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Grant and Kennedy Face Off

Kennedy & Grant

A spirited, at times tense, debate between the two primary candidates for the New York Senate seat in the Sixty-third district provided a contrast in platforms and public personas Tuesday evening at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. The back and forth between incumbent Tim Kennedy and county legislator Betty Jean Grant also provided a brief portrayal of the recent conflict-fraught history of the county Democratic party.

There were the customary postures and thrusts with the incumbent’s celebration of presumed progress under his tenure and the challenger’s shopping list of the incumbent’s failures. This one is interesting because a couple of years ago, Grant came very close to replacing Kennedy with only minimal material resources. Things soon got more specific and substantial, chiefly with the impetus of Grant’s charges against both Kennedy and the results of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s famous “Buffalo Billion” initiative. “Those who pay the taxes aren’t benefitting...,” she said, in answer to a question from one of a panel of three black journalists. (The event was organized by the Buffalo Association of Black Journalists.) “[The benefits] can’t just go to the already rich,” she said.

“The billion dollars are real,” Kennedy responded, leveraging development and jobs. “We have momentum going in Buffalo for the first time in a generation.” There was, he went on, “twenty percent minority women with state contracts, double a decade ago.”

Grant wasn’t conceding anything. She cited federal law, namely “Title Six,” which she said specifically mandated that federally assisted development include “African-American” participation, as well as “Section Three” which calls for projects in urban neighborhoods to hire residents from those areas. “Go to the waterfront,” she said. “What do you see?”—alluding to an alleged lack of minorities and women on the job. The requirements are too often ignored, she charged. If elected, she claimed, “We’ll have cranes on Jefferson, Fillmore and Broadway.”

In the second half of the hour-long debate, things got more personal, at the same time as they began to reflect the recent divisions and competing power centers in the party. Grant turned to what she regards as Kennedy’s dubious party credentials. Several years ago, he was part of a county legislature coup in which three members of the Democratic majority made common cause with the Republican members and Republican County Executive Chris Collins, electing Democrat Barbara Miller Williams as legislature chair, thereby incurring debts to the Republicans. Kennedy accurately noted that this was the first time a black woman had held the position, and called it a milestone. Grant vigorously criticized the consequences, charging that Kennedy and his Republican allies voted to uphold Collins’ cuts to crucial services, such as the library system, and the closing of two East Side health clinics, one of which “served 1500 people from Buffalo and some suburbs.”

Kennedy then read form what appeared to be the minutes of a legislative session, a passage quoting Grant as supporting a restoration of services. He said she was either uninformed or lacked a commitment to the truth. This record was accurate, as far as it went. In a Republican-initiated compromise, the Democrats acceded to restoring $3,000,000 of the $4,000,000 Collins cut from the libraries, after heated public protests (a net loss of $1,000,000). It was the best they could get. The two clinics are still closed.

The background to this race is unusual in addition to their previous competition. Grant has the party’s endorsement, but Kennedy is receiving important help and financing. (He recently held a massive 30-1 advantage in contributions.) And the area’s labor union establishment is behind him.

Richard Lipsitz, president of the area’s labor union federation, explains this as a union reluctance to disruptively change horses in midstream. Unions, he says, “are very pleased” with Kennedy’s senatorial service. Lipsitz points to Kennedy’s support for a New York State young immigrants Dream Act, a farm workers bill of rights, and regulation of local industrial development agencies, among other things. Lipsitz says he genuinely admires Grant, but that the choice “is a no-brainer. If we didn’t support Kennedy, our word wouldn’t be worth much.”

County Democratic chair Jeremy Zellner concedes that Kennedy has tried to deliver for the unions over two years, but says he is unreliable in other public policy areas, such as women’s rights, and holds his former alliance with the Republicans against him. He points out that Grant received the executive committee’s endorsement on a 53 to 13 vote. (One long-time journalist, speaking anonymously, said that despite the party’s factional makeup, Zellner can often get the committee to do what he wants.) Zellner says that “Kennedy chased me around for the endorsement,” despite the way he’s now charging “bossism.” Many of the party’s influential figures also hold Kennedy’s association with former party chair and divisively controversial operator Steven Pigeon against him.

Former Buffalo Common Council president George Arthur (who’s taking no sides) thinks Grant still has a significant chance, despite Kennedy’s advantages. He doesn’t think that union support is as important in primaries as in general elections. What’s crucial, he says, is getting out “the base vote in a low-turnout primary election.” And there are, he observes, individuals and organizations in the party that have an investment in cutting down Kennedy’s advantages. Champ Eve’s faction, for example, is interested in restricting Pigeon’s influence and success. Big money, Arthur says, doesn’t always win out.

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