Apr 12


Progressives take a pass

Activists marched two summers ago and rallied around India Walton's campaign last year, but they're sitting out contests for Democratic committee seats, a path to political power.

When India Walton beat Mayor Byron Brown in last June’s Democratic primary, it seemed like progressive activists might be ready to wield greater influence in the party, which monopolizes city politics and governmental institutions.

Brown, after all, lost the primary despite carrying the Democratic Party’s endorsement. Furthermore, Kim Beatty — a city Democrat — beat the party’s endorsed candidate in the primary for Erie County Sheriff. Change was in the air.

But then Brown beat Walton in November’s general election. And Beatty lost to Republican John Garcia.

And now, it seems, city progressives have chosen not to mount an effort to takeover of the local Democratic Party’s institutions.

Candidates for elected office this year, including those seeking seats on party committees, filed nominating petitions last week. 

Democrats seeking committee seats filed petitions to run in 251 city election districts. However, only 16 of those are contested races. The vast majority are two-person affairs. Because each election district gets two representatives on the county committee, both candidates — most of them incumbents — are shoo-ins.

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During his first two terms, Brown’s political machine, Grassroots, fought fierce battles for city committee seats, facing off against former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt’s allies on the West Side and Champ Eve’s Unity Coalition on the East Side, with smaller factions fighting to protect their territory, too. In 2008, one veteran of those wars told Investigative Post, the Hoyt camp ran almost 200 committee candidates in the city, and 90 percent of those races were contested. 

And for good reason: Committee people vote every two years for the county chairman. They help to choose who the party endorses for elected offices in the districts they represent. 

Moreover, committee seats are entry-level positions in local politics. You knock on doors and make phone calls in an area encompassing a few blocks. It’s hard work, but you don’t need many votes to win. The process readies candidates for bigger races — for Common Council or school board, for example.

All but one of this year’s 16 contested races are on the East Side, in neighborhoods where Walton fared better in the general election than she did in the primary. 

There are six committee seats in play in the Masten District, four in University, three in Fillmore, two in Ellicott and one in Lovejoy. 

There are no contested races in the city’s South, Delaware, and North districts, which voted heavily for Brown in the general election. There are no active races in the Niagara District, either.

Attorney Adam Bojak is running unopposed for a Niagara District 4 committee seat. The progressive Democrat ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly in 2020 and was active in Walton’s campaign. 

Bojak told Investigative Post there was discussion among progressives about organizing slates of committee candidates, to build on the momentum Walton created last year. 

However, for a variety of reasons, he said, the core organizing group lost interest or capacity. Some committed to working on the campaigns of other local progressives, such as Jen Mecozzi’s bid for re-election to Buffalo’s school board and Eddie Egriu’s latest challenge to U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins.

Bojak’s political activity has been sidelined, at least in the short term, by the birth of his first child. Others stepped back, too, he said, for personal reasons.

“Life got in the way,” Bojak said. “We were not able to get the critical mass we needed.”

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Harper Bishop was a key advisor to Walton’s campaign early on and is interim director of Our City Action Buffalo, a group Bishop described to Investigative Post as “a direct challenge to the increasingly detached Democratic Party.” But the group is focused on this year’s Buffalo school board races and next year’s Common Council races, according to Bishop, rather than Democratic committee races. 

Progressives in the city of Buffalo have increasingly become dissatisfied with politics as usual and the Erie County Democratic Party, he said. Were not interested in reforming the Democratic Party or cross-endorsing candidates that the Democratic Party has deemed viable through their donor class.

Walton, meanwhile, has become a senior advisor for the Working Families Party, which supported her candidacy with money and people the local Democratic Party wouldn’t or couldn’t provide.

Her job is to push the WFP legislative agenda, which includes recruiting and supporting local candidates to run on the WFP line. Walton said her eyes are on building that party’s capacity to compete in the 2023 election season, which will include Common Council and Erie County Legislature seats.

“I know there are still people out there who want to make a more progressive Democratic Party in Erie County,” Walton said. “It doesn’t seem like the best use of my time right now.”

Jeremy Zellner, who serves as both chair of the Erie County Democratic Committee and a commissioner for the Erie County Board of Elections, did not respond to a request for comment.

Note: An earlier version of this story indicated there were 17 contested committee races in the city, including one on the Niagara District. That number has been corrected to 16; there is no contested committee race in the Niagara District.

Investigative Post

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