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Democratic Primaries: The Race is On

Brown calls the Kearns campaign desperate, but he’s looking a little shaken himself

On Tuesday, Mayor Byron Brown suffered an uncharacteristic breakdown of his normally placid, nearly soporific demeanor.

Brown and Congressman Brian Higgins had arranged a press conference to announce a $3.2 million project to restore the original cobblestone street grid at Buffalo’s Inner Harbor. When the mayor took questions, however, reporters showed little interest in historic preservation. They wanted to hear about Leonard Stokes.

They peppered the mayor with questions about allegations raised in a Sunday Buffalo News story: Had the mayor intervened in summer of 2007—around the time that Stokes was seeking public loans and grants to open his restaurant, One Sunset—to prevent the basketball player’s arrest for possession of a stolen handicapped parking tag? Had the arresting officers been instructed to bring Stokes to the mayor’s office rather than to police headquarters to be booked? Was he subsequently released?

Clearly aggravated, the mayor completely blew his cool.

“I’m not going to respond to these dirty politics,” he said angrily. “This is dirty politics, the timing is very suspicious…if anyone has a charge, an actual charge with documentation, to make, let them come forward and make it. Otherwise I’m sick of talking about this, and I’m not going to talk about it anymore…this is nothing to do with Mr. Stokes; it is everything to do with an election.”

Brown blamed the allegations on his opponent in Tuesday’s primary, South District Councilmember Mickey Kearns. Brown said the story was the work of a “desperate campaign that is losing a mayoral race” with just one week left before election day. In the end, mayoral spokesman Peter Cutler dragged Brown away from the cameras. The tirade is being broadcast and re-broadcast on the airwaves, posted and re-posted on blogs.

“Desperate” may have been an appropriate description of the Kearns campaign eight months ago, when the candidate found few people opening their wallets to support his run against Brown. The Kearns campaign might well have seemed desperate a month ago, too, when funding remained sparse and he struggled to communicate a clear rationale for his candidacy, not only because he had a hard time articulating what he hoped to do as mayor but because the major media largely ignored him.

In the last month, however, Kearns has found traction. At the late last minute, he has received the financial support he hoped for from the beginning: Developer Carl Paladino, ambivalent about Kearns three months ago, now has committed himself to the race. Paladino is buying radio and print ads this week, and helping Kearns to afford a last-minute TV advertising blitz. A campaign that had spent a little more than $70,000 in cash at the end of August will spend at least $150,000 in the last week of the primary campaign, thanks to Paladino and the stable of donors he brings with him.

Brown has spent about $215,000 in cash on the race so far, leaving more than $1 million in his war chest. He certainly will outstrip Kearns’ last-minute spending binge in the week to come.

Brown has had at his disposal all the advantages of incumbency, including unlimited media access and lots of campaign volunteers, willing and otherwise; boatloads of campaign cash; the well-oiled Grassroots political machine; and a smart chief political officer in Deputy Mayor Steve Casey.

The Kearns campaign has often floundered since it began unofficially in January. (Kearns officially announced his candidacy in May.) For months his campaign was the object of skepticism among many predisposed to support him. Even Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, the mayor’s premier rival in the local Democratic Party, waited until July to commit himself to Kearns’ candidacy.

Now David appears to be gaining on Goliath. The polls commissioned by each campaign show the candidates what they want to see: Brown’s internal polls show the mayor retaining a commanding lead, while Kearns’ polls show him gaining momentum while the mayor’s support remains static, and even show Kearns earning a tenuous foothold among African-Americans.

The only independent poll out there is a Channel 2 News poll conducted by SurveyUSA. That poll calls the race a dead heat: 48 percent for Brown, 47 percent for Kearns, five percent undecided, with a 4.2 percent margin of error.

How did what seemed like a blowout suddenly become neck and neck? How is that the word “desperate,” once appropriate to Kearns, seems to have transferred to the odds-on favorite, Byron Brown?

It was always close

Here’s an answer: It was never going to be a blowout, despite Brown’s advantages.

Kearns entered the race because he and his supporters had studied the results of the 2005 Democratic primary, which pitted Brown against activist attorney Kevin Gaughan (and nominally against restaurateur Steve Calvaneso, who was on the ballot but had ended his campaign).

Brown pulled 16,900 votes in that election, which seems impressive when compared to Gaughan’s second-place finish with 9,624 votes. (Calvaneso got 1,362 votes, and 2,422 votes were blank or uncountable.) But 16,900 votes represents less than 56 percent of the total votes cast. That’s more than enough to win, but hardly consonant with Brown’s advantages in 2005. As today, Brown had all the money—$700,000 to Gaughan’s $100,000; he had all the union backing that is so critical in Democratic primaries, because union members go to the polls; he had the backing of the Democratic Party; and he had the Grassroots get-out-the-vote operation.

Brown should have slaughtered Gaughan. Instead, Gaughan won the South District, the North District, the Delaware District, and the Niagara District. Four out of nine districts lost to a threadbare challenger with no party or union support.

Part of Gaughan’s relative success must be attributed to his qualities as a candidate: smart, engaging, full of new ideas, a clear alternative to Brown, a product of the political machine that Buffalonians endlessly decry and continuously empower.

But Gaughan is also a white man with an Irish last name. The politics in this town used to be described as “ethnic,” which was a way of saying that different groups of white people—Italians, Poles, Irish—took turns holding political power while African Americans and Hispanic Americans and others stood on the outside looking in. Beginning with Leeland Jones, Jr.’s election as a county supervisor in 1948, blacks began to crack open the political machine in this city. In the last decade or so, Latinos have followed suit.

Now our politics are racial.

Gaughan walloped Brown in South Buffalo. He eked out a win in the North District, whose white, blue-collar residents looked right through Gaughan’s aristocratic bearing and high-class education and saw the color of his skin. He might have won the Delaware District regardless of his race; Gaughan’s base of support lies in that most well-heeled section of that city, and his popularity there is based largely on his family background and his pro-regionalism, preservationist activism. But Delaware, too, is predominantly white. He beat Brown by 800 votes, or roughly 20 percent.

Meantime, Brown’s candidacy electrified black voters on the East Side. His was the first viable African-American candidacy for mayor; unlike George Arthur and Arthur Eve before him, Brown would not have to battle a popular incumbent or buck the party to win the nomination. Brown was the chosen successor to Tony Masiello.

He beat Gaughan by huge margins in Masten and Ellicott not only because he had strong political and financial backing, a polished campaign, and a terrific political operation in Grassroots. He did not win on the strength of his policy platform alone. Those things helped to win him the support of a significant part of the business community, whose primary goal seems always to bet on the winner; but the business community does not pull levers in Masten and Ellicott. Brown won those districts, as well as University, Fillmore, and Lovejoy, because he’s black, and African Americans saw in him a chance to break another barrier. Brown also won support among white progressives, who were eager to see an African American in the mayor’s office.

The mayor took issue with Channel 2’s poll showing the race in a dead heat, saying he suspected the pollsters had not included enough African Americans in their survey. (He’s probably right about that: 64 percent white, 31 percent black is hardly an accurate sample of voters in a Democratic primary in Buffalo, especially with a popular African-American candidate on the ballot.) In any case, that’s as close as Brown has come to mentioning race at all.

Some of his campaign advisers think Kearns has spent too much time canvassing and attending meetings on the East Side; they would rather he spent time shoring up support in predominantly white neighborhoods. The result: Early in the year, less than one percent of African-American voters said they would support Kearns, according to the campaign’s internal polling; in the Channel 2 poll, that number had risen to 13 percent. Apart from trying to peel off a few African-American voters from Brown, Kearns has not engaged the race issue, either.

As in 2005, neither candidate has made race an issue in the campaign. They don’t have to. Take a look at the anonymous reader comments that attended pieces by Jim Heaney in the Buffalo News about the One Sunset fiasco. Or read the comments readers left on Brian Meyer’s recent stories about the Leonard Stokes’ catch-and-release scandal. The race-baiting is stunning, mitigated only by its probable insincerity: One hopes these commenters are not serious racists, but political operatives and provocateurs who would never use such language if they were made to attach their name to it. And it must be remembered that an overwhelming number of Democrats—black, white, Latino—voted for Brown in the 2005 general election.

Still, racial politics must have been a consideration when Kearns analyzed the numbers from the 2005 primary and realized that he could improve on Gaughan’s performance. An Irish guy from the neighborhood could pull more votes than Gaughan had in South Buffalo, and Kearns—who once worked the back of a garbage truck and counts Jimmy Griffin as his political mentor—would be a more attractive candidate than Gaughan to white voters in the North and Lovejoy Districts. The city’s progressive community, regardless of race and neighborhood, has largely abandoned Brown. Voters in the Delaware District, too, are likely to break for Kearns on Tuesday. Latino support ought to help Kearns in Ellicott and, most importantly, the Niagara District.

On the other side of the ledger is Brown’s steadfast support among African Americans, which will give him daunting margins of victory in Masten, Fillmore, University, and Ellicott. Kearns and his team believed back in January that they might be able to balance those margins with big wins in South and Delaware, and closer wins in North, Niagara, and Lovejoy.

The Channel 2 poll suggests that may be so, even if the sampling and methodology are flawed. Meantime, the mayor—and, increasingly over the past few months, the media—have been creating more Kearns supporters with coverage of the administration’s missteps and scandals.

Self-immolation

The advantages of incumbency are enormous, and offset by one disadvantage: constant and thorough scrutiny. Every misstep made by a mayor’s administration is attributable to the mayor himself, who ultimately must take responsibility for his team’s performance. The legislative record of a member of Buffalo’s Common Council is far more difficult to pin to a candidate, which means that Kearns has been able to lambaste Brown with accusations of poor management and corruption while taking few serious counterblows.

This is where Kearns has found his voice at last, and why the major media have finally paid him significant attention.

Paladino says his ambivalence was overcome by the flood of scandals and failures engulfing the mayor’s office over the past month:

• the suspicious loans to One Sunset;

• a withering HUD critique of the administration’s use and administration of federal anti-poverty funds;

• allegations of pay-to-play scuttling an major East Side housing initiative proposed by NRP Development, a Cleveland-based firm, and Belmont Shelter, a Buffalo nonprofit;

• the mayor’s continued support for scandal-ridden Ellicott District Councilmember Brian Davis;

• the departure of top officials who reportedly could not work under Deputy Mayor Steve Casey, most notably Corporation Counsel Alisa Lukasiewicz;

• an email written by a top administration official coercing her employees to “volunteer” their time to the Brown campaign;

• and now, the allegation that the mayor or his staff helped Stokes to avoid arrest.

Paladino certainly has other axes to grind, but his anger over the Brown administration’s behavior is shared: 86 percent of Kearns supporters polled by SurveyUSA said the One Sunset scandal—in which questionable loans were made to Stokes’ restaurant, apparently because of political connections—was their number one issue.

The FBI is apparently looking into the Stokes arrest and the One Sunset deal; they’ve already questioned at least two police officers and a top administration official about the arrest. The FBI is reported to be looking into Brian Davis’s financial affairs as well, and HUD’s inspector general has indicated he will investigate the city’s use of community development block grant funds. The city’s chief financial officer, Andy SanFilippo, recently released an audit critical of the One Sunset loans, and has said his department’s inquiry is ongoing.

It’s little wonder that the normally self-controlled Brown suffered a meltdown on Tuesday. He and his administration are giving aid and comfort to their own enemies, not least by consistently denying wrongdoing, or sloughing responsibility for failures to departed city officials.

This week the Brown campaign began to fire back, accusing Kearns of voting to raise his own pay and voting against capital projects in various council districts.

For the handicappers, Brown is still the favorite in this race. He has the support of an important triumvirate of South Buffalo politicians: Congressman Brian Higgins, Assemblyman Mark Schroeder, and County Legislator Tim Kennedy. The West Side Italian bloc that gave rise to Tony Masiello stands behind Brown as well. Grassroots will see to it that the African-American East Side comes out for Brown on Tuesday. North District Councilmember Joe Golombek will do his best for the mayor in Black Rock and Riverside. He has lots of money and an overwhelming advantage in manpower.

But Kearns has traction now, and Brown is blowing it. This has become a real contest. Perhaps, because of race, it always was going to be. But if Kearns pulls ahead as Tuesday approaches, the mayor will have only himself to blame.

In 2005, only 30,000 people voted in the Democratic mayoral primary—less than a third of the city’s registered Democrats. Turnout may be even more anemic this year. Whoever you support, don’t stay at home. This election matters, and your guy needs your vote. Get to the polls.

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