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Mandate or not, Brown pushes right buttons amid low turnout

Amid the hoopla of Byron W. Brown’s middle-of-Court Street celebration Tuesday night, the Democrat headed for a fourth term as mayor of Buffalo was asked if voters had handed him a mandate.

Did his healthy primary election win over Mark J.F. Schroeder and Betty Jean Grant bestow upon him a wealth of political capital, a reporter queried.

In his best imitation of Colton Schmidt deep behind the Bills’ line of scrimmage, Brown punted.

“I’m going to savor the victory tonight but we’re going back to work tomorrow,” he said. “We work every day to build support from the people of Buffalo. We’re going to continue to do that and certainly not take anything for granted.”

It’s not surprising that Brown sidestepped a direct answer. Out of Buffalo’s approximately 270,000 residents, 13,346 voted for him on Tuesday. It would be tough to claim a mandate based on those numbers.

But that’s the reality of Buffalo elections in recent years. If only one in four Democrats bothers to vote, the city’s leaders start out devoid of true consensus. It does not detract from the legitimacy or breadth of Brown’s victory, but it does need to be taken into perspective.

Former Common Council President George K. Arthur, an unsuccessful mayoral candidate in 1985, pointed out that since the city’s charter revision produced four-year terms for Council members, Buffalo in mayoral years has lacked the district Council elections that often spark some semblance of enthusiasm.

“I used to see the hoopla,” Arthur said. “Not this year, because there are no contests.”

Strike one for encouraging turnout.

Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner agreed about the overall lack of excitement this year, even in a three-way contest.

“A lot of people think the mayor is going to win the primary,” he said before Tuesday’s decision.

You couldn't argue with that general perception, or that it helped produce an emphatic strike two for turnout.

The final swing and a miss could result from general apathy. Schroeder and Grant both mightily tried to generate passion about poverty in East Side neighborhoods and Buffalo’s ranking as one of the nation’s poorest cities. They campaigned against the backdrop of recent stories in The Buffalo News highlighting that 54 percent of the city’s children live in poverty ‑ up 7 percentage points from 2016.

But it all proved a tough assignment, especially amid the feel-good optimism surrounding parts of downtown, the waterfront, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and Larkinville.

Still, the candidates all knew that turnout — or lack thereof — remained crucial to their efforts. Schroeder – the city comptroller — hoped his neighborhood argument would resonate along Masten’s poverty stricken streets.

It didn’t; not strongly enough, anyway. Brown’s home district came through, albeit with some erosion of support. Recall that Masten voted 97 percent for Brown over Michael P. Kearns in 2009. This year the mayor won 69 percent of the Masten vote compared to Schroeder’s 10 percent and Grant's 21 percent — enough to still spell how to win a mayoral election in Buffalo.

Schroeder knew his South Buffalo home would also prove loyal. He won the South District 80 percent to 19 percent. But Brown still scored relatively well on Schroeder’s turf.

That left the city's primarily white districts. Kearns — Brown’s last white opponent — won the Delaware District 56 percent to 44 percent in 2009. Kearns won the North District that year 53 percent to 46 percent, and took South 78 percent to 22 percent.

On Tuesday Brown turned it all around, demonstrating his successful appeal to those who believe the city is experiencing its best days in many years. The mayor won Delaware with 51 percent, compared to 41 percent for Schroeder. He took North on Tuesday 52 percent to 40 percent.

Former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello was among those studying the results on Wednesday. He knows something about winning citywide elections. Indeed, he was elected mayor three times, mainly by competing better among African-American voters than any white candidate before or after.

Brown’s success in Delaware and North, Masiello said, is not surprising.

“Because the city is doing well,” he said. “There is lots of optimism in those neighborhoods. Things are good.”

The former mayor pointed out, however, that Schroeder made significant inroads in places like Masten and University. The comptroller snared a healthy 10 percent in Masten and 19 percent in University.

“There could be some erosion in the base,” Masiello said, noting that Schroeder emerged as a serious candidate with a serious message.

“He was a good candidate with a fire in the belly,” the former mayor said. “That makes Byron’s election that much stronger.”

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