Hillary Clinton worked hard for Erie County’s vote in the presidential primary, counting on the same local Democrats who overwhelmingly supported her in two elections for U.S. Senate.
She staged a major downtown rally, advertised extensively on Buffalo television, and enlisted other big-name Democrats to stump through Buffalo, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
But the most famous woman in America carried Erie County by just 705 votes. And Bernie Sanders only briefly set foot in the area, with no big-name surrogates to help.
Credit Mayor Byron W. Brown for Clinton’s winning Erie County, one of the mayor’s supporters said. And blame Jeremy Zellner, the county Democratic Party chairman, for not doing a better job, one state Democratic leader said.
“The Erie County Democratic Party is once again the laughingstock of the state,” said James J. Eagan, secretary of the New York State Democratic Committee. “Jeremy Zellner is an embarrassment to the loyal Democrats of this county. When are the party leaders going to realize that it’s time for a change?”
Eagan said he was not speaking as state Democratic secretary, even though he is state Democratic secretary.
To be fair, Clinton did not do well upstate.
She won statewide on the strength of the New York City vote, but barely carried Monroe and Onondaga counties as well, and lost in Albany County. And in the state’s 27 congressional districts, Sanders won six, all north of the New York City metro area.
Upstate’s continuing economic doldrums drew voters to Sanders, according to Leonard R. Lenihan, Erie County’s Democratic elections commissioner. Even in Rochester, where Rep. Louise M. Slaughter personally ran Clinton’s campaign, the former secretary of state barely eked out a countywide victory in Monroe, Lenihan noted.
“You have the upstate economy issue with all the loss of manufacturing jobs and the effects of the trade deals,” said Lenihan, a former Erie County Democratic chairman and Clinton supporter. “There’s a genuine upstate theme of ‘We’ve been left behind.’ ”
A look at the numbers tells the story of Clinton in Erie County:
• Town of Tonawanda: Sanders 54 percent, Clinton 46 percent.
• West Seneca: Sanders, 56 percent, Clinton 44 percent.
• Cheektowaga: Sanders 51 percent, Clinton 40 percent.
• Delaware District: Sanders 52 percent, Clinton 48 percent.
Only the strength of voters in Buffalo – especially among African-Americans on the city’s East Side – carried the day for Clinton in Erie County.
• Ellicott District: Clinton 65 percent, Sanders 35 percent.
• Fillmore District: Clinton 63 percent, Sanders 37 percent.
• Masten Distict: Clinton 74 percent, Sanders 26 percent.
• City of Buffalo: Clinton 57 percent, Sanders 43 percent.
Minority voters helped Clinton in the other big upstate counties too, Lenihan said. But Sanders seemed to connect with people whose incomes are not rising fast enough to keep pace with economic realities.
“It certainly resonated,” he said.
Clinton was popular in Erie County during previous elections.
In 2000, she beat former Rep. Rick Lazio 55 to 43 percent for the Senate, and in 2006 she defeated former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer 65 to 35 percent for re-election to a second term.
And in the Democratic presidential primary in 2008, she beat Barack Obama 60 to 36 percent in Erie County.
If Clinton prevailed statewide with the help of black voters, Buffalo provides an example of how.
Mayor Brown’s political operation worked overtime for Clinton, according to Maurice L. Garner, a Buffalo political consultant with close ties to the mayor.
Brown sent text messages to supporters, made phone calls, sponsored sound trucks and generally “got people organized,” Garner said.
Brown accompanied New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker to meetings in several East Side churches on April 11, and he greeted both Clintons on all three visits.
“He put a lot on the line,” Garner said of the mayor. “He did a great job.”
The mayor explained that Clinton again scored well with minority voters because she is a known commodity.
“She’s delivered a lot of resources and attention to this community,” Brown said. “During her time as senator, we would often forward calls to her office, and she responded.”
While he detected respect for the Sanders message, the mayor said most voters believe Clinton delivered a more “practical message.”
“Sometimes we have a tendency as human beings to think the grass is greener on the other side,” he said. “Eventually those Sanders supporters will be Clinton supporters, because ultimately I believe she will be the nominee.”
But the mayor also said it is no accident that the vote turned out in his base on the East Side. He said he visited churches with elected officials such as Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy and Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan.
They all attended a big rally just days before the primary election and then sent 100 volunteers into the neighborhoods knocking on doors and urging people to vote for Clinton.
“I spent 3½ hours going door to door in Masten in my election district,” he said, noting the Council district recorded the highest turnout and Clinton vote in the city.
Zellner defends local effort
Zellner defended his efforts in getting out the vote for Clinton on primary day, and like Lenihan, said the close vote in Erie County reflected upstate’s dissatisfaction with the economy. He also said the Sanders campaign “unfairly” attacked Clinton while outspending her 3 to 1.
“A lot of that damaged us,” he said, pointing to Sanders’ efforts to link Clinton to fracking that he said unfairly portrayed her position.
Brown also said he experienced no problems with Zellner’s operations in Democratic Party headquarters, noting he found the chairman “very open, very collaborative.”
Party headquarters spent several weeks operating phone banks directed toward city voters, and the chairman sent volunteers to assist the mayor’s operations, he said.
“I was very impressed,” Brown said, noting that almost all factions of the party gathered together on primary night in headquarters to take election returns.
Zellner also said critics like Eagan “never lifted a finger” for the Clinton campaign, blaming allies of former Chairman G. Steven Pigeon – still a Zellner opponent – for the negative views.
Zellner, though, failed in his effort to be elected as a Clinton delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Others beat him as delegates pledged to Clinton.