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Patronage Report: Common Council Chief of Staff Out

You know how Antoine Thompson, the former state senator, was recently hired by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown as director of the Buffalo Employment and Training Center?

Well, that wasn’t the first patronage job Thompson was in line for. In December, according to staffers on Buffalo’s Common Council, there was a move afoot to appoint Thompson the Common Council chief of staff, replacing attorney Kevin Linder. Linder is a “holdover,” to use the description offered by Masten District Councilman Demone Smith, the Council’s majority leader: He owed his job to the majority coalition that Smith and Council President Rich Fontana of Lovejoy displaced a little more than a year ago, aided by the departure of one of Linder’s political patrons, Mickey Kearns, who left the South District seat to join the state Assembly. That leadership change led to the usual upset in the central staff, as one group of patronage hires was let go to make way for another. Linder, however, survived, thanks in part to his law degree—someone on central staff ought to have one.

The idea of replacing Linder with Thompson was a nonstarter: Several members balked at the idea of hiring the former Masten District representative, who was rendered politically radioactive by his 2010 loss as an incumbent in an overwhelmingly Democratic district to Republican Mark Grisanti.

But Linder is out the door anyway. He was informed last week that he would be relieved of his position as chief of staff; his last day on the job was Friday, January 4. He’d been a member of the central staff for six years, becoming chief of staff after the current majority coalition dismissed his predecessor, Jim Pajak, also a member of the Kearns camp, at the beginning of 2012.

Linder did not respond to requests for comment on his dismissal.

The leading candidate to replace Linder is John C. Davis, former chief of staff at the Erie County Legislature and brother of Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes. Davis is a prominent member of Grassroots, the political organization through which Peoples-Stokes, Brown, and Thompson rose to prominence. Davis is also president of the board of director of Community Action Organization of Erie County, which, in addition to the many valuable social programs it provides, is widely perceived as a patronage dispenser for Grassroots.

Smith, the majority leader, at first denied that Davis was the leading candidate—he said there are several people under consideration. Smith said he was reluctant to name the candidates because he assumed that the minority would immediately begin scouring their pasts for scandals to feed to the media, as he accused them of doing to Davis before he’d even been formally announced. (There is indeed talk of a recent state tax lien coming from the Council minority.) “Why is it,” Smith said, “that this happens whenever a black candidate is up for a job? This is not a Grassroots takeover of the Council. This is not the blacks taking over the Council.”

In the end, however, Smith allowed that none of the majority’s preferred candidates—Davis included—had the five votes necessary to win the job. As of Tuesday, we’d been told that North District’s Joe Golombek would not vote for Davis, and the South District’s new representative, Chris Scanlon, was hesitant, too, though he apparently agreed to Linder’s termination. Both Golombek and Scanlon are generally counted among the majority, but apparently not on this matter. That leaves Davis with just four votes: Fontana, Ellicott’s Darius Pridgen, University’s Bonnie Russell, and Smith.

That could change, of course: Scanlon or Golombek, or both, could be lured toward supporting Davis, who won’t be nominated for the job until five yes votes have been wrangled. The other three members of Council—Delaware’s Michael LoCurto, Fillmore’s David Franczyk, and Niagara’s David Rivera—are unlikely to vote yes on hiring Davis.

Why does this internecine snipery and maneuvering matter? Who ought to care about the vagaries of riding the patronage merry-go-round? Maybe no one, but consider the wages of this political game: For now, at least, the Council is without a chief of staff, the majority having fired the current officeholder before locking down its ability to replace him. Politics over performance, once again.

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