Last Tuesday South District Council Member Chris Scanlon won the Council presidency in an 8-to-1 vote.
But if the Council’s reorganization meeting had taken place two weeks earlier, it might have been Niagara District Council Member David Rivera instead.
The Council presidency is a powerful role — appointing committees, overseeing Council operations, signing off on nearly all the legislative body’s actions. The post was held since 2014 by former Ellicott District Council Member Darius Pridgen, who announced a year ago he would not seek a fourth term in office.
The race to succeed him has raised particular intrigue because Mayor Byron Brown, midway through his fifth term, has been considering other jobs: He sought the presidency of his alma mater, SUNY Buffalo State, for example, and only last week withdrew his name as a candidate to succeed U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, who is retiring from Congress next month to become president of Shea’s Performing Arts Center.
The Council president assumes the duties of mayor, should a mayor step down mid-term. Which means any Council member who aims to succeed Brown has an interest in occupying the office.
In mid-December, Rivera had — or thought he had — six votes for Council president, according to University District Council Member Rasheed Wyatt, who counted himself among Rivera’s supporters.
According to Wyatt, Rivera also counted among his votes the Fillmore District’s Mitch Nowakowski, Lovejoy’s Bryan Bollman, and two Council newcomers — Ellicott’s Leah Halton-Pope and Masten’s Zeneta Everhart.
That math had Scanlon stuck at three: himself, North District’s Joe Golombek, and Delaware District’s Joel Feroleto.
But Rivera didn’t hold his votes for long, according to Wyatt and Nowakowski, who spoke to Investigative Post on the record, and several other elected officials and Democratic Party insiders who spoke on background.
All those who spoke to Investigative Post agreed on a basic framework of events, though they offered varied perspectives as to why, how and when allegiances shifted.
Some said Bollman jumped ship first, others say it was Nowakowski. All agreed the two migrated to Scanlon the week before Christmas. Some said Halton-Pope was never firmly committed to any candidate.
All suggested Rivera failed to lock in his putative six votes with promises of leadership posts.
“In December a group of Council members met to discuss leadership,” Nowakowski said. “After that meeting, I had no follow-up communication with David. Apparently, neither did a few others.”
Nowakowski himself had been a candidate for Council president and had been marshaling support for months. Nowakowski thought he had five votes: himself, Rivera, Bollman, Wyatt and Everhart. The first four had frequently joined Pridgen to form a majority faction on the Council. Nowakowski had courted Everhart to join them, at least for the purposes of electing him president.
But, at the same time, Nowakowski was also considering taking a shot at the state Senate seat soon to be vacated by Tim Kennedy, who is expected this week to win the Democratic endorsement to succeed Higgins in Congress.
That split ambition soured some of Nowakowski’s allies, according to Wyatt and others.
Wyatt considered running for Council president, too. But it was Rivera who emerged as an alternative candidate. The Council majority leader was the longest-tenured legislator among that majority faction. He harbored no known ambitions for higher office.
That combination won over Wyatt. It also won over Halton-Pope, who sources said would not vote for Nowakowski but was not sold on Scanlon, either.
A couple weeks before Christmas, Rivera met with the five Council members he thought he had on board. According to several sources, he indicated he would not dole out leadership posts. Candidates for Council majority leader and president pro tempore would need to drum up their own votes.
This was Rivera’s downfall, according to those sources, because it provided Scanlon opportunity to offer leadership roles in exchange for the votes he needed.
There are competing accounts about who jumped to Scanlon’s camp first.
Nowakowski said he dropped his run for Council president after that mid-December meeting and publicly announced his candidacy for 63rd state Senate district, currently represented by Kennedy.
“A week after I made that announcement, Chris notified me that he had secured the votes to become Council president,” Nowakowski said. “After circling back with Council Member Bollman, I then realized that Scanlon did indeed secure five votes.”
The 63rd state Senate district includes the entire towns of Cheektowaga and Lackawanna, all of South Buffalo, parts of the West Side and North Buffalo, and the entire East Side. Scanlon — whose late father, John Scanlon, was a top aide former Mayor Jimmy Griffin — helped Brown win re-election in 2021 by mobilizing South Buffalonians to support the mayor’s write-in campaign. Several sources expect Scanlon to be an ally in Nowakowski’s campaign for Kennedy’s state Senate seat.
Scanlon did not return a call requesting comment. The other declared candidate in that race is Erie County Legislature Chair April Baskin.
Whoever jumped first, Rivera learned he’d lost Nowakowski and Bollman after Christmas, just one week before the Council’s reorganization meeting on Jan. 2. When he could not bring them back into the fold or find new votes to replace theirs, he released the rest of his supporters from their commitments.
Last Tuesday, the North District’s Golombek — who’d been a Scanlon supporter all along — nominated Scanlon for the Council presidency. Nowakowski seconded the nomination.
Wyatt nominated Rivera, but there was no second, bringing Rivera’s candidacy to a close. When the roll was called for Scanlon’s presidency, only Wyatt voted no.
Subsequently, Bollman was elected president pro tempore, Halton-Pope majority leader — the same position she would have pursued if Rivera had prevailed. Everhart was made the Council’s representative on the board of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency and chair of the Education Committee.
Wyatt lost his post as chair of the Finance Committee, which he had used as a bully pulpit to criticize the Brown’s administration’s budgeting practices.
Nowakowski got that job instead.
Wyatt was made chair of the Civil Service Committee, a post held last year by Nowakowski. Feroleto was reappointed chair of the Legislation Committee and Golombek returned as chair of the Community Development Committee.
Rivera was made chair of the Claims Committee. The former Buffalo police detective sergeant also retained his post as chair of the Police Oversight Committee.