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Rod Watson: Who’s the ‘spoiler’ in three-way mayoral primary?

There will be a lot of talk about a "spoiler" in this year’s mayoral race, and why not?

After all, unless one of them drops out, either Byron Brown or Mark Schroeder will be blamed for potentially splitting the male vote and opening the way for Buffalo’s first female chief executive.

But of course, that’s not the kind of spoiler anyone envisions in a city long known more for its ethnic politics than for its gender divisions. Even after the massive women’s marches here and elsewhere this year to highlight female empowerment, no one will be talking about Betty Jean Grant’s gender as the county legislator takes on Brown, the incumbent, and Schroeder, the city comptroller, in the Democratic primary.

There will be a lot of talk about the fact that Grant and Brown are two African-Americans competing against a lone candidate from the Irish bastion of South Buffalo, after 12 years in which a black man has led the city.

Betty Jean Grant makes it official: She's running for mayor

Grant bristles at any notion that she might be the spoiler, splitting the black vote that’s always a key for Democrats and giving Schroeder a much-needed boost as he takes on the well organized, well financed incumbent. She points to the white support she got in her near-upset of State Sen. Tim Kennedy in 2012 and says it "demeans the whole process" to suggest only blacks will vote for black candidates.

Of course, that’s what any candidate has to say. But some African-American veterans of city politics are more candid, citing everything from the antipathy between Grant and Brown to an elaborate plan even involving the failed effort to have the Central Terminal designated the site for a new train station.

According to that theory, pushing the East Side landmark gives South Buffalo Democrats like Kennedy and Rep. Brian Higgins cover to abandon the mayor – whose committee chose downtown – or, at the very least, provide an endorsement in words only with little on-the-ground help, thus effectively aiding Schroeder.

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But it should be noted that Kennedy was on hand when Brown announced his bid for a fourth term in February. "I think they will end up endorsing the mayor. But it becomes what happens after the endorsement," is how another politico put it.

Or maybe it’s as simple as the fact that Grant and Brown are archenemies, having backed one another’s opponents and with Grant part of public protests that have criticized the mayor’s efforts to make sure minorities benefit from the city’s construction boom.

But if the former School Board and Common Council member really wants to be mayor, Grant – though highly visible and who holds biweekly forums on community concerns – will have to answer one key question: What are her legislative accomplishments?

Schroeder proudly runs as 'underdog' for Buffalo mayor

Schroeder also has been visible at East Side events, going back years. When visiting black churches, one observer noted, "he stays for the whole service." That might earn him some black votes that could, combined with those for Grant, dent the mayor’s support as both challengers argue with the mayor over whether he has built up downtown at the expense of neighborhoods.

And you thought that’s the kind of issue that would be decisive in this campaign? If only.

The fact that ethnic "politricks" is still such a concern makes you wonder how far Buffalo has progressed, despite all of the shiny new buildings.

However, you can’t get past race by ignoring it. To get past it, you have to make living conditions and economic opportunities in Buffalo so equal that race no longer matters.

But I’m not sure that’s a winning platform yet, at least around here.

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