There must be something in the water down there in South Buffalo.
Whenever voters in the 142nd District – which includes Lackawanna, West Seneca and Orchard Park – send a representative to the Assembly, an independent streak appears required. Maybe even stubborn, recalcitrant, and certainly unwilling to play ball Albany-style.
Brian Higgins started the ancient and revered “South Buffalo way” back in 2000. He joined a palace coup against Shelly Silver – the iron-fisted, high, exalted, mystic ruler of the Assembly – orchestrated by then-Majority Leader Michael Bragman of Syracuse.
The coup failed. Higgins and Silver eventually made up. But while Silver forgave, he never forgot. Higgins developed an “independent” reputation that has served him well in the House of Representatives – even as he raises questions in recent days about another potential speaker – Nancy Pelosi.
Then Mark Schroeder succeeded Higgins. He took on Silver too; would not support him for speaker. And in Albany lore, was shunted off to a “broom closet” in Albany’s Legislative Office Building.
Now as Buffalo comptroller, Schroeder accentuates his independent reputation, pummeling Mayor Byron W. Brown at every possible chance – which the mayor calls an unnecessary continuation of the pair’s 2017 face-off for mayor.
Schroeder left the Assembly to run successfully for comptroller, and along came Mickey Kearns. The former Council member and mayoral candidate failed to win the Democratic endorsement when he ran in a 2012 special election. So while still a Democrat, he ran on the Republican line and won.
The tactic earned Kearns no friends upon arrival in Albany. On many levels, Assembly Democrats ostracized him, too. Kearns wore that and his opposition to the now disgraced Silver as a badge of honor.
Current Assemblyman Erik Bohen may have advanced the South Buffalo independent streak to a new level. In a Kearns-like move, the Democrat also ran on the GOP line after failing to win the Democratic nod for a special election. Bohen ran in April opposing Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo – and won.
But Bohen arrived in Albany as the ultimate unwanted stepchild. Democrats ignored him after running on the Republican line. Republicans shunned him too, and Bohen became one of the most unique members in Assembly history. He sat by himself on the chamber floor, in an “island,” neither Republican nor Democrat.
Burke beat Bohen on Nov. 6, and now promises to work within the Assembly majority "to get things done.”
“Do I want to sit in a broom closet or on an island?” he asked a few days ago. “No. My job is to represent the people of the district and bring back resources.”
Burke looks forward to caucusing with Assembly Democrats, noting their platform reflects most – though not all – of his beliefs. He said the district paid the price for his predecessors’ “independence.”
“I know the district suffered,” he said. “There’s been a lack of resources.”
Now, Burke says maybe attention will be paid to West Seneca sewers or deteriorated parks. Maybe state funds will come the district’s way.
Still, 142nd voters may see in Burke some of the pugnaciousness they favored in their past assemblymen. Burke has traded his noble profession of bartending for politics, and developed his own reputation for independence. He emerged as Schroeder’s only supporter of note in last year’s mayoral election, and some say Erie County’s powers-that-be are more than happy he is exiting County Hall.
Burke also said during his campaign that he would not vote for Cuomo this year, acknowledging the apparent sentiment of the district. He says that reputation will not change, even if the ways of “South Buffalo’s assemblyman” will.
“It’s in my personality to push back, and I will not go there to genuflect,” he said. “But I will go there to represent the people first.”
Burke has already broken the mold, and a still divided Assembly district will watch closely.