Republican Mark T. Supples seemed quite proud a few days ago of his campaign sign outside the Sweetness 7 Cafe in the city’s Niagara District.
These days, campaign signs for Republicans in Buffalo qualify as collectors' items. For more than a decade, GOP candidates in Buffalo general elections have been about as rare as – well – GOP victories in Buffalo general elections.
But Supples is challenging history and conventional political wisdom. This fall he is mounting an active, funded and serious campaign for the Common Council’s Niagara seat in a challenge to incumbent Democrat David A. Rivera. Even if Democrats for years have charged that Erie County Republicans purposely discourage their own from running in Buffalo to suppress the city’s overwhelmingly Democratic vote, Supples says he’s out to prove a point.
He says he might even win.
“You can’t win if you’re not on the ballot,” said Supples, well-known for his quarter century as proprietor of Mothers restaurant and other watering holes.
“I don’t know if I’m going to knock down any walls, but maybe I’ll put in a little crack,” he added.
Political observers note that like many Northeast cities, Buffalo has morphed since the late 1940s into a solid Democratic enclave. Indeed, voters have not elected a Republican mayor since Chester Kowal in 1961.
Possibly out of a sense of duty, Republicans nevertheless regularly fielded candidates in many Common Council and city-based County Legislature races as recently as 2001. But with Buffalo Democrats now outnumbering Republicans 7 to 1, the party seems to view GOP candidacies as a hopeless cause.
And though party leaders will never say it publicly, many privately acknowledge that providing no incentive for Buffalo Democrats to turn out for a competitive race on Election Day can only help Republican countywide candidates. That’s one reason why this year, GOP leaders look to the city’s anticipated low turnout as a cause for optimism for county executive candidate Lynne M. Dixon, who's running on the GOP line.
Supples acknowledges he has received no financial help from the party, and he isn’t asking for any.
“They’re not discouraging me,” he said. “They just said: ‘You realize you have no chance of winning.’ ”
Joseph Totaro, who carries the unenviable title of Buffalo Republican chairman, is nevertheless enthusiastic about Supples.
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “It’s about time we had people in the city willing to run all the way, win or lose.
“They had no problems or qualms about this,” he added about the county GOP. “Mark is able to raise his own money and run his own campaign.”
Supples, a Nichols School and University of Pennsylvania graduate, shies away from the political machinations. A rookie candidate at 60, he is campaigning on a simple mantra of “I think we can do better.”
“I’m talking about opening up city government so people are more aware of what’s going on,” he said, mentioning tax breaks and the property reassessment process as examples.
He also raises questions about city finances.
“I believe it will go back to being under a hard control board. It has to,” he said of the city, referring to the strict oversight of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority that was created in 2003 and that reverted to advisory status in 2012.
“And I don’t know if it would be such a bad thing,” he added. “It was good for the city the last time.”
Supples spends little time or effort criticizing his opponent, saying he is “ambivalent” about Rivera. But he knows he is challenging a well-known veteran of city government, a former police officer who is now majority leader of the Council.
The incumbent welcomes his challenger into the race.
“I respect what he’s doing,” Rivera said. “Everybody has an opportunity to put their name in the race, and it’s an opportunity for an exchange of ideas.”
Rivera says he also recognizes that Erie County Republicans would just as soon suppress the city’s Democratic vote, but he looks forward to a genuine general election contest against Supples.
“I welcome him,” he said.
Supples acknowledges he faces long odds. In Niagara, Democrats hold an even stronger advantage – 9 to 1 – than their 7-1 citywide edge. But he has a strategy. He looks at registration numbers indicating there are about 9,000 Democrats, 1,000 Republicans and 3,000 minor party members or "blanks" who are unaffiliated with any party. He hopes Democrats seeking change and the unaffiliated will prove key.
He sees the lack of Democratic enthusiasm and the anticipated low turnout working in his favor – just as countywide Republicans also see it working for them.
“I hope people realize that political party ideals don’t matter in neighborhood elections,” he said.
Supples has raised about $7,000 so far for his effort, which he thinks demonstrates his seriousness. But it remains an effort that mostly involves knocking on doors.
Asked about a campaign staff, he answered: “My daughter.”