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Here We Go Again
by Buck Quigley
Massive money being spent by unapproved supporters in Buffalo school board race
Last spring I suffered grievous slip-and-fall injuries as a result of all the glossy campaign mailers inserted through the mail slot in my front door during the final days of the at-large Buffalo school board election. Back then I learned that they had been sent out by a shadowy group called Buffalo Students First, which was bankrolled by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership to promote the slate of incumbents comprising Chris Jacobs, Florence Johnson, and Catherine Collins. The first two kept their seats, although Johnson only squeaked by after a count of write-in and absentee ballots. Collins lost to John Licata, who whipped them all--including Jacobs--on the strength of his message.
Among the local politicians endorsing the incumbents on the unauthorized flyers were Mayor Byron Brown, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, and New York State Senator Antoine Thompson. Several versions of the expensive mailers were sent out in waves all across the city, targeting different messages to different neighborhoods. The only problem with the tactic is that it goes against New York State Education Law as it applies in the City of Buffalo. Unauthorized expenditures on behalf of candidates by outside groups is limited to $25.
That’s not a misprint. $25. Buffalo Students First, according to its own filing, overshot that limit by at least $30,000.
Last Friday, I came home from work, walked in the front door, and slid at breakneck speed across the entranceway, arms flailing to no avail as my tailbone struck the hard tile floor. It was as if I’d slipped on a particularly slick dog dropping, but there was no smell. As the pain spread, I glared at the large glossy flyer as it fluttered down and landed on my chest. I saw Jason McCarthy’s name on it. I knew of McCarthy as both a skilled bartender and a champion of dog parks. I quickly tried to connect the dots…bartender…dog poop…two things that can contribute to a nasty fall. But no, as I read further I learned the mailer was promoting him for school board.
“Here we go again,” I thought. I looked at the return address, expecting to see 665 Main Street—the address of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership that appeared on all of the Buffalo Students First mailings last year, but I was wrong. This mailing originated from 640 Ellicott Street, fourth floor, suite eight, and was paid for by a group called Education Reform Now Advocacy.
I slowly got to my feet and walked inside, wondering if I should take on another case that would have me snooping around a bunch of powerful, wealthy people bent on buying a school board election. “What’s in it for me?” I asked myself. Then, my young daughter came running into the living room and gave me a hug. Turns out that even hard-boiled gumshoes like myself can be moved to do things they don’t want to do—if they convince themselves it’s the right thing to do.
The candidates below being pushed by Education Reform Now promise the same things to voters in their flyers, verbatim.
- Work tirelessly to increase graduation rates.
We cannot accept that only 52% of our students graduate from high school. Our kids can no longer afford the status quo.
- Fight federal education funding.
Despite a $34 million budget gap and the risk of laying off teachers, the school board initially voted not to support the state’s application for $700 million in education funding from the Obama Administration because of politics. Buffalo needs a school board member who won’t play politics with our kids’ educations.
Click here to see a larger version of the above Phil Lowmax flyer to view the full text.
On the case
Sherlock Holmes has his Watson, Monk has his Sharona—but I, fortunately, have an entire rogue’s gallery of sidekicks to help me crack a case. I spent the rest of the weekend pondering this one clue that had arrived in my mail. One informant, whom I will call “Google” to protect his anonymity, provided some important info right off the bat. Turns out 640 Ellicott Street is located in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. To be more precise, it’s a building called the Innovation Center, which touts “new research and development space available for life sciences and biotech companies seeking to be a part of the thriving Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus!”
How could a group calling itself Education Reform Now Advocacy fit in with that crowd, I wondered. I put the shoe leather to the pavement Monday, and quickly made the hike from the Artvoice office to the Innovation Center, just a couple blocks away. I went inside, and noticed the flat-screen TVs and marketing posters promoting the BNMC. There was a lone security guard sitting at the reception desk. Behind him, a nice slate pool table with braided leather pockets in the reception area. A couple employees were shooting a game in the eerie silence.
The guard looked up at me. “Can I help you?”
“Hi. I’d like to go up to the Education Reform Now office in suite eight on the fourth floor.”
He asked if I had an appointment. I told him no, and admitted that I didn’t even have a phone number or a contact name there. He looked at a list and said, “You must be here for Whitney.” He asked my name. I told him and he called up to Whitney. After a brief conversation, he hung up and said she’d be down.
I had a seat and waited. The silence was only broken by the occasional crack of billiard balls. After about 10 minutes, the guys finished their game, re-racked the balls, and left. I picked up a promotional bookmark from a stack on the table next to me. “A neighborhood in the know,” it read. “35 places to keep you healthy down the block. 45 places to shop ’til you drop nearby. 51 ways to enjoy nightlife. 76 ways to experience culture around the corner. 80 places to eat around the campus. 8,500 employees. 1 campus. Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.”
It was just me and the security guard in the dead silence. Fifteen minutes. Twenty. I was thinking about getting up and shooting a game to pass the time when the desk phone rang.
“That was Whitney,” the guard said. “She says she’s on a phone call, and would you mind leaving your name and number? She says she’ll call you back.”
“Well, okay,” I said, “What’s Whitney’s last name?”
Follow the leads
I left my number, went back to the office, and picked up the blower. After a few calls, a couple of my informants hipped me to the fact that Whitney Kemp served as a spokesperson for the failed Erie County executive campaign of Paul Clark, and is also an associate of Jack O’Donnell—a protégé of Steve Pigeon—who hopes to gain the chairmanship of the Erie County Democratic Party one day. I also gained possession of her email address, and sent her a quick note telling her I’d dropped by and asking if she could explain why all these slick mailers for Jason McCarthy, Vivian Evans, Kinzer Pointer, and Phil Lomax were being sent out to voters in the North, East, Ferry, and West districts, respectively, from her office address.
I also made a call to the BNMC, and was able to get her phone number, along with confirmation that her office is on the fourth floor, suite eight. So, I left her a couple messages. I went home a little after five, figuring I was being blown off. When I checked my email later that night, I read a message from Kemp, apologizing for not getting back to me sooner, and that it was a very busy day. She referred me to a man named Stefan Friedman, at a New York City area code, who could answer any questions I might have.
The next morning, I was getting ready to give Friedman a call when my secretary buzzed in: “Whitney Kemp on line one,” she said. I took a sip of joe and picked up the phone.
What ensued was a conversation better described than transcribed. Kemp struck me as a mixed-up kid who’d gotten involved in something that was rapidly spinning out of control. At first she wanted to make sure I had Friedman’s number. I told her I did. She also left me his office number.
I asked her if it was her office where these mailers had been sent from. She said I had to ask Stefan. I asked her why I should call a guy in New York City to confirm her office address. She was evasive in the extreme. She would neither confirm nor deny whether she was the Buffalo headquarters for ERN, insisting I call Friedman. Finally she confirmed it was her office, but that for anything else I would have to ask Friedman—who, she confirmed reluctantly, was her spokesman.
I left messages at both of Friedman’s numbers, and waited for a call back. In the meantime, I learned from “Google” that Stefan Friedman is president of Strategic Communications and Public Relations for SKD Knickerbocker. Before that, he worked at the New York Post for eight years as a political columnist, campaign correspondent, and editorial writer.
SKD Knickerbocker is a leading strategic and political communications firm with offices in Washington, DC, and New York City. Barack Obama and Bill Gates have been among their clients. A smaller star listed in their galaxy of customers is Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.
Friedman called back after lunch, and agreed to help explain things to me. “There’s a group called Education Reform Now,” he said, “and they’re a collection of education reform groups including Democrats for Education Reform, the New York State Charter Association, the New York City Charter School Center, and some other partners who are committed to education reform across the state. ERN works in seven to nine states right now. Michigan, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Florida, a couple other places. Our role is to provide some of the tools used in supporting these reforms. Again, this is Education Reform Now Advocacy—so we’re employed by them to do public relations, and some of the direct mail that you’ve obviously come across up there in Buffalo.”
Friedman said they’ve also done TV advertising across the state. I told him I was unclear about the ERN office in Buffalo, and that Whitney told me he could answer any questions I might have because he was her spokesperson. He told me he didn’t know who Whitney was, but that there is an ERN address in Buffalo, and that 640 Ellicott Street must be it.
When he realized I wasn’t so interested in discussing the guts of the campaign, and more interested in simply finding out who was spending so much money to influence the outcome of our local school board election, we started going in circles. He told me that there would be no reporting on how much ERN had spent on the campaign until the law required it. Which means, in terms of Buffalo School Board elections, too late to make a difference if ever at all.
He also told me he’d spoken to folks at the Buffalo News in his capacity as spokesperson for ERN, and I got the sense the conversation went more smoothly there. And since his job is to get good press for his clients, I’m telling every gambler I know to bet heavily on those candidates promoted by SKD Knickerbocker and ERN to land endorsements from the editorial staff of the News in this Saturday’s paper.
Aside from all the unauthorized mailings that have been sent out from 640 Ellicott Street, sources have reported widespread paid street canvassing on the East and West sides, as well as telephone polls slanted toward ERN candidates that have come from as far away as Florida and Colorado. One West district voter reported that when he indicated he would not be voting for Phil Lomax, the phone interviewer tried to suggest dirt he had on incumbent Ralph Hernandez. The recipient of the call said he didn’t want to hear it.
Meanwhile, Lomax was a no-show at Tuesday’s candidate forum at the Polish Cadets Hall at Grant and Amherst, and it’s likely that he’ll miss tonight’s forum at 339 Genesee Street at 7pm, because he’s been in Puerto Rico and won’t return until two days before the election on May 4. McCarthy, meanwhile, missed the forum at the Polish Cadets because it conflicted with his bartending schedule at Hutch’s. But then, according to his April 5 campaign finance disclosure, he’s got $10,000 of his own money to burn on mailers in these last few days before the election, including big dough from some heavy hitters like Bob Rich, who gave $2,500 listing a P.O. Box for an address.
Although this is an ongoing investigation, the private dick in me suspects that the large sums being spent is all about installing a slate of candidates to push through a charter school agenda that would enable Buffalo to get around state regulations—resulting in an explosion of charters that would siphon money away from our already underfunded public schools. More experienced teachers will lose jobs, and class sizes will increase, as private entities set up shop to hire non-union workers and collect public money for every child they sign up.
This is the game that is played every time we have a school board election in Buffalo, where voter turnout is pathetically low on the first Tuesday in May whenever seats are up for grabs. The campaigns are brief, the messages loud, and the playing field hopelessly slanted to well-connected candidates.
And since they run with no party affiliation, here’s a handy way to remember who’s who:
Patricia E. Devis
Ralph Hernandez (Incumbent)
Pamela Cahill (Incumbent)
Vivian Evans (Incumbent, Education Reform Now)
Lou Petrucci (unopposed)
* Kapsiak’s name has been returned to the ballot after an April 27 decision by Hon. Timothy J. Drury. Barring a successful appeal by the Board of Elections, she will remain to challenge McIntyre, who narrowly lost last year’s at-large election to Florence Johnson.
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