Mayor Byron W. Brown won a convincing, though not overwhelming, victory in Tuesday’s Democratic primary election. By claiming 51 percent of the vote in a three-way race, the mayor can draw a couple of conclusions:
One is that lots of people wanted him to continue as their mayor, and for a good reason: Buffalo is on the rise. That’s not all due to the mayor, of course, but he has played an important role. He deserved his victory.
But the other conclusion is that nearly half of Democrats voting wanted someone else, either city Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder, who won 35 percent of the vote, or Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, who garnered 13 percent. Their tallies meant that Brown’s victory was much narrower than his three previous elections, in which he won between 61 percent and 68 percent of the vote.
Many of this year’s contrarians don’t like the direction of the city or don’t feel they are benefiting from the city’s resurrection. Rivals will notice, including any who are on the Common Council. Brown will have much work to do if he is to post a successful fourth term. But in that challenge are the makings of a historic legacy.
Most obviously – and perhaps most difficult – will be to ensure that Buffalo’s resurgence penetrates the city’s poverty-wracked East Side. Brown’s perceived failures there accounted for the main thrust of Schroeder’s and Grant’s campaigns. They painted Brown as too little concerned with those neighborhoods.
It wasn’t entirely fair, but the point was made. If Brown shares credit for an improving city, he cannot escape criticism for its uneven distribution – even if reviving those neighborhoods is a heavier lift. It’s a rule of politics.
That’s a good place for the mayor to focus greater attention. Buffalo will not reach its potential if large swaths of the city are left behind.
As part of that effort, Brown needs to continue his efforts at reforming the Buffalo Municipal Housing Agency, which has been mismanaged into ruins. Success in healing the East Side has to include a housing program that offers decent conditions to those who live there.
Perhaps even more important is education in Buffalo. While the mayor has no direct control over the school district, the city helps to fund it. It has a financial obligation and an even greater civic interest. If Brown wants his legacy to be the sturdy revival of a hardscrabble city long down on its luck, he will have to play a role in improving the city’s schools, even if its not part of his formal portfolio.
For example, while empty-nesters and young singles have been flocking to Buffalo in recent years, helping to power its renewal, the city also needs an influx of young families to produce new generations of residents. Without them, the city can never reach its potential.
An underperforming school district is a bar. Parents want to know their children’s education will be robust. The mayor needs to take a special interest in improving the district’s ability not just to graduate students, but to do so in a way that fully prepares them for college or work.
Brown isn’t formally re-elected yet. There remains the general election. Schroeder will be on the ballot again, this time running on the Reform Party line. Conservative Anita L. Howard will also be on the ballot. But in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, the November vote is a formality. His victory is all but guaranteed.
With it, he will become only the second four-term mayor in the city’s history, following the late Jimmy Griffin. His weaker showing aside – it’s not an uncommon result for long-serving executives – his re-election opens the way for him to become more aggressive in pursuing his goals for the city.
To wit: The city has never had a five-term mayor. Brown remains well-enough regarded that he could be the first, but instead of betting on that, he should view his re-election as an opportunity to push harder than he has before.
Critics say, with some justification, that Brown’s weaknesses are in a lack of vision and drive. Coming up on what may well be his last term as mayor, he has a chance to prove them wrong and seal his reputation as a mayor who left a historic imprint on a great city.