles, 9-0.

Outside the park, a crowd of Byron Brown supporters gathered in front of the main entrance to make a pitch of their own. They wore T-shirts bearing Brown’s name and carried signs reading “Keep Byron Brown.”

This was no extemporaneous, grassroots expression of support for the four-term incumbent, who lost the Democratic primary election Tuesday to upstart India Walton, sending shockwaves through the region’s political and business establishments. 

A lot of the people there, including many who spoke to the TV cameras capturing the event, are members of Brown’s inner circle. Others occupy important, high-paying bureaucratic jobs.

These included:

  • Betsey Ball, Brown’s deputy mayor, who earned $119,861 last year.
  • Shatorah Donovan, the city’s chief diversity officer — $109,029.
  • Rob Mayer, Brown’s director of policy — $109,032.
  • Mike Finn, the city’s public works commissioner — $122,058.
  • Michael Marcy, director of intergovernmental affairs — $110,057.
  • Susan Attridge, the city’s recycling director — $81,624.
  • William Renaldo, the city’s fire commissioner, $132,884
  • Wilmer Olivencia, head of the Mayor’s Impact Team — $70,221
  • Lou Petrucci, deputy commissioner for permits and inspections — $94,758. 

Petrucci is also an elected member of the Buffalo Board of Education. Also present was South District Council Member Chris Scanlon. 

Brown’s spokesman, Mike DeGeorge — who made $110,054 last year — was spotted among the demonstrators, too, but he was at the ballpark to make sure the mayor’s ceremonial game-opening pitch went smoothly.

(For the record, it did: The mayor’s delivery was slow, but he got it right over home plate.)

Also there was Tom Smith, who earned $110,805 in 2019 as chief of staff for the Buffalo Sewer Authority. Smith was previously head of the Mayor’s Impact Team and has been an aide to Brown since he was a state senator. Smith is married to Jessica Maglietto Smith, a top aide to the mayor — she made $96,477 in 2020 — and his campaign treasurer.

The man who the demonstrators offered to TV cameras as a “community spokesperson” was R.J. Ball. He’s the brother of Betsey Ball and Tim Ball, the city’s top attorney. R.J. Ball works for Empire State Development as director of industry development, a patronage gig that paid him $104,000 in 2019. Unlike his siblings, Ball serves at the pleasure of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, not the mayor.

As deputy mayor, Betsey Ball runs operations for the mayor inside City Hall — the role once occupied by Steve Casey, who previously ran the mayor’s election campaigns. As such, Ball was responsible, at least in part, for the campaign’s disastrous “rose garden” strategy: Until the week before election day, Brown acted as if there were no primary election, no opponent, no need to engage in the usual politicking at which Brown’s previous campaigns have been so adept.

In the final week, money poured into Brown’s campaign — but it was too late.

The result of Brown’s blunder: Walton beat the four-term incumbent by 7 percent of Tuesday’s low turnout. It is too late for Brown to get his name on another ballot line in November, leaving a write-in campaign his only option — other than conceding his loss, which he has not done. Brown indicated on election night that he’d wait until every vote had been counted and the results certified by the Board of Elections.

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At the same time these riders of the patronage merry-go-round were agitating for their boss to keep the job he lost Tuesday night, developer Carl Paladino had called an emergency conclave of wealthy businessmen to discuss how to prevent Walton from taking office in January. 

Paladino told those he invited his goal was to raise $1 million to fund a write-in campaign to keep Brown in office in November’s general election. The meeting was postponed after Buffalo News political reporter Bob McCarthy wrote a piece calling attention to the planned meeting.

Paladino has a long history of clashing with Black elected officials, and until recently that included Brown. In 2009, he helped bankroll the mayoral campaign of South District Common Council Member Mickey Kearns, who lost in a landslide to Brown in the Democratic primary.  

Paladino ran for governor in 2010, but his campaign was derailed by the publication of racist and pornographic emails he’d shared with an email list of friends and business associates. 

He later was elected to a seat on the Buffalo Board of Education, but was removed from office in 2017 after he made racist remarks about Barack and Michelle Obama to a weekly newspaper. He was an early supporter of Donald Trump and remains a hero of the region’s conservative and alt-right movements.

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Walton, meanwhile, has been receiving national attention for her victory. She’s been congratulated by prominent progressive figures including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

That raises a fascinating prospect: Will Byron Brown, Buffalo’s first Black mayor, accept the backing of a guy like Paladino in an effort to defeat Walton, who is also Black and poised to become the city’s first woman mayor?

If he does, what national figures and organizations will rush with money and volunteers to aid Walton’s cause?

It could be a long, hot summer. And fall.

Paladino affirmed Friday to WGRZ-TV and other reporters that he had spoken to Brown and pledged his financial support, should Brown agree to a write-in campaign. 

The mayor has not said whether he will do that, or whether he’d accept Paladino’s support if he does. But he told WGRZ-TV in a statement he was weighing the “outpouring of support” as he considers his next steps.

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