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Race issue in city election is a thin line

Do not think that it does not matter. It matters -- even though people tiptoe around it, act like it isn't there, pretend it doesn't make a difference.

Race. It may not matter in the mayoral scrum between Byron Brown and Republican Kevin Helfer as much as money or campaign ads or a 5-to-1 Democratic voter edge. But in a city that is 55 percent white, by the last census count, it matters.

We have come a long way since the days of civil rights battles, backlash and racial-balancing busing. But race, religion and ethnic background still count in elections. They are part of the reason many people vote the way they do.

We saw it in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary. Kevin Gaughan won the predominantly white Delaware, Niagara, North and South Buffalo Council districts. Byron Brown swept to victory (with 59 percent of the vote) with big numbers in the heavily black Masten (taking 93 percent of the vote) Ellicott, Fillmore and University districts.

"If you break down the vote by Council district, obviously there is a racial component to this," said Kevin Hardwick, Canisius College political science professor. "In order for Helfer to win, race has to play a role [in how some people vote]. But if you're Helfer, you have to stay on the right side of the line."

Race already has reared its head. Helfer ran a recent campaign ad saying that Brown "ran with the wrong crowd." Brown suggested the comment had racial overtones. Helfer said it was just a reference to Brown's backing from city unions and other status-quo interests, which is how this white guy saw it.

Each man, if race becomes an issue, treads on dangerous ground.

If Brown -- who has a big edge in money and partisan Democrat voters -- raises a racial issue where white voters don't see one, it hurts his crossover appeal. Helfer stands to gain because the city has a white majority but risks a backlash if he's seen as pandering to white voters.

Although Gaughan beat Brown in four of the five predominantly white Council districts, the numbers underline Brown's crossover appeal. The state senator won in mainly white Lovejoy, barely lost in heavily white North Buffalo and took 39 percent of the vote against Irish-American Gaughan in shamrock-laden South Buffalo.

The numbers underline Brown's party-machine support and appeal to white voters. He's likable, attractive and blandly mainstream. He may not inspire much passion, but he doesn't -- unlike a Jimmy Griffin or a Jim Pitts -- offend folks, either.

"He's perceived as nonthreatening to white voters, and that's why he should win," said Hardwick. "Most white voters who lived through the civil rights era want to vote for a black candidate, to show that they're not prejudiced. But they don't want to vote for somebody as radical as an Al Sharpton. Brown is a little boring, but he doesn't scare anybody."

All of that changes if white voters see Brown in a different light. That could happen if Brown claims there are racial overtones to Helfer's campaign that whites don't see.

"[Brown] has to be careful that whites don't see him as a guy who cries race when it's not there," Hardwick said. "If he screams about race too much, it could backfire on him with white voters."

It cuts both ways. Helfer faces a backlash if voters think he's playing up the racial angle. He risks alienating not only white voters, but his support among African-Americans. Helfer won three Council terms in the University District, where blacks outnumber whites nearly 2-to-1. His hard-working, nice-guy persona earned him the same crossover appeal that Brown has.

It's a fine line, for both of them. The hope here is that neither one crosses it, and we get a race decided by credentials, not by color.


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