Byron W. Brown seems to have it all -- money, a huge enrollment edge, and a long political resume.
But Kevin J. Helfer, without much money, only one elective office under his belt, and a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic town, is now considered a strong candidate.
A lot stems from the low turnout in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, and the questions it raises for Election Day on Nov. 8.
"Any time you win the Democratic primary for the city's top office with only 15,000 votes, there's something wrong," explained former Common Council President George K. Arthur, a mayoral candidate in 1985.
The new view of the election stems from the fact that only about 13 percent of Buffalo Democrats voted for Brown on Primary Day. And if all of the city's 164,244 voters are considered, that number decreases even more -- just over 9 percent believe the state senator should be the city's next mayor.
While Brown racked up huge primary percentages in his African-American base, that failed to translate into numbers. Ellicott voters turned out at a mere 19 percent rate; 22 percent in Masten. And turnout in white neighborhoods such as Delaware (28 percent) and South (30 percent), was not much better.
With so many voters ignoring the Democratic primary, and with 41 percent of those who did vote turning to other candidates, Helfer has suddenly become the most viable Republican mayoral candidate since Chester Kowal in 1961.
"In one week, things have changed dramatically for me," Helfer said. "It's easier now to open doors."
All this gives Helfer reason to believe he can pull off an upset of historic proportions, even if his most ardent supporters are not yet predicting victory. Still, he points to his apparent write-in win in the Conservative primary as proof of his momentum.
"People did not turn out in the Democratic primary because they're tired of the status quo," he said. "I got them excited in the Conservative primary. We're going to take our strategy in the Conservative primary and expand on it."
As he has throughout the post-primary campaign, Brown points to Erie County's budget mess as the reason behind the voter apathy. He continues to remind voters that Helfer worked for County Executive Joel A. Giambra, and thinks voters' problems with the county executive will attract them to his name on the Nov. 8 ballot.
"People are fed up with the Giambra-Helfer mess," he said. "It's made for such negative consequences that people felt like it didn't make much difference. I'm going to let them know it does make a difference because the election of Republican Kevin Helfer means more of the same in City Hall."
> Helfer senses upswing
For Helfer, success means rallying support in districts such as Delaware, Niagara, North and South that turned to the other Democratic candidates on Sept. 13. He believes he is already kindling the kind of enthusiasm he needs to prove successful.
"It's all anecdotal; it's not scientific," he said of the response to his effort. "I feel it. My campaign feels it."
Brown's team acknowledges their man must do better, and that means concentrating on the African-American base in districts such as Masten and Ellicott as well as where Brown maintains substantial cross-over appeal with white voters.
"The key will be to get out enough of our base," said Brown spokesman Steven M. Casey.
That task will fall significantly on the shoulders of Brown's Grassroots political club, which for almost 20 years has worked at turning out the black vote. Grassroots President Alonzo W. Thompson Jr. called the results a "wake-up call."
"I think some of us got a little too overconfident," he said. "The press virtually anointed Byron as the winner and a lot of people thought the race will be in the general election. But what you saw in the primary election is only the tip of the iceberg of Byron's support throughout the city."
He said Buffalo changed significantly since 1977, when former Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve attempted to become the city's first black mayor, just as Brown is attempting in 2005. Thompson said the 61 percent turnout of that election probably won't be matched because economic conditions have changed.
> Lack of motivation
Indeed, the Rev. Darius G. Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church on Delevan Avenue, said he has yet to recognize any sign that voters are motivated.
While the black church has historically played an influential role in that motivation, Pridgen says there is no "perceived crisis" such as the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.
"Back then the community paid attention to politics and religion with a much higher level of interest," he said. "But now people have become comfortable in the conditions they live in, and many are convinced that participating in the electoral process is a waste of time.
"They don't really care about the election," he added. "They care about getting on the next plane out of here."
Even with the historic nature of an election that could produce Buffalo's first black mayor, black voters don't appear to be motivated this year, Pridgen said.
"It's not a Byron Brown or a Kevin Helfer issue, it's a trust issue," he said. "The perception is that the only change we've seen is a new police station, a youth center, and a wading pool with no water in it. People have not seen in this area a big enough change to cause them to get excited."
The Rev. William Gillison of Mount Olive Baptist Church, another influential pastor attuned to politics, sees the same problem; a sense of apathy guides the entire city, he said.
"It's not in just one community but the city as a whole," he said. "The question is why there is such apathy concerning those we hold responsible to lead us."