Sep 6


Political domino theories

Speculation abounds involving elected officials leaving their posts for new jobs — and who will fill the vacancies they leave behind.
News and analysis by Geoff Kelly, Investigative Post's political reporter

This past summer, speculation has run amok regarding exit strategies for longtime elected officials: 

Will SUNY Buffalo State hire Mayor Byron Brown, or perhaps Congressman Brian Higgins, as its next president? 

How about Erie Community College? That financially beleaguered institution, too, is seeking new leadership, having run through three presidents — one of them carrying the prefix “interim” for two years — since former Congressman Jack Quinn left the post in 2017.

Or perhaps Higgins, who began his 10th term in January, will land instead as the head of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, which lost its president last fall, amid staff complaints of a toxic work environment. It’s a prestigious job with high pay and little stress, at least compared to Buffalo State or ECC, both of which face fiscal crises and declining enrollments.

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As for Brown, who is almost halfway through his record-setting fifth term, his campaign for the Buffalo State presidency has been beset by opposition from faculty and a pesky obstacle: He has only a bachelor of arts degree — political science and journalism, 1983 — from the institution he reportedly would like to helm. The job description requires at least a master’s degree.

Higgins, on the other hand, has a master’s degree from Harvard’s JFK School of Government, which he earned while working for the Erie County Legislature, almost 30 years ago. 

Or perhaps neither Higgins nor Brown is going anywhere. 

Nonetheless, other elected officials and the staffers who serve them are busy plotting their futures in the event one or both those seats become vacant. And they all gossip.

Most of the domino theories being bandied about begin with state Sen. Tim Kennedy filling Higgins’s seat in Congress. While Kennedy’s gaudy state campaign war chest — more than $2 million — cannot be used in an election for federal office, it can buy a lot of support from local Democratic Party chairs and elected officials. 

Kennedy has a much clearer path than, say, Brown or Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, both of whom have test-driven runs for Congress before. Poloncarz is in the middle of his own reelection campaign. Brown’s 2021 reelection relied heavily on support from South Buffalo, whose voters likely would favor Kennedy over Brown.

If Higgins were to leave before next July — that is, six months before the end of his current term — Gov. Kathy Hochul would call a special election to fill the vacancy. 

So, if Kennedy were to go to D.C., who would backfill his state Senate seat? 

Erie County Legislature Chair April Baskin is a darling of party headquarters. But then, so is Fillmore District Common Council Member Mitch Nowakowski, who is young and ambitious, as Kennedy was in 2010 when he — then an Erie County legislator — bucked both Higgins, his mentor, and Democratic Party leadership to run for Senate.

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If it’s Baskin, the rumormongers say, then look for Cheektowaga’s Tim Meyers to be voted chair of the Legislature and Buffalo’s Howard Johnson to move into Meyers’s current slot as majority leader. And expect Johnson to keep his eye on Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, 71, now in her 20th year in Albany, should she retire at the end of her current term.

All this may be no more than a parlor game: It’s possible Higgins will stay put. And rumors of Brown’s imminent departure — for the State Liquor Authority, as one story had it, or, once upon a time, to become Andrew Cuomo’s lieutenant governor — are legion. 

But what does it say that Higgins’s longtime chief of staff, Chuck Eaton, is leaving this month to take a high-paying gig as executive director of the Erie County Water Authority? And that Brown’s deputy mayor, Crystal Rodriguez-Dabney, decamped in May to become chief diversity officer at the  Roswell Park Cancer Institute?

Other dominoes are poised to fall in Western New York’s political ecosphere, too. 

It’s widely believed Erie County District Attorney John Flynn will not run for a third term next year. Rumor has it he’ll say as much soon — or at least as soon as he negotiates a landing spot. Many district attorneys have parlayed their retirement into judgeships, but we’re told Flynn would rather make some money in the private sector.

Flynn will need to make a move soon: His first deputy, Michael Keane, has already lined up support to succeed him, at least within the DA’s office and the Democratic Party. And there are just five months between now and February, when candidates for office will begin collecting signatures on nominating petitions for the June primary elections.

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