Don’t close the book on this year’s Buffalo School Board elections quite yet.
While it has been a week since the election – when voters flipped the majority on the School Board – there’s still this matter of settling the Park District race between incumbent Carl P. Paladino and his bright-eyed, fresh-faced challenger, Austin Harig.
Paladino holds a slim lead against the 18-year-old Harig heading into Tuesday when the Erie County Board of Elections counts the absentee ballots to officially decide the winner.
Though this David-and-Goliath matchup is technically still up for grabs – with Harig down by 107 votes, with 161 absentee ballots to be counted – the odds are stacked against the senior from Hutchinson-Central Technical High School.
“With 107 votes to overcome, it’s very unlikely 161 will change the result of the election,” said Leonard R. Lenihan, Erie County Democratic elections commissioner. “Even if Austin Harig got two-thirds of the vote, it still wouldn’t be enough to overcome 107 votes. But in this business, you never say never.”
Win or lose, Harig has garnered a huge amount of attention in one of the most interesting races of the season, not just because of his age, but because he was taking on the heavyweight Paladino, the former Republican gubernatorial candidate who serves as state chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
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Gallery: Buffalo School Board as of July 1
It got even more intriguing on election night, when the polls closed and Harig was just 107 votes down in South Buffalo: “Carl Country.”
Harig’s backing from the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the AFL-CIO undoubtedly brought union voters to the polls, observers pointed out. So did the fact that Paladino has been a lightning rod in the community and during his time on the School Board.
“There’s no question that was a very strong contributing factor to this,” said Richard Lipsitz Jr., president of the local AFL-CIO.
Parents in the statewide opt-out movement also donated to Harig, and the Williamsville Teachers Association urged its members to send money, too.
“We felt there was a feeling throughout the city, including in parts of South Buffalo, that people were tired of being bullied by the downtown developer,” Lipsitz said.
The unions also staffed phone banks and staged a downtown rally to try to defeat their targeted candidates, including Paladino.
Harig, on the other hand, likes to think that his message resonated with families who feel ignored by the Buffalo Public Schools. He brought attention to what the schools are like from the student’s perspective. If attendance is a problem, create programs that make kids want to come to school, Harig reasoned.
Sure, the district needs more parent involvement, but what about the students across the district who don’t have parents? Harig proclaimed.
“It was a learning experience,” Harig said of the election. “I never claimed going into this race that I was the perfect candidate, but my platform was that I know how students and parents feel.”
In fact, Harig may have encouraged more students to follow in his path during the years to come, said Jennifer L. Mecozzi, who won a board seat in the West District.
“Regardless of whether he’s on the board or not, I as a board member look forward to being able to engage students, and I think Austin has paved the way for that,” Mecozzi said.
“I was super impressed by that young man,” said Mecozzi, a community organizer for PUSH Buffalo. “In my line of work, plus being a mom with kids that age, you don’t really come across that type of determination and confidence.”
The election has raised Harig’s public profile.
As he stopped into Spot Coffee on Delaware Avenue on Tuesday, someone from across the restaurant shouted his name. Harig walked over and chatted with the man, who recognized the teenager as the School Board candidate running against Paladino.
“I get that every single day,” Harig later told a reporter.
Harig was bitten by the political bug last year while participating in student government, coming up with prom themes and fundraising ideas. That’s when he realized that students don’t have any real decision-making power, and he launched his campaign for the School Board.
He is the oldest of four children in his family, but was an emancipated minor. It’s a choice he made last year during some difficult times at home, but said it was a decision supported by his mother and father. He rents a house in South Buffalo.
“It’s different,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you, trying to maintain a house is a lot more work than kids give their parents credit for.”
Harig doesn’t claim to be the high school valedictorian, but he pays attention in class and said his grades are OK. His interest is in computer technology, and what began as a hobby more than a year ago has turned into a small business for Harig, who sells advertising to social platforms under the name Silver Cloud Media.
Business was slow at first, but has started to pick up, he said. It even brought in enough money for him to spend two months in Europe and Greece last summer traveling on a tight budget by bus and train and staying at youth hostels.
Harig showed a reporter photos on his phone of him standing in front of the Parthenon and posing in front of the Eiffel Tower at night.
“Yet I’m still here in Buffalo,” Harig said, “and I don’t intend to go anyplace.”
He is set to graduate in June but is still undecided about where to attend college. The election required him to have a thick skin, but he likes politics and sees it in his future.
Harig still thinks that he’ll find his way onto the School Board – sooner or later.
“This isn’t the last Carl has seen of me,” Harig said, alluding to Paladino’s possible second try for the state’s top job. “Maybe I’ll run against him for governor.”