Jun 21


Big money in Council races

Democratic Party leaders and insiders, lobbyists and developers — all the usual suspects — are flooding the Masten and Ellicott district races with cash.

The five contested races for Buffalo Common Council seats have attracted an astonishing amount of money, and for good reasons. 

For one, the winners will determine whether Mayor Byron Brown will have a friendly majority on the Council for the last two years of his fifth term, or whether he will continue to spar with a bloc of five (and sometimes six) legislators, as he has for the past four years.

Second, they will choose the successor to Darius Pridgen as Council president in January. The Council president wields a great deal of power and would become acting mayor, should Brown not finish his term.

And third, the outcomes, to some degree, will measure the vitality of the progressive political movement that nearly unseated the mayor two years ago.

This is especially true of the races for open seats in the Ellicott and Masten districts, but there are progressives challenging incumbents in the North and University districts, too. 

And in Lovejoy, a first-time candidate’s challenge to the incumbent may offer some indication of the political strength of the city’s growing Bangladeshi community.

The latest campaign finance disclosures — due to the state board of election last Friday — reveal that in aggregate candidates for Council seats had raised more than $313,000 and spent more than $231,000 on their races, as of June 12.

The filings reveal a great deal about the candidates, too.

Ellicott District

The Democratic primary to succeed Pridgen, who is not seeking reelection, features four candidates. The Democratic Party declined to endorse a candidate in this race. 

However, the party’s movers and shakers are lined up behind Leah Halton-Pope — a senior adviser to Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes — and it shows in her fundraising.

As of June 12, Halton-Pope had raised nearly $66,000. 

More than $10,000 for that came from elected officials and their staffers, which is hardly surprising, given her job. Her donors include three incumbent Council members — Chris Scanlon, Joel Feroleto, and Joe Golombek — who are currently part of an ersatz minority on the Council. The mayor kicked in $250 personally.

More than 10 percent of her money came from lobbyists such as Tony Masiello, the former Buffalo mayor, and Jack O’Donnell. A similar percentage came from real estate developers, including Nick Sinatra and Paul Ciminelli. 

About 60 percent of her campaign’s money comes from outside the City of Buffalo. More than a third is from outside Western New York entirely — mostly from Albany and New York City.

And she has lots of big donors: $17,000 in donations of $1,000 or more, and $40,700 from donors of $500 or more. Her biggest single donation: $2,000 from Delaware North, the Buffalo-based gaming and concessions company. Her strangest donations: $250 each from Scott Kiedrowski and Henry Wojtaszek,  Western Regional Off-Track Betting executives whose jobs have been endangered by a change in the organization’s governance last month — a change engineered by state Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Democrat, who sent Halton-Pope $1,500. 

Halton-Pope had more than $43,000 on hand two weeks before primary day.

Next up is Matthew Dearing, a former staffer to Assemblymember Patrick Burke. That job ended badly: Burke fired Dearing and two other staffers who questioned Burke’s commitment to anti-racism in the wake of the Tops massacre. It’s also Dearing’s first run for office. 

Consequently, there are not a lot of political heavy-hitters among his donors. Rather, he has relied on his own resources. As of June 12, Dearing had raised about $14,000, which includes $6,000 of his own money loaned to his campaign. He had just shy of $4,000 left with two weeks to go, having spent more than half his money on consultants — much of that for door-to-door work.

Dearing’s name recognition got a big boost last weekend, when he won the endorsement of the Buffalo News editorial board.

Cedric Holloway is a former Buffalo police officer and director of the Johnnie B. Wiley Sports Pavilion in the Fruit Belt. Holloway hasn’t raised much money, comparatively — just over $9,000 — and his only reported expense so far is $500 for office rent.

That said, Holloway’s donors speak to his connections in the community he seeks to represent. His supporters include Betty Jean Grant, the former elected official and community activist; Herb Bellamy, a prominent East Side businessman; and April Baskin, the chair of the Erie County Legislature, who is Holloway’s cousin.

Finally, there’s Emin “Eddie” Egriu, who is a frequent candidate for elected office. (Last year, he ran a Democratic primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins — his third challenge to Higgins but his first time qualifying for the ballot.) Egriu does not appear to have filed any campaign finance disclosures this political cycle, though he has yard signs posted around the district.

Masten District

India Walton shocked Mayor Byron Brown and his political machine by defeating him in the 2021 Democratic primary, then lost that November to Brown’s well funded and often vicious write-in campaign. 

A year later she moved into the Masten District, intent on challenging incumbent Council member Ulysses Wingo.

But Wingo decided not to run for reelection, clearing the way for Walton’s opponent for the open seat, Zeneta Everhart, an aide to state Sen. Kennedy. 

The regional political establishment rallied around Everhart immediately. She gained the Democratic Party endorsement just days after she announced she was running. 

And the money started flowing, too.

As of June 12, Everhart had raised nearly $72,000.

Like Halton-Pope, she picked up lots of donations from elected officials and their staffers, including $2,000 from a political action committee run by Kennedy, her boss. Three incumbent Council members — Mitch Nowakowski, Chris Scanlon and Bryan Bollman — donated small sums. Congressman Brian Higgins, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, Erie County Legislature Chair April Baskin and Erie County Legislator Howard Johnson all kicked in.

Even state Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs contributed $2,000.

Real estate developers gave Everhart more than $12,000. Lobbyists donated more than $6,000. Delaware North gave $2,000, the same amount they gave to Halton-Pope.

Almost $32,000 came in donations of $1,000 or more. Another $25,000 came in donations between $500 and $1,000.

Nearly half her campaign’s money comes from outside the City of Buffalo, though she does not have as many donors from Albany, New York City and beyond compared to Halton-Pope.

As of June 12, she’d committed more than $40,000 to mailers and had about $13,000 left in the bank for the campaign’s final two-week stretch.

Walton’s campaign finance reports are relatively humdrum — far more traditional than the candidate herself. She’d raised just over $31,000 as of June 12. Her biggest donors are the same left-leaning activists and organizations who supported her run for mayor two years ago: attorney Sam Magavern, Our City Action Buffalo, poet Carl Dennis, and the Buffalo Teachers Federation, among others.

As she promised, Walton has taken no money from corporations or real estate developers.

About $6,500 of her donations are unitemized — meaning they came from donors who gave less than $100, and so do not need to be identified, under state campaign finance law. In all, about a third of Walton’s campaign cash came in donations of $100 or less.

As of June 12, Walton had spent close to $19,000, mostly on signs, campaign literature, t-shirts, and pay for campaign workers. She had a little over $15,000 on hand for the final push.

North District

Incumbent Joe Golombek is the longest-tenured Council member, having occupied the seat since 1999. He’s facing Eve Shippens, a teacher in Buffalo public schools who was among the leaders of Walton’s 2021 mayoral run.

No doubt his opponent’s association with Walton helped him to win the endorsement of the county Democratic Party — an organization with which he has not always been on good terms.

Golombek started the campaign with more than $50,000 in the bank and had added more than $27,000 as of June 12. His biggest donations came from a handful of Riverside businesses, but two thirds of his money came in donations less than $500. The mayor and a number of other Brown administration staffers kicked in small donations, as did Jeremy Zellner, the chair of the county Democratic Party.

Like Walton, he lists a lot of unitemized, and therefore anonymous, donations — close to $5,000.

Golombek’s biggest expenses were for lawn signs — about $5,500, which buys a lot of signs — and a fundraiser at the Polish Cadets Hall. He had nearly $38,000 left to spend.

Shippens has the endorsement of her union, the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which contributed $1,000 toward her campaign, as well as a number of statewide and national organizations that support progressive women running for office. 

In all, Shippens had raised just shy of $30,000 as of June 12. She shares many of the same donors with Walton, including Our City Action Buffalo, which gave her $1,000. Attorney Sean Cooney chipped in $1,000, as did community activists Amy Vossen-Vukelic and Colin Eager.

Also like Walton, Shippens took no money from corporations or real estate developers. More than half her money came in donations less than $500.

As of June 12, Shippens had spent over $24,000 — more than half of it on campaign literature and mailings. She had $6,000 left in the bank.

The financial disparity between the campaigns, coupled with the advantages of incumbency, weigh in Golombek’s favor.

However, last week North District voters received a mailer attacking Shippens — perhaps an indication Golombek is taking nothing for granted. The mailer characterized Shippens as a radical leftist and rabble-rouser who wants to defund the police. Shippens — who took part in demonstrations against police violence in 2020 — responded by accusing Golombek of “fear mongering” and releasing a “public safety platform” that includes more training for police, a citizens police oversight board, and funding for programs meant to reduce crime before it happens.

University District

Incumbent Rasheed Wyatt fended off a challenge from social worker Kathryn Franco four years ago. Franco is taking another shot at the seat this year.

She has raised nearly $18,000 and spent $12,000 — almost all of it on campaign literature, postage and lawn signs. 

Franco’s donor list overlaps with those of Walton and Shippens, and more than half her money came in donations of less than $500. Our City Action Buffalo gave her $1,000, as did Amy Vossen Vukelic. Attorney Vanessa Glushefski — who served briefly as acting city comptroller — gave $1,100. 

Franco has taken no contributions from corporations or real estate developers. She has about $6,000 to carry her down the stretch.

Wyatt, the incumbent, doesn’t boast a huge financial advantage over his opponent. He started the year with more than $16,000 in his campaign coffers. He raised about $8,000 and spent less than $16,000, leaving nearly $9,000 in the bank. 

Zellner, the Democratic Party chairman, kicked in $850. Tim Kennedy — the state senator promoting his aide, Everhart, in the neighboring Masten District — gave $500. Pridgen, the outgoing Council president and Wyatt’s closest political ally, gave him $300.

Wyatt spent more than $7,000 on lawn signs. He kicked back about $2,500 to Democratic Party headquarters to handle campaign literature and mailings for his campaign.

Lovejoy District

The incumbent, Bryan Bollman, is running for his second term. He raised about $17,000 and spent about $7,000. On June 12 he had about $20,000 left in the bank.

Bollman’s donors include a host of Democratic elected officials and party leaders, including Assemblymember Monica Wallace, Erie County Comptroller Kevin Hardwick, U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, state Sen. Tim Kennedy, and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz — as well as fellow Council members Chris Scanlon, Joel Feroleto, Mitch Nowakowski and Rasheed Wyatt.

His biggest expense was $1,400 for lawn signs.

His opponent is Mohammed Uddin, a Bangladeshi businessman. His campaign finance filings have been messy and apparently amended — particularly on the contribution side — so that the numbers don’t add up.

The most recent filings listed $4,650 in in-kind expenses paid by Yamuna Corp., which operates out of his home address. He listed a nearly $5,000 contribution from a company called Envision USA, Inc. He also received a couple of $2,000 donations from individuals, Mainuddin Ahmed and Umma Hunny.

Uddin currently lists about $16,000 in contributions, but more than $17,000 in expenses, while still reporting about $3,000 left in the bank as of June 12. Some contributions — notably almost $7,000 in loans from Jamuna Corp. — that appeared in his filings at the end of May are gone from the most recent disclosure.

Whatever the explanation, Uddin’s biggest expense — well over $8,000 — has been wages for campaign workers.

Like Golombek and Wyatt, Bollman enjoys the advantages of incumbency. But the Bangladeshi population is fast-growing and increasingly active politically. 

And it doesn’t take a lot of votes to win in Lovejoy. In the 2021 mayoral primary, 1,301 voters cast ballots in Lovejoy. In 2019, the numbers were similar. Bollman won the Democratic primary that year with just 827 votes.

Primary day is Tuesday, June 27. Early voting is open throughout the city and county through Sunday, June 25.

Investigative Post

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