Outrages & Insights
They call it democracy
The Common Council is currently exclusively male. Three would-be female candidates were removed from the 2019 ballot for petition irregularities, now being disputed.
Photo by J.P. Thimot
Jim Heaney is editor of Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo.
No fewer than nineteen elected offices are up for grabs this year in the city of Buffalo. Voters have a choice in barely half of them. Each of the remaining races has attracted only one candidate, chosen, in effect, by the Erie County Democratic Committee.
That’s just not right.
Barbara Miller-Williams, appointed interim comptroller in April by the Common Council to fill the remaining term of Mark Schroeder, is the only candidate to qualify for the upcoming Democratic primary. Four of nine Council seats are uncontested for the June 25 primary. The same holds true for four of nine seats on the Board of Education in the election conducted May 7.
The Democratic primary is tantamount to the general election, given that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city eight to one. As a result, the GOP usually doesn’t even bother to field candidates in the general election.
Why the lack of competition?
In part, I think it reflects the city’s anemic civic culture. Look no further than voter turnout in recent primaries and elections. Only one in eight Democratic voters made it to the polls in the last mayoral primary. Turnout for Council races—when there is even a race—is even feebler. And the School Board? Forget about it.
Then there are street politics. No fewer than four men of color have died as the result of encounters with Buffalo police the past two years. You could argue we’ve had a couple of Fergusons here. But the reaction from the community is a collective shrug of the shoulders.
Yes, the city has its share of activists, and some of them are quite good. Few, however, have been willing to jump into electoral politics. Compare that with the late 1970s when a whole generation of activists, many of them community organizers, ran for office and won Council seats.
Now, many steer clear of confronting Mayor Byron Brown, who is a regressive power. In the nonprofit world, many have been compromised by taking money from the city or state; there’s little appetite for biting the hand that feeds them. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, is content to take the path of least resistance in endorsing candidates: witness Barbara Miller-Williams.
Folks in the trenches tell me there is growing interest in electoral politics, triggered in part by revulsion with Donald Trump. The grassroots are starting to stir. But it has not translated to more competition at the ballot box. The reasons are many. For starters, the move earlier this year by the governor and state Legislature to change the election calendar posed challenges. Party primaries were moved from September to June, requiring candidates to circulate nominating petitions in February and March.
“You have to go door to door in the winter. That’s tough,” says David Franczyk, the Fillmore District’s outgoing Council member. Jeremy Zellner, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee, insists that interest is on the upswing. But he cautions that politics is a tough business, especially for newcomers. “There is a fundamental lack of understanding of the process. You have to get involved in community groups, you have to build a base,” he says, adding, “It’s not easy to knock on doors and raise money. That takes time and it’s hard.”
Harper Bishop of Our City Coalition, which is involved in an effort to recruit candidates for city elections this year, says many newcomers suffer for lack of knowledge and support in navigating the election process. “We don’t have the infrastructure,” Bishop says. “We need to build that over the next four years.”
That lack of infrastructure helps explain why three female candidates for the Council got tossed off the ballot in April. They relied on consultants to help them with the petition process. Problem was, the consultants gave them the wrong petitions to circulate. The Board of Elections, then a judge, ruled the petitions invalid.
With all the seats on the Council and School Board up for election, this year could have been a game-changer. Instead, we’re looking at a continuation of the status quo. Talk about lost opportunities.
There are lessons to be learned. For starters, Bishop is right about the need to build capacity for newcomers to run competent campaigns, starting with the petition process. How about putting together a well-funded initiative to train and otherwise advise candidates? And a PAC to help underwrite campaign expenses? And perhaps a slate to provide strength in numbers?
Aspiring candidates would also be well advised to start small. What’s with newcomers running for the state Senate, for example? The School Board is low-hanging fruit. Its six district seats are open in three years. Start there and move on to the Common Council and maybe Erie County Legislature. Then on to citywide offices.
I’m reminded of a talk I heard years ago, given by an activist from San Jose. For a long time, she said, the activist community was content to try to influence the powers-that-be in city government. They didn’t get very far, so they decided to band together and run for office. After two election cycles, they held the majority on the city council. “We decided we didn’t want to influence power, we wanted to be the power.”
Sounds like a plan for Buffalo.