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Parsing Pridgen

The pastor is a frontrunner for the Ellicott District seat, but it’ll be tough sledding

If you’re as eager as I am to find out who will fills the Common Council seat vacated by Brian Davis, cool down: We may have to wait a couple weeks at least, and possibly into the new year.

The cutoff for applications to fill the seat is Friday, December 4. After that, the eight sitting members of the Council will interview all candidates. The Democratic committee members in the Ellicott District will vote on a recommendation, which historically has been honored by the Council but is not binding. And finally, when its five-member majority coalition is good and ready, the Council will vote in a new colleague.

So far, 10 candidates have submitted resumes: Fred Heinle, a City hall veteran who once headed up the Buffalo Neighborhood Revitalization Corporation, and is also a committee man in the district; attorney Bill Trezevant, who has impressive credentials as a labor lawyer and political activist here and in DC; Don Allen, who held various posts in city government under the Griffin and Masiello administrations; Noemi Medero, a legislative aide to Niagara District Councilman David Rivera; community activist Marilyn Rodgers, who works at the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority; Griff Pritchard, who ran the M&T branch at the Broadway Market; fireman Bryon McIntyre, who ran unsuccessfully against Brian Davis in 2007 and is a committee zone chair in the district; Dan Johnson, the owner of Choco Logo; Darius Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church; and marketing consultant Nicholas Primerano.

Another name being dropped is Buffalo State economics professor Curtis Haynes, according to Delaware District Councilman Mike LoCurto, though Haynes had not submitted an application as of Wednesday afternoon. Haynes is being promoted by Champ Eve, whose Unity Coalition is an East Side rival to the mayor’s Grassroots political club.

The Unity Coalition has edged out Grassroots in the Ellicott District, in terms of the committee people who will endorse a candidate, so Eve’s leadership will be important. But there are a number of factions and plenty of free agents among the Ellicott District committee members, and it may be difficult to unify them around one candidate. (Two of the candidates, Heinle and McIntyre, are committeemen themselves, and both have loyalists among their colleagues.) That may be construed as good news for the Council majority: If the district committee can’t come to a clear consensus on an endorsement, the majority may be justified in picking whomever they like to fill the seat—preferably someone who will help them override the mayoral vetos that are sure to great the Council’s changes in the capital budget plan. The Council has until December 15 to pass those changes, which will likely shift some money away from the mayor’s favored districts, particularly Masten, to the districts the mayor’s proposed budget slights, particularly South, Fillmore, and Lovejoy.

Not that the endorsement of the committee means much. Some members of the majority coalition, most notably Kearns, are determined that the seat must not go to a Brown loyalist. For this reason, the celebrated candidacy of Pridgen, made official on Monday, is likely a dead end. “I have never been and never will be a rubberstamp for anyone,” Pridgen insisted during a phone conversation the day before Davis officially resigned, but he’ll have a hard time convincing the Council majority of that. He has been close to the mayor for many years, and campaign for Brown’s re-election from the pulpit. Political operative Jack O’Donnell, an associate of Brown ally Steve Pigeon, reportedly has been assisting Pridgen with his campaign for the seat. That won’t help his case, either.

Still, Pridgen is a formidable candidate, and the mayor’s best play to retain control of that seat. It is possible that the African-American committee members in the Ellicott District will be swayed to endorse him, wherever their loyalties might lie. If Pridgen comes before the Common Council with the endorsement of the party, it will be politically damaging to the majority when they reject him in favor of someone not so closely associated with the mayor. Cast back to 2006, when Marc Coppola vacated the Delaware District seat in order to fill Brown’s old post in the New York State Senate. At the time, Erie County Democratic Party Chair Len Lenihan told AV, “There’s no justification for anybody other than the elected committeepeople from the district and the party that lost that member to make the recommendation. For somebody or some group to arbitrarily decide—from another district—who’ll be the councilman in this district is just simply wrong.”

Lenihan has not been so insistent on the issue this time around. But it’s a touchy subject: Would LoCurto, who was appointed to Coppola’s seat with the blessing of the Delaware District committee, vote against the candidate endorsed by the Elliccott committee?

Rejecting Pridgen will be especially damaging if he has the endorsement and the Council majority selects a white or even a Latino candidate instead. But they don;t have to, so they won’t: There’s McIntyre, who they may not consider a reliable vote but whose opposition to Grassroots is proven. There’s Trezevant, whose African-American father and white mother reflect the diverse district he seeks to represent. (If only he had a Lao grandmother who hailed from Puerto Rico and married a Seneca.) There’s Haynes, should he actually apply for the job.

They have choices, and the shortcomings of Pridgen the candidate (as opposed to Pridgen the pastor) may give them political cover, too. He lives in an expensive house in an exclusive waterfront neighborhood—paid for by his church. He resigned his only other political position, a seat on the Buffalo School Board, with 18 months left on his term. He has said he’s not interested in holding the seat for the long term. Political opponents to the mayor will fling these and whatever other nuggets they can dig up at candidate Pridgen. Maybe that’s fair, maybe it’s not. But that’s the game.

—geoff kelly

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