Even as Mayor Byron W. Brown weighs a write-in campaign for the November general election following his stunning loss to challenger India B. Walton in Tuesday's Democratic primary, his staunchest supporters are still seeking answers to a defeat none expected.
How could a four-term mayor, powered by incumbency, money and an army of volunteers, they ask, lose to a political novice unknown to many voters just a few months ago? But as they absorb the enormity of Tuesday's defeat, it appears the Brown forces are still looking ahead to November.
Several sources, including Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner, say Brown is holed up with his campaign team to determine if he can wage a write-in effort – considered more than daunting in political circles, especially in ultra-Democratic Buffalo.
"He and I talked about that this morning," Zellner said Wednesday afternoon. "Without speaking for him, I think it's fair to say they're weighing all their options, for sure."
If Brown decides to challenge Walton in a write-in campaign – an effort never seriously attempted in a Buffalo mayoral election – Zellner said Erie County Democrats will not be with him.
"I have pledged our full support to her," the chairman said following a morning conversation with Walton. "We are with the next mayor of Buffalo – India Walton."
Walton’s base ‘energized, excited and aggressive'
In the meantime, various theories explain Walton's comfortable victory over a four-term incumbent considered so invincible that better-known Democrats passed on challenging him this year. But the simplest – and probably most accurate – explanation is that Walton inspired her voters to the polls and Brown did not.
"It's simple. India Walton's base was energized, excited and aggressive," said former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello. "She got out her vote and unfortunately, the mayor's base did not come out.
"People normally supporting him did not realize the importance of the campaign and his opponent's tenacity," he added.
And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, speaking Wednesday morning to reporters in Manhattan and who appointed Brown chairman of the Democratic State Committee for his 2018 campaign, also appeared to recognize problems in his ally's effort.
"His campaign strategy, as I understand it, was to avoid engaging in a campaign," Cuomo said. "And you had a very low turnout. We know that combination. We've seen that before. That doesn't work."
Delaware, Niagara districts abandoned Brown
Election experts are also focusing on Walton's sources of strength – especially Council districts that have normally supported Brown. Delaware, for example, posted the highest Walton plurality – 2,880 to 1,509. The district has traditionally turned out for Brown. And Niagara also abandoned Brown, turning to Walton – 1,664 to 588.
"Niagara has been gentrified with younger and far more progressive voters," Masiello said, noting poorer areas also produced Walton votes. "These want change and are not happy with the status quo."
Election results also show Brown receiving fewer votes Tuesday than in any of his four prior Democratic mayoral primaries. His 9,625 votes was more than 4,000 fewer than 2017 and more than 16,000 fewer than 2009. Brown also attracted fewer votes in seven of the nine Common Council districts in 2021 compared to his four previous primary races.
And his home district of Masten, where his career started as a Council member, produced only a 55% to 41% victory compared to much higher victories in the past.
Others note the complacency with which the mayor faced Walton. Ignoring her and fellow challenger Le'Candice M. Durham throughout the campaign, he refused to debate and sought votes by simply acting as mayor. His television ads were also deemed generally positive, apparently oblivious to the threat Walton was mounting.
Speed-zone cameras, teachers union played a role
Some also pointed to community ire over his program to fine speeders caught on cameras outside school zones, which Walton also obliquely cited in a Wednesday interview with The Buffalo News.
"I think the fact that the community had such an outcry against it and the leadership just didn't acknowledge ... and just refused to listen to his constituency was just an indicator that he has not been an empathetic and compassionate leader," she said. "And I think that the people of Buffalo are just tired of that and are ready for someone who is going to listen and who was going to be accountable and transparent.”
Philip Rumore, who as president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation represented one of the few organizations supporting Walton, said she won by proposing big-picture solutions.
"On education, she said you have to look beyond the schoolhouse to the home conditions some of our students confront," he said. "That shows the depth of thinking that looked to the root causes of problems."
As a result, the BTF sent out frequent emails to its 6,000 current and retired members who he said tend to vote.
Too late for Brown to qualify on another ballot line
But even as the Brown team digests their disappointing results, sources say the mayor has not given up. He is considering the write-in effort, they say, especially since no other opponent will appear on the November ballot and it is too late to qualify for any other line. In addition, the sources say various community leaders are expressing alarm about a city led by an acknowledged socialist, and some are urging Brown to mobilize his City Hall forces to a degree that apparently failed during the primary.
They believe he can continue to raise money, and even Zellner notes the ease of casting write-in votes under new election procedures instituted by New York State.
"It's never been less complicated to do a write-in," said Zellner, who is also Erie County Democratic elections commissioner.
Reports are surfacing about other possible write-in candidates, including developer Carl P. Paladino, who said Wednesday he would "consider" running if Brown does not, but acknowledged he is "not excited" about the prospect.
Michael J. DeGeorge, Brown's spokesman, declined comment. Walton spokesman Seamus Gallivan said only that the candidate fielded many calls of support throughout the day – including from Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer – that indicate the depth of her support, while recognizing the historic futility of write-in efforts.
News staff Mike McAndrew, Patrick Lakamp, Keith McShea and Maki Becker contributed to this report.