Odd political year in the big cities of Western New York. It's an off-year for federal and state elections for the most part, so it's all county and lower-level. Two of the more unusual dynamics are unfolding both in Buffalo and in Rochester, where the Democratic nominees are treating their opponents like they were bubonic plague carriers- but for very different reasons and with very different motives on the parts of the incumbents.
Starting here in the B-lo: Byron Brown is seeking his third term after becoming the city's first black mayor in 2005. He is widely perceived as being good at ribbon-cuttings and fundraisers but ineffective at solving the city's more entrenched problems. Democrats have also accused him, with varying degrees of anger (and truth), of getting a bit too chummy with Republicans in county and state government when that suited his faction of internal Buffalo Dem politics. Brown accumulated a multi-million dollar war chest long before his third-term bid even began, in hopes of scaring off challengers. Unlike 2009, when South Buffalo tried to run a Great White Hope candidate against him, his 2013 primary opponent was, like him, African-American; unlike him, Bernie Tolbert was a Buffalo native (Brown hails from Queens), and he has an impressive resume and some good ideas. But, lacking his opponent's millions, he went down quickly and quietly in September's primary.
There's still another candidate on the ballot, though: a Latino named Sergio Rodriguez sought and obtained the Republican nomination for the mayoral job. He, also, has significant experience, cred, and pages of ideas on how to do things differently. What he doesn't have is money, or a prayer. From entrenched city interests, that's to be expected; the City Hall patronage machine rivals that of Daley's Chicago, and no developer, contractor or employee wants to be on the record as opposing the incumbent. But Rodriguez can't get even token assistance from his own party, which is shunning him for purely selfish reasons. See, there are countywide races- for county comptroller, legislators, and a number of judgeships- and if the GOP turned the mayoral race into
a race, it would encourage Democratic city turnout. Can't have that. So they're leaving Sergio to twist in the wind; he has money for little but lawn signs, but he's literally running his campaign, with shoe leather and public appearances to overcome the incumbent's advantages.
Which the incumbent is capitalizing on- but in an unfair way. Brown has refused to debate his opponent since his primary win, to engage with him at any Meet the Candidate events, or to show up at anything where he might utter the faux pas
that could suddenly give Sergio a fighting chance. And that's wrong.
There's still over a week for some last-minute goodness for Rodriguez or stupidity from the incumbent- Lord knows what one can get in trouble with if one has a Twitter account- but a week from Wednesday we're likely looking at four more years of the Same Old Same Old, unless the Mayor goes to Albany in 2014.....
....which is part of the story 70 miles down the road.
As anybody here or there will tell you, Rochester is different. Until about 30 years ago, it didn't even have an elected "strong mayor" in the Daley tradition, but a non-political city manager and a City Council designee to handle the ribbon-cuttings and whatnot. But the city eventually started electing Democratic hacks to a fully-empowered mayoral role, and by the turn of the century had already elected their
first African-American to the post. He was a well intentioned guy, but got caught in some bad decisions, both financial (see "Rochester fast ferry"
) and political (see "Metro government"
) and he wound up retiring before the 2005 election (coincidentally the year Brown broke the Buffalo color barrier). His successor was a former city police chief, largely hand-picked by Democratic insiders, named Bob Duffy; he was re-elected without opposition in 2009, but wound up at the center of a political clusterfudge in 2010, when Andrew Cuomo named him as his running mate, looking to shore up his Western New York base against "Crazy Carl" Paladino.
Various machinations ensued, in which Rochester's City Council essentially hand-picked Duffy's replacement- a former utility executive and then city attorney Tom Richards. He won the job for the balance of Duffy's term in a 2011 special election, and was considered a shoo-in to gain re-election.
Didn't happen. A Council member (and chief of staff to one of Albany's longest-serving urban political hacks) beat Richards in the September primary, despite polling data from days before suggesting he would win in a walk against her. But there she was,leaving a clear path to her victory in November with no Republican opposition, with Richards only nominally appearing on two minor-party lines, and a Green Party candidate (unlike in Buffalo, the Greens do actively contest most Rochester races, though none has ever won).
The primary victor (name of Lovely Warren, btw) followed her Buffalo counterpart's strategy and refused to have anything to do with the Green candidate; no debates, no joint appearances, no turning him
into the Great White Hope. (Warren would be the city's second black mayor and the first female African-American to lead any major upstate city.) Richards, meanwhile, said all the right things: he would not campaign against his party's candidate as fairly determined through the primary, and he endorsed her.
That was September. Two months then remained before a week from this coming Tuesday; and over those ensuing weeks, a movement of entrenched City Hall soldiers (including the mayor's director of communications, to whom I coincidentally sold Bessie, our first marital car, sometime in the early 1990s) appeared to encourage voters to re-elect Richards on the minor party lines even though he wasn't campaigning for it and had endorsed Warren for the job.
It got even weirder earlier this week, when the city's alt-weekly paper, oddly enough named City, endorsed HIM over HER
:We are still convinced that Richards is the far better candidate. He has kept the city financially stable through an exceptionally difficult economic period. He has encouraged new business and residential development. He has worked with employee groups to keep labor costs down and worked with unions and contractors to insure jobs for city residents on public projects. He is experienced, progressive, and pragmatic, and he is uniquely qualified to lead Rochester in this challenging time.
Richards, meanwhile, is being uncannily cagey in his non-denial-denials about having anything to do with this effort. He isn't campaigning for the job, but neither is he campaigning for anybody else, including the woman he supposedly endorsed. He's also refusing to utter the kiss-of-death phrase
that could end this in a second: if elected, I shall not serve.
Remember that all this started because our Guv named Duffy as his running mate three years ago. There's speculation that the two are on the outs (Duffy didn't help Cuomo at all in polling numbers in this part of upstate in 2010), and that Duffy may be moving back to town.
Maybe Andy will name Lovely Warren as his next running mate; then City Council could put Duffy back where he was and treat this whole experience as a "Bobby in the shower" bad dream. In terms of allowing full and fair choices to the electorate, it sure sounds like a bad dream to me:P
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