Mayor Byron W. Brown cruised to victory in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, a crucial step in his quest for a third term.
Brown won with 68 percent of the vote against Bernard A. Tolbert, who attracted 32 percent of the vote, according to an unofficial tally of 99 percent of the ballots cast.
Buoyed by an electorate that believes the city is headed in the right direction and despite a crisis in the Buffalo Public Schools that escalated throughout the campaign, Brown easily won the Democratic nomination in a city that is overwhelmingly Democratic in registration.
“We didn’t run a campaign based on what’s wrong with Buffalo; we ran a campaign based on what’s right with Buffalo,” Brown told a crowd of supporters at Statler City.
With several construction cranes visible on the downtown skyline for the first time in a generation, the mayor was able to make his case that Buffalo is heading in the right direction. He also was helped by a string of high-profile endorsements, including President Obama’s recent encouraging words about the city, which Brown used in a television commercial and in a glossy printed ad left at voters’ doors days before the primary.
“The voters think the city is moving on the right track, and they like him, and they think he’s doing a good job as mayor,” said Siena Research Institute pollster Steven A. Greenberg. “That almost always spells success for an incumbent for re-election. … Why do they want to change conductors?”
It also didn’t hurt that Brown’s fundraising war chest, which recently held more than a million dollars, gave him the resources to advertise heavily on television and fill voters’ mailboxes.
Brown will face Republican Sergio R. Rodriguez, a former administrator at Medaille College and a former Marine, in the general election Nov. 5. But Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1 in Buffalo, and the last time a Republican was elected mayor was in 1961.
Tolbert’s campaign never took off with voters, and three Siena polls conducted for The Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV showed that Brown’s lead actually increased over the last month of the campaign, from 29 percentage points in August to 33 points in September.
Tolbert urged his supporters to remain active in the city, to speak out about issues and to stay engaged and get involved.
“Remember, there are better choices,” he said in his concession speech at the Metropolitan Banquet Center. “Working together, we can build a better Buffalo.”
Tolbert said after the speech that by “better choices” he meant, “we don’t have to accept mediocrity and people telling us this is as good as it gets for Buffalo.”
He said voters should demand accountability and the very best from their elected officials, and not settle for what is offered to them.
Tolbert, a former special agent in charge of the Buffalo office of the FBI who also oversaw security for the National Basketball Association, started the public phase of his campaign too late, said Canisius College Political Science Professor Michael V. Haselswerdt.
“When he finally got in it, there was a month left to seriously make his case,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of time.”
Tolbert’s share of the vote was 30 percent in a Siena poll from Sept. 3 to 6, down from 32 percent in August. He remained unknown to 23 percent of likely Democratic voters, according to the September poll of 502 likely Democratic voters.
Tolbert tried to capitalize on problems in the schools, including a graduation rate below 50 percent, taking every opportunity to say that Brown had not been active enough or used the bully pulpit of the Mayor’s Office to lobby for more success in the schools.
To make his point, he spent one morning days before the primary touring schools, and advocated mayoral control for some School Board seats and the Superintendent’s Office.
“I think Tolbert’s right about the criticism, but that’s a hard case to make,” Haselswerdt said.
Brown largely distanced himself from the schools crisis but spoke more about education as the campaign progressed. In August, he announced that the city would spend $400,000 to hire instrumental music teachers, restoring programs that had been cut.
But even though a plurality of voters – 29 percent – said education was the most important issue when they headed to the polls, voters do not appear to blame Brown for the state of city schools.
Though Brown kept up a busy government and campaign schedule, he never felt threatened enough by Tolbert’s candidacy to resort to negative ads or mailings, and he was helped by a summer when many voters saw cranes on the waterfront and at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
Obama’s words from his visit to the University at Buffalo in August, that “Buffalo’s on the move,” came at the right time for Brown.
The incumbent also used endorsements from fellow Democrats – including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Rep. Brian Higgins and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz _ in mailings sent to Democratic households.
While Tolbert had the support of the union that represents Buffalo police officers, Brown was backed by many developers, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Buffalo Building and Construction Trades Council. He also won support from seven out of nine members of the Common Council.
The most recent Siena poll from last week showed that nearly 8 in 10 residents think that the city is on the right track, making it difficult for any challenger to Brown, Haselswerdt said.
Turnout in the Democratic contest was about 20 percent.
Brown also is the Conservative Party’s endorsed candidate, but Rodriguez was staging a write-in campaign for the line. The results of that effort won’t be known for at least 10 days, when Erie County Board of Elections officials count the write-in ballots.
Rodriguez has attracted attention for his energetic debate performances and has proven to be an active campaigner, conducting news conferences,and posting frequently in social media, but he remains unknown to many voters.
A poll in mid-August found that 55 percent of registered city voters didn’t know who he was, or had no opinion of him, and a poll last week found that among likely Democratic voters, 38 percent didn’t know him or had no opinion, and that more people had an unfavorable opinion of him than had a favorable opinion, 36 percent to 26 percent. Both polls were conducted by Siena.
Rodriguez has not won support from the Erie County Republican Committee and has raised just a fraction of what Brown has on hand.
The resource gap is compounded by the significant enrollment disadvantage in the city for Republicans – just 10 percent of voters are members of the GOP.
The last Republican to win the mayor’s race was Chester A. Kowal, who served a single term beginning in 1962.