A conversation about Buffalo’s mayoral race
City Hall photo by Caramax Studio; All other photos by kc kratt
The Democratic primary might be over and the city of Buffalo’s future nearly sealed, but that doesn’t mean that Buffalonians don’t have feels about who their next mayor coulda, shoulda, and woulda been.
Let’s assume that Byron Brown’s political network, including the governor of the great state of New York, Andrew Cuomo, and a war chest of over $1 million at his immediate disposal, has influenced the outcome of the primary.
Still, many people wouldn’t be interviewed for this article for fear of possible retribution or didn’t vote because of cynicism in the face of a system that advantages the well-connected and maintains the status quo. There are also others who consider the election of an African-American mayor in a highly segregated city to be progress and are therefore unwilling to give up on him. In neighborhoods across the city, there’s still a belief—if only in the hearts and minds of those who remember him back when—that Brown’s next term will focus primarily on the marginalized and disenfranchised on both sides of Main Street, specifically east of it.
To be fair, Byron Brown still has many admirers. A recent Spectrum News/Siena College poll found that he has a seventy-four percent favorability rating and that at least fifty percent of white and black voters support him. And the fact that seventy-eight percent believe that Buffalo is on the right track, points to his leadership as a primary cause. His accomplishments are a result of measured political calculations that have left anti-establishment progressives frustrated and critics longing for a more inspired and visionary version of, well, Mayor Brown.
But, enough about him. Who else? What else? I spoke about this year’s mayoral election with a group of people, including India Walton, a community activist and mother from Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood; Robert Galbraith, the cochair of the Buffalo chapter of Democratic Socialists of America; Tia Brown, a biracial queer-identifying writer and lifelong Buffalo resident; Patty MacDonald, the founder and chief strategist of Project Slumlord; and Pat Burke, an elected official who serves the people of South Buffalo with a healthy dose of Irish pride and forward-thinking political stances. They all had strong opinions, and, in a town like Buffalo, no one is surprised by that; it’s in our city’s DNA. Who we’re yet to become is the only subject up for debate.
What do you think of the current mayor’s tenure so far?
India Walton: I have mixed feelings about the work that the mayor has done so far. I’m super proud that we have an African-American mayor. It speaks to the culture of inclusivity that’s possible in Buffalo; however, the work that he’s done is pretty lopsided. The people who have prospered the most are the people who were already affluent in Buffalo, and that trend has just continued. I think that for a mostly Democratic city, we are not nearly progressive enough, and leadership in Buffalo, in general, is not progressive enough. It’s much more conservative than it should be.
Robert Galbraith: Buffalo has seen a lot of superficial changes during Brown’s tenure that have not added up to material gains for everyday Buffalonians. Brown’s program for the city has been a continuation of the same trickle-down economic theory that has been exacerbating inequality in America for nearly forty years, joined with the discredited “broken windows” philosophy of policing that disrupts and punishes poor communities without meaningfully addressing serious crime.
Tia Brown: I can’t speak on the entirety of his time as mayor, but since I have been back in Buffalo for two years, there seem to be a lot of public concerns left unaddressed.
Patty Macdonald: Mayor Brown deserves some credit for the good things that are happening in Buffalo, in particular the projects that are financed by the Buffalo billion. Positive growth at the neighborhood level, however, has happened in spite of and not because of the Brown administration. Many City Hall departments are dysfunctional and understaffed. Improvements to the 311 system and better technology for the Department of Permits and Inspections have been long-promised but not delivered.
Pat Burke: The first thing to point out is that there have only been three mayors since 1978. If the mayor is elected to a fourth term, that would make it forty-three years with only three mayors in office. I don’t think that is a good thing for anyone. Being Buffalo’s first African-American mayor gives Byron Brown a special place in our history and is a major accomplishment. There have been some accomplishments, such as the Green Code, and some failures, such as the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.
What do you think about the slate of candidates for this year’s mayoral race?
IW: There’s the incumbent; Betty Jean Grant, who has a pretty lengthy political history in Buffalo; Taniqua Simmons, a local activist; Terrence Robinson, a person I’ve never heard of and don’t know anything about; and then there’s Mark Schroeder. That means it’s establishment, establishment, establishment, and two rogue individuals. It’s difficult for me to know who to take the most seriously out of those options. I don’t think much of any of them with the exception of Betty Jean, because I can see at least that she’s a person that could be held accountable, because she has such strong ties to the community.
RG: I’m really happy that this year there is a serious race with multiple candidates. It’s encouraging that there are several people challenging the status quo and the dominant political economy in the city. The fact that this election is again being primarily contested in the Democratic party primary is troubling, however. I hope that candidates raising the issues of inequality of resources and power continue to organize and challenge the extractive corporate hegemony all the way up to the general election and beyond.
TB: I consistently hear things about Schroeder, and Grant gets a few shout outs here and there. But, if there’s anything we’ve learned from recent political races, voters have to research all of the faces and listen for what they’re not saying. For example, Taniqua Simmons is saying a lot of what needs to be said.
PM: Mayor Brown is the no-surprises candidate. We can expect more of the same from him, which means a continuation of poor codes enforcement, continued loss of our architectural heritage, and neighborhood safety getting little more than lip service. Mark Schroeder would bring transparency to local government, something sorely needed and clearly lacking under Mayor Brown. In addition, Mr. Schroeder has a strong work ethic, and his staff is extremely efficient and responsive. His presence in City Hall would be a welcome change. Betty Jean Grant is a champion of social justice and her voice is an important one in the mayoral contest.
PB: It is the most interesting race that nobody is talking about. Byron Brown would be only the second mayor in our history to serve Buffalo for four terms. Mark Schroeder, the city comptroller, poses the first real challenge to the mayor’s reign since he was elected in 2005. Mark enters the race with a base of support and a plan to ensure that the people of Buffalo enjoy the prosperity that is now only being seen by the elite in our community. Betty Jean Grant is considered a folk hero by many in the community and often performs better than people expect. Byron Brown is clearly the favorite, but I think any one of the candidates could pull it off.
Talk about your aspirations. What values and principles would you hope that the mayor of the city of Buffalo would hold?
IW: I think of the municipal movement and about feminizing politics. I think about how government should operate, [like] not holding public meetings in the middle of the day when no one can participate, or at least not many. People should be able to access government in a way that is meaningful for them. Everyone should feel represented, and that includes undocumented people, so even if you’re unable to vote, you still have a voice. We have a legacy in Buffalo politics where elected officials have become so far removed from the community that they don’t actually know what it is the community wants. We need real systems change and institutional change, and we need a mayor who understands that.
RG: I hope that the next mayor of Buffalo, whoever it ends up being, seeks to run the city to ensure that the material needs and human rights of the people have primacy over the profits of corporate class.
TB: Community. That’s the short answer. It’s a necessity for any candidate for mayor of the City of Good Neighbors to tout community, right? I don’t mean patting-the-heads-of people-of-color-kids community, or visiting-and-speaking-at-different-congregations community. I mean recognizing all of the members. LGBTQ, people struggling with addiction, refugees, and immigrants are all a part of this community.
PM: Too much residential real estate in transitioning neighborhoods is vacant and unproductive. In a city where there is so much work to be done and so many people who need jobs, why don’t we have a mayor who can connect those dots? We need a mayor with a strong work ethic who is not afraid of accountability.
PB: I want someone to be authentic. I want them to go beyond political ambition and always put the people’s interests first. I also want someone who is intellectually curious and continues to learn and grow while on the job. Like everyone else, I want someone with a passion to serve the people.
What policy platform and priorities should they champion? In their first 100 days in office, what policies and/or ordinances would they implement?
IW: I want to see a more progressive mayor. I want to see rent stabilization, economic development for all people, neighborhoods improved across the city, not just in select areas. I want people to be able to be active participants in the democratic process and feel comfortable approaching their elected officials when something isn’t going right, and be able to get an answer. Under the current administration, there’s a lot of silence. When there’s a problem, there’s no comment, no position one way or the other. That’s something that totally needs to change. There needs to be more accountability and transparency, especially when it comes to criminal justice and policing. I want to see the next mayor really flex that executive power when the time calls for it.
RG: Before anything else, the next mayor needs to end the current disastrous system of racist and anti-poor policing. The mayor also needs to ensure that the people of Buffalo are deriving real benefits from development projects, especially from projects that receive public subsidies. This means organizing and resourcing community land trusts in all Buffalo neighborhoods to give people real power over what development happens near them, and passing a strong inclusionary zoning ordinance.
I would also like to see a serious plan for re-municipalizing city services to provide essential public utilities like water, gas, electric, and internet to the people without extracting profits from them, and an environmental public works program putting people to work on projects to mitigate the toxic legacies of industrial pollution and climate change.
TB: In the event that white supremacy still has a strong seat on the board of education or oversees our holding center, I would hope they would vow to rid this city of Carl Paladino and Sheriff Tim Howard. If not, policies specifically demanding that suicides/deaths at the holding center be investigated and that checkpoints be stopped would be a nice beginning.
PM: The next mayor should appoint a special commissioner to deal with blight, following the recommendations of nationally recognized think tanks, instead of filling the coffers of demo contractors and pitting preservationists against developers. Quality housing for all residents should be a priority for the next mayor. Too many people live in substandard housing, and children suffer ill health because of lead and other environmental health hazards. Mayor Brown had a 5 X 5 initiative, which called for the demolition of 5,000 houses in five years. He met his goal. I would like a new mayor to come up with a new 5X5 initiative: 5,000 lead-free houses in five years.
PB: Community prosperity, prioritizing water quality, taking the reigns of the troubled public education system, creating and expanding upon public spaces, improving the technology for 311, and restructuring City Hall.
What do you hope the outcome of the election will be?
IW: My hope is that whoever wins realizes that there’s a real shift occurring in Buffalo. Communities are becoming empowered, the East Side is beginning to organize, and whoever our leader is will be held accountable for providing equity and prosperity for everyone.
RG: I hope that we have a truly competitive race, and, that in doing so, we expand the horizon of what is politically possible and inspire people to demand the resources and the political power to determine their own futures and to truly thrive.
TB: Hope in politics isn’t easy to possess these days. But, I hope voters go in with full belief in the process, that they don’t vote blindly, and really consider this city and its needs.
PM: I would like to see a city where the mayor and the members of the common council are fairly elected and not merely anointed by the political machine. I hope that the next mayor does for the City of Buffalo what Mark Schroeder has done.
PB: I’m supporting Mark Schroeder for mayor. I ran an underdog grassroots campaign in 2013 that nobody gave me a chance of winning. Schroeder was one of the only people who stepped up and supported me in that race, and now I am going to be there for him. It isn’t just about loyalty, though. We have an opportunity to elect someone who can act independently from the other mechanisms of power in Buffalo. Think about all of the historical blunders in Buffalo’s history, and they all relate to a major powerbroker wanting something their way. Mark is running as an independent Democrat and can operate City Hall his way once he is elected. It is one of the benefits of going against the grain and still winning.
Harper S. E. Bishop is a writer, photographer, community organizer, and activist. He lives with his partner on Buffalo’s West Side and works to create a more just and equitable economy and world both during their 9-5 and outside of it.