As an Irish folk band blared ballads through Cazenovia Park a few days ago, Byron W. Brown stood out as the rare black face in an explosion of green garb.
The mayor was following one of the first rules of Buffalo politics – attend every ethnic celebration on the calendar – as he worked the South Buffalo Irish Festival on turf usually claimed by his Democratic primary rival, Mark J.F. Schroeder, the city comptroller.
Schroeder is mounting his own “cross-over” appeal. He insists African-American voters will abandon one of their own Tuesday on Primary Day, and last week he sought support by ringing doorbells in the heart of the Masten District – where the mayor lives and which Brown once represented in the Common Council.
County Legislator Betty Jean Grant is also competing for the party nomination. But she has raised and spent a small sum of money, and most observers believe she appeals mostly to fellow black voters.
Brown and Schroeder, though, assign top priority to invading each other’s base. They previously won citywide office by courting the entire Democratic electorate. And whoever wins Tuesday's primary is likely to become mayor.
So ethnic politics kicks in. And now it gets harder.
Former Common Council President George K. Arthur, an African-American who won the 1985 Democratic primary for mayor but lost to James D. Griffin in the general election, says racial and ethnic pride still guides Buffalo voters.
“I recall many years ago a meeting at Nuchereno’s in Riverside,” he said.
Various Italian-American factions were scrapping for political control of the West Side.
“But they came together for Frank Sedita,” he said of the late mayor. “ ‘He’s one of us.’ That comes into play for Mark in South Buffalo and Byron in the black community. That’s the battle as I see it.”
Which candidate succeeds in picking off enough of the other’s could determine the election, according to former Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan.
“I think Mark Schroeder carries South Buffalo, but Byron will do respectably,” he said. “Byron will also carry his base in strong fashion."
“In the end, Byron’s power of incumbency and the City of Buffalo’s experience of rejuvenation will prove very, very difficult for his opponents to overcome,” he added.
But Schroeder has been making his case in the neighborhoods. For months, he has spent his Sundays in various black churches, where he is often invited to speak. And because a recent Siena Research Institute poll conducted for Spectrum News shows only 52 percent of black voters with Brown, Schroeder sees an opening.
“This mayor has lost his base,” Schroeder says. “Betty Jean Grant is a voice for the East Side and will get votes. So will I.”
The comptroller claims the incumbent was even booed at the primarily African-American Juneteenth Festival earlier this summer in Martin Luther King Park.
“Would Jimmy Griffin ever get booed walking in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the Old First Ward?” he asked, referring to the late Irish-American mayor. “I don’t think so.”
As Schroeder made his way down streets like Roehrer, Timon and Northampton on Buffalo’s East Side, dozens of residents appeared glad to see him. Many said they rarely see anybody from City Hall – especially Brown – unless it’s election time.
“He is the first candidate to actually walk through here and speak to us,” said Mark Price, a barber playing chess in an empty lot at Roehrer and Best. “Byron Brown might ride through, but he doesn’t stop.”
If any neighborhood needs more attention and more city services, residents say, it’s this one. Many homes are worn down. Plywood covers the doorways and windows of others long abandoned, while empty lots mark where the city has torn down more than 6,400 old homes over the years. The backyard of one home is filed with debris from another building that collapsed long ago.
Linda White, who was mowing an abandoned lot, said she will “without a doubt” vote for Schroeder.
“He hasn’t done anything for the East Side. Look at it,” she said of Brown while pointing to the poor neighborhood around her. “They cut these fields and then just leave them.”
Bishop Samuel White stood in front of his Walking in God Ministries Holiness Church on Northampton Street, which has seen better days since it was built in 1824. He acknowledged that Brown probably leads among Masten voters, but he says Schroeder is “the man.”
“He’ll do something for the district,” he said. “If everybody votes, he can get in.”
As Schroeder made his way past a sea of red-and-blue Brown signs at Dodge Street and Norway Park, he stopped to talk with Kim Coker. She, like every other of the more than a dozen residents who spoke with a Buffalo News reporter, said Schroeder has her vote.
“We’ve been promised sidewalks here for three years. I even went to Byron Brown’s office to make an appointment, and they say they’ll get back to you,” she said. “Nobody ever gets back. A lot of people are turned off by that.”
Brown has demonstrated in three previous elections his ability to break ethnic barriers.
In his 2009 primary against another South Buffalonian, Michael P. Kearns, Brown garnered significant votes in primarily white Council districts. Citywide, he clobbered Kearns by about 10,000 votes – 63 to 37 percent – with turnout at 35 percent.
That meant gaining a healthy 44 percent of the vote in Delaware and 46 percent in North. Then he scored overwhelming totals in black districts, including a whopping 97 percent in Masten and 84 percent in University.
In 2017, Brown believes he can do even better. He won’t predict victory in places like the South Council District, where he was campaigning a few days ago and where Schroeder is expected to do well. But the perception that the city is making gains allows him to strongly compete in white districts such as Delaware, he says.
“We’ve brought great progress to every area of the City of Buffalo,” the mayor said between stops in Cazenovia Park.
At Cazenovia Park, Brown may not have known all the words to the music of “Crickwater,” but the big crowd at the Irish Festival crowd embraced him as one of their own. He knew by name many of those who approached him, and he offered greetings to everyone he encountered.
Though ethnic voting patterns have traditionally guided Buffalo politics, a recent Spectrum/Siena poll showed 50 percent of white Democrats will cast their ballot for Brown. South Council Member Christopher P. Scanlon, accompanying the mayor through the manicured park, thinks Brown will do well in South Buffalo on Tuesday.
“The things you typically hear is that there is real momentum in the city and what they see is incredible, especially from people who have not been here for a while and come back,” he said. “People are really, really happy.”
Eric Johnson, a retired CSX Railroad employee and South Buffalo native, said Brown has done a “good job.”
“Mark Schroeder is not complaining about this neighborhood; it’s the inner city neighborhoods,” he said, “and I think the mayor works well with the councilmen.”
Just about everyone who shook hands with the mayor later said they would vote for him. But one retired city worker may have summed up the neighborhood’s divided loyalties by pointing out its close connections.
“I have to vote for Mark,” said the retiree, who asked to remain anonymous. “He did me a big favor one time.”
Schroeder and Grant have based their campaigns on the premise that while downtown, the waterfront and Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus are prospering, neighborhoods have fallen behind. Schroeder acknowledges progress in some areas of the city and says Brown can expect support where businesses and incomes flourish.
“That’s why he’s always in the Delaware District or on Hertel,” Schroeder said with a touch of sarcasm.
“But do people in Delaware need government? That’s a great place for him to go.”
Brown acknowledges Buffalo continues to rank among the nation’s poorest cities. And some neighborhoods remain riddled with poverty and crime. But he says a revitalized waterfront and new Medical Campus jobs are keeping young people in town and changing perceptions.
“Downtown and the Medical Campus belong to all of us and offer tremendous opportunity to all of us,” he said.
He doesn’t buy his opponents’ claims that neighborhoods are neglected. While campaigning in South Buffalo, he pointed to city help in converting Holy Family School into apartments and pouring “millions of dollars” into projects along Abbott Road and Cazenovia Park.
During the televised debate Wednesday, he spent much of his rebuttals to Grant and Schroeder listing millions of dollars worth of neighborhood improvements, especially on the East Side.
“They’re making arguments without any plans or ideas,” he said of Schroeder and Grant. “I’m moving in a strategic direction by funding initiatives in all parts of the city. The people know we are poised for growth in all areas.”