At least 300 people figure Mayor Byron W. Brown is vulnerable. But even their candidate wants them to brace themselves.
"Make no mistake, we are the underdogs," Mark J. F. Schroeder told his South Buffalo base and dozens of other well-wishers who traveled to South Buffalo's Historic Lodge to cheer the city comptroller Sunday as he kicked off his campaign for Buffalo mayor.
Schroeder ticked off the mayor's advantages: money, power and the many trappings of incumbency. Moreover, Schroeder acknowledged he can expect no help from the local Democratic organization as it backs the mayor – the state's Democratic Party chairman – in the all-important Democratic primary, his fourth.
But Schroeder's crowd knew where he was going.
Others have come from behind to defeat obstacles, he said. He reached back to the Old Testament to remind them that Daniel survived the lion against all odds. He mentioned the Revolutionary War general who cobbled together an army to defeat the British, and whose face looks down on the Historic Lodge's Washington Room.
The roar began to build.
"I don't need their help," Schroeder said of the party's in-crowd. "Because I have you.
"Let's get to work, Buffalo."
With that, his audience went wild.
It's not as though Schroeder's crowd was devoid of political hands. There was the energetic Sergio Rodriguez, who was buried in Byron Brown's general election landslide four years ago, and Joseph Mascia, a popular board member with the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority until Brown removed him for his racist comments. Samuel A. Herbert, a longtime community activist, shouted his approval from the front of the room.
"When I ran in 2013, there were only two elected officials who supported me," said Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke, a Democrat who represents a South Buffalo district. "Mark Schroeder and David Franczyk," Burke said, referring in the latter case to the Common Council's longest-serving member.
"I like the mayor,'' Burke said. "But how do I turn my back on people who supported me?"
Can Schroeder make history? Because of the city's concentration of Democrats, winning the party primary in September is tantamount to winning the general election in November. The winner is selected by the usually modest percentage of Democrats who vote in the primary. And those voters make up a tiny percentage of Buffalo's adults.
In 2013, Brown trounced his Democratic primary opponent, Bernard Tolbert, by a more than 2-to-1 margin, 15,487 to 7,110. But Brown's voters represented just 8 percent of Buffalo adults of voting age. Democratic turnout was way down, too. About one in every five Democrats who could vote did so.
As the Democratic candidate, Brown in 2013 breezed through the general election. He captured almost seven of every 10 ballots cast in the race against Sergio Rodriguez. Had Brown run on only one party line – the Democratic Party's – he still would have beaten Rodriguez 2-1.
Brown's biggest vote total in a primary came in 2009, when he beat Mickey Kearns, another South Buffalo mainstay, by more than 10,000 votes – 26,314 to 14,866. Still, Brown voters amounted to about 13 percent of the city's adults.
Schroeder will have to dilute Brown's recipe for success: Dominating in his strongholds of Ellicott, Fillmore and Masten, which has allowed the mayor to do just well enough elsewhere.
Brown's financial resources go deeper than Schroeder's. The "Brown for Buffalo" campaign fund held more than $340,000 when it filed its most recent report in January. While Schroeder has yet to file a report in the race for mayor, his campaign account for his comptroller's office held around $157,000 in January. While that total includes the $25,000 he loaned to himself, it shows Schroeder can raise six-figure sums.
To illustrate his concern for the entire city, Schroeder mentioned every distinct Buffalo neighborhood at least once, and some several times. He never used the name of the mayor who recently told The Buffalo News that Schroeder is "going to be trounced." But the challenger went through the myriad ways in which his approach to governing will differ, starting with those neighborhoods:
* On economic development, he will stress the need to focus again on neighborhoods that have been bypassed. He wants to revitalize commercial strips along Seneca Street, Jefferson Street and Fillmore Avenue. "Why do we want to do anything more for Canalside or Larkinville," he said to a clutch of reporters after the speech. "Let's give other neighborhoods a chance."
* With police relations, he wants to mend the divide between the mayor's police commissioner and Buffalo's main police union, the Police Benevolent Association. Through his career, as a county legislator, state assemblyman and now comptroller, Schroeder has coveted his relationship with trade unions and public-employee unions, and he mentioned all of those who had a representative in the room Sunday, including the PBA.
* Citistat, the data-based review of the delivery of city services, will end. "That program is over," Schroeder told a clutch of reporters. He didn't like the way Brown's former deputy mayor, Steven M. Casey, would dress down Brown appointees on the local access channel when their numbers look poor. Schroeder said he won't need Citistat because he knows how to manage people.