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Column: Schroeder's candidacy points to bruising mayoral race

Pundits and know-it-alls handicapping the 2017 contest for mayor of Buffalo may yawn over Mark J.F. Schroeder’s official announcement of candidacy Sunday in South Buffalo.

Byron W. Brown, they pontificate, enjoys every conceivable advantage: campaign funds, name recognition, expected party endorsement, organization, and all the trappings and power of the mayor’s office.

But an intense and possibly vicious affair is developing even before Schroeder, the city comptroller, joins the race at the Historic Lodge on Cazenovia Street. Buffalo’s normally taciturn mayor is wasting no time in whipping his fellow denizen of City Hall with some of the bluntest attacks of his three terms in office.

“It gives me great comfort that Mark Schroeder is going to be trounced,” Brown said a few days ago during a meeting at The Buffalo News.

Schroeder launches his effort in the September Democratic primary from a depth even lower than underdog. Brown is reveling in an internal poll (paid for by his campaign) that shows him leading Schroeder among likely Democratic primary voters, 63 to 18 percent.

“His favorability and overall job approval ratings are at the highest levels in any poll we’ve done for the mayor since 2005,” said a report from the Global Strategy polling firm. “Buffalo voters also give the mayor a high positive job rating on each specific major issue facing the city.”

None of it fazes Schroeder, a former county legislator and assemblyman known for his feistiness and aversion to conformity. He is expected to contrast downtown and waterfront development touted in the mayor’s campaign brochures with crumbling East Side neighborhoods that help rank Buffalo as one of the nation’s poorest cities.

During an interview in December, he referred to a recent article in Travel and Leisure magazine noting Buffalo as a top tourist destination. But the recognition stems from all the wrong reasons, he said, in a preview of the populist course he is expected to follow.

“I was not amused. It tells me rich people come to Buffalo and go to 716 or the Chop House,” he said.

“Maybe they should be going to Ms. Goody’s, or the Phoenix or the Blackthorn. A tale of two cities continues in Buffalo, and there should be a comprehensive plan for the north, south, east and west for the City of Buffalo.”

Schroeder also will embrace the maverick reputation he has branded for himself, especially after his seven-year stint in the Assembly where his vocal opposition to then-Speaker Sheldon Silver relegated him to the sidelines.

“I love the path I’ve been on over the past 15 years,” he previously told The News. “I don’t say what I’m supposed to say. I say what I want to say.”

He also will emphasize the need for change, and that Brown is seeking a fourth term achieved only by the late James D. Griffin. The current mayor’s “shelf life,” he will argue, has expired.

Brown is not amused. Insiders say he takes umbrage to the Schroeder candidacy following years of working with him. To some extent, the mayor already is making the race personal. He appears to be redefining his opponent’s maverick reputation before Schroeder ever gets a chance to define himself.

“Even for the areas he represented ‑ South Buffalo ‑ he was marginalized in the Assembly because he marginalized himself,” Brown charged. “He created a fight with the speaker of the Assembly and ended up in a caucus of one.

“It’s a lot harder to work with diverse colleagues from across the state and convince them your ideas have merit,” he added.

The mayor is also lashing out at Schroeder’s emphasis on the city’s rebound from a financial control board to some of the best credit ratings of recent years.

Does the comptroller really believe, he asked, that improved finances don’t stem from the city’s overall administration?

“It’s not because of the comptroller, it’s because of the work of the mayor and Common Council,” Brown said, adding Schroeder has twisted the city’s financial progress into something serving his own “self interest” in running for mayor.

If Schroeder was banking on long-standing legal issues dogging Brown, last week’s court developments thrust another obstacle in his path. U.S. District Judge Willliam M. Skretny dismissed a “pay-to-play” lawsuit brought by a Cleveland developer alleging its loss of a housing contract resulted from the mayor’s demand that a long time political ally be given a job.

Though NRP Properties can appeal, Skretny’s decision subtracts a major element from Schroeder’s potential campaign formula. Now, Schroeder can not rely on a mayor wounded by a negative court ruling that might have highlighted television advertising.

“I make no apologies, none whatsoever, for making sure the project benefited residents and not wealthy developers,” Brown said.

The judge dismissed NRP’s suit on technical grounds rather than on the merits of the firm’s argument that Brown demanded compensation for the Rev. William A. Stenhouse, but the mayor seems ready to combat any such hint from Schroeder.

“Dismissed is dismissed,” he said.

More developments will highlight the 2017 race following Schroeder’s official entrance. County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, never a Brown ally, has strongly hinted in recent weeks that she also will run in the primary. Such a candidacy could siphon off significant votes from Brown’s African-American base and provide at least an opening for Schroeder.

But Grant would have to forfeit her seat in the Legislature to run in this election year, and most observers question such a move without a tangible chance of success. Another black candidate, however, could conceivably achieve the same effect ‑ though nobody with credibility has yet surfaced.

Schroeder also is expected to make a strong pitch to the Conservative Party, which has only 1,215 registered members in the city but has historically demonstrated the ability to influence mayoral races. Brown, the state Democratic chairman, appears to have worn out his welcome with the Conservative party, which has supported him throughout his career in a move mirroring another Democrat and a political mentor ‑ former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski.

The comptroller also maintains long ties with the Conservatives, and is expected to gain their nod this spring. That could award Schroeder with a line in the November general election, and the long shot chance of repeating Griffin’s Conservative victory in 1977.

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