There will be a pair of new faces on Buffalo’s Common Council next year, the result of two incumbents declining to run for reelection.
That’s probably as much change as Buffalonians will be permitted — or choose — to vote for.
In five of the nine Council districts, the incumbents appear to face no challengers in the June Democratic primary, which generally determines the victor in this one-party town. In the two districts where incumbents face opposition, the challengers face steep odds.
The last time an incumbent lost reelection to Buffalo’s Common Council was 20 years ago. That was when former four-term mayor Jimmy Griffin came out of political retirement to unseat the South District’s Mary Martino, who was seeking her third two-year term. Griffin did the job for less than two years, retired again, and died three years later.
The few changes since then in the cast of Council characters have been the result of an incumbent stepping aside. That’s left an open seat — the filling of which often was plotted by political insiders seeking to keep the position “in the family,” figuratively and sometimes literally.
There are two such open seats this year: Council President Darius Pridgen will not seek a fourth term representing the Ellicott District, and Masten District Council Member Ulysees Wingo will not seek his third.
Four candidates are currently collecting signatures on nominating petitions in the Ellicott District, which encompasses downtown and the medical corridor, the Fruit Belt, a portion of the East Side along the Genesee Street corridor, and a small but affluent portion of the Elmwood Village.
First into the race was Matthew Dearing. He worked on the congressional campaigns of Democrat Nate McMurray in 2018 and 2020, then joined the staff of Assembly Member Patrick Burke. Last spring Burke fired Dearing and two other staffers for insubordination after a dispute over whether Burke had taken a strong enough public stand against white supremacy in the wake of the May 14 massacre at the Jefferson Avenue Tops.
The next to step forward was Leah Halton-Pope, a senior advisor to Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes. Halton-Pope was considered a likely candidate to succeed her boss in Albany, but instead is seeking to succeed Pridgen — for whom her husband, Marc Pope, is chief of staff.
Cedric Holloway, a retired Buffalo police officer who is director of the Johnnie B. Wiley Sports Pavilion, has also announced his candidacy. So has Rev. Michael Chapman, pastor of St. John Baptist Church, which is a significant housing developer in and around the Fruit Belt.
Halton-Pope has the backing of the political establishment and Pridgen, who stood with her when she announced her run. The Council president told The Buffalo News, “I can’t think of a better candidate to take over the reins.”
Dearing has support among the progressive left that nearly succeeded in making India Walton mayor two years ago. Holloway and Chapman are well-known figures with their own constituencies.
If all four make the ballot, the race will be lively and unpredictable.
India Walton — who beat Mayor Byron Brown in the June 2020 Democratic primary, then lost to him in the November general election — was first into this race.
Walton performed well in Masten in 2021: She peeled away a lot of voters on Brown’s home turf in the primary and beat the mayor there in the general. She bought a house in the district in 2022 and made no secret of her intention to challenge the incumbent Wingo this year.
Wingo has been on the Council since 2015. His predecessor, Demone Smith, resigned to take another job in June of that year. Wingo won the September primary to fill the open seat and was reelected easily in 2019.
Walton formally announced her candidacy at the end of January. Less than two weeks later Wingo announced he would not run for a third term, creating an open race.
Into the fray jumped Zeneta Everhart, who is director of diversity and inclusion for state Sen. Tim Kennedy. Everhart’s son was wounded in the May 14 Tops shooting, and she testified before Congress about the massacre and the pernicious effects of racism on Buffalo’s East Side.
Everhart announced her candidacy the week after Wingo dropped out. A week after that, she was endorsed by the Erie County Democratic Committee. She has been embraced by the political establishment, at least in part because she is not Walton.
After a stint employed by the Working Families Party, Walton now works for Roots Action Civic Education Buffalo, a program of the RootsAction Education Fund. She remains a popular and prominent voice among progressives. However, she is regarded with suspicion by some Democratic Party leaders and officeholders, reviled by others. She was the subject of a relentless and effective smear campaign by Brown supporters during the mayoral race.
The contest pits two Black women with similar backgrounds seeking to join a Council that has been a boys’ club for the past decade. (The last woman to serve on the Council was Bonnie Russell, who resigned in January 2014.) It’s the race to watch this year.
Before Griffin, the last guy to beat an incumbent was Joe Golombek, who knocked Dale Zuchlewski out of the North District seat in 1999.
Twenty-four years later, Golombek is seeking his eighth term. (Prior to 2003, terms were two years rather than four.) He has the Democratic Party endorsement.
His opponent is Eve Shippens, a teacher in the Buffalo public schools. Shippens was a top advisor in Walton’s mayoral campaign in 2021. She also managed three successful campaigns for Buffalo School Board Member Jennifer Mecozzi — the first in 2016, when Mecozzi unseated an incumbent, and the most recent last year. Those forays into politics and a history of community activism have won Shippens significant support among the Democratic Party’s progressive factions.
Shippens has her work cut out for her: The North District has not been fertile ground for progressives. In 2021, Golombek marshaled tremendous support for Brown in the Riverside and Black Rock neighborhoods, contributing to the mayor’s general election victory.
And then there are the advantages of incumbency, which include name recognition, fundraising, and longstanding relationships with voters and influential community organizations.
The last time Golombek had a primary challenger was 2011. He beat Kenneth Phillips 1,078 votes to 211.
In the University District, Kathryn Franco, who works for the Western New York Law Center, is taking a second shot at unseating incumbent Rasheed Wyatt.
In 2019, Franco got her name on the primary ballot — unlike a host of other women who mounted candidacies that year — but lost to Wyatt 1,449 votes to 703.
Wyatt is seeking his third full term. The former Council chief of staff was named to succeed Bonnie Russell.
South District Council Member Chris Scanlon appears to be unopposed. So are the Niagara District’s David Rivera, Lovejoy’s Bryan Bollman and Delaware’s Joel Feroleto.
There was a rumor of a challenger to the Fillmore District’s Mitch Nowakowski, but that threat seems to have evaporated.
All five originally ascended to open seats on the Council.
Rivera was first elected in 2007 after winning a hotly contested primary that pitted Brown’s political machine against a Democratic Party faction led by former Assembly Member Sam Hoyt. Rivera, the Hoyt camp’s candidate, won that political proxy war and has cruised to reelection ever since.
Scanlon is the son of the late John Scanlon, a South Buffalo political operative for Jimmy Griffin. He was named to fill the vacancy created when former South District Council Member Mickey Kearns won an Assembly seat in a 2012 special election. Scanlon prevailed resoundingly in a four-candidate special election that fall and has been elected to two full terms since then, with no opposition.
Feroleto won his first term in 2015. He replaced his cousin, incumbent Michael LoCurto, on the ballot that year after LoCurto accepted a job with Erie County. Feroleto won reelection in 2019 unopposed.
Bollman served as chief of staff for long-time Lovejoy Council Member Richard Fontana, then succeeded his boss when Fontana declined to run for reelection in 2019. He’s seeking a second term.
Nowakowski won his first term in 2019, too, in a contested race for an open seat. He was also a Council staffer before running to succeed David Franczyk, who retired after representing the Fillmore District for 32 years.
Council candidates need 500 valid signatures to appear on the June 27 Democratic primary ballot. The petitions are due to the Erie County Board of Elections by April 6.
Elections commissioners and political opponents then scrutinize petitions for disqualifying flaws. In 2019, the petitions of three women challengers to Council incumbents were struck down in court for failure to conform with the stringent requirements of state election law.
Barring prolonged court battles, the list of candidates who qualified for the primary should be finalized by the first week in May.
Looming in the background is a legal challenge to the Council’s redrawing of the city’s nine legislative districts last year. The political advocacy group Our City Action Buffalo led that fight — in public hearings and eventually in court — accusing the Council of shutting out public participation in the process and gerrymandering districts to their own political advantage.
At the time, Our City Action and its allies predicted incumbent Council members would have to answer to voters for what The Buffalo News editorial board called “an incumbent protection program.” The group has solicited questionnaires from Council candidates but has yet to make endorsements.
A state judge rejected Our City’s Action’s court challenge in December, but in January the group announced it planned to file an appeal to the state Appellate Division in Rochester.