Attorney Bill Nowakowski won the dubious honor of leading the Buffalo Republican Party last week, assuming the reins of the tiny political band following the retirement of veteran Chairman Dennis Ryan.
Nowakowski's “ascension” marks the first time since 1985 that a Ryan has not run the city GOP; Dennis Ryan's father, Ed, also chaired the party for many years.
Almost 20 years ago, The Buffalo News profiled Ed Ryan as the “Maytag repairman” of Buffalo politics. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, he looked like Buffalo native Jesse White maintaining his lonely vigil next to a silent telephone.
“It might a be a job nobody wants,” he said back then, “but I think we're doing some good for the city.”
Things have only become worse for city Republicans. Democrats now outnumber Republicans in Buffalo 7 to 1, just like they do in other big Northeast towns. The GOP has failed to elect a mayor since Chester Kowal in 1961. Nor have voters favored any registered Republican for the Common Council since 1983, when William L. Marcy Jr. died after representing the Delaware District for many years.
Indeed, when former Council Member Kevin Helfer launched an all-out effort against Democrat Byron Brown in 2005 – and got creamed 64 to 27 percent – most political observers all but buried the notion of a competitive Republican Party in Buffalo.
“People have absolutely concluded, unfortunately, that Republicans have no chance in the City of Buffalo,” Helfer said in 2009. “There is no doubt in my mind. We worked hard, had a decent message and raised money – and we got whomped.”
As a result, Buffalo Republicans in 2009 failed to field a mayoral candidate for the first time since 1855, when Lewis L. Hodges represented the fledgling party. Some observers called that a “disgrace.” Others simply labeled it “reality.”
“We face worse numbers than Custer,” Dennis Ryan said at the time.
All of this will prove especially relevant in 2013, when Buffalonians will once again elect a mayor. Brown is expected to run for a third term, and will be considered a heavy favorite with more than $1 million in his campaign account. It's possible Brown could face primary opposition from some brave Democrat, but things look gloomier than ever for a Republican.
Still, before the world sheds too many tears for the poor Buffalo GOP, consider that the party has turned its misfortune into a strategic advantage. With big countywide offices on the ballot – such as in 2013 with Republicans defending an incumbent sheriff and comptroller – the lack of candidates for city offices works to their favor.
That's when Buffalo Republicans boost their countywide colleagues by failing to field candidates for mayor or Council. That only suppresses voter turnout in heavily Democratic Buffalo.
Yes – modern political strategy in Erie County now actually emphasizes discouraging the right to vote. Understandably, local Republicans are not eager to discuss that topic.
Electing a Republican mayor in a city like Buffalo still gets kicked around every once in a while. Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg did it in New York City, say the optimists. Occasionally, it happens elsewhere.
But it's a tough sell to recruit Republican candidates to spend their summer and fall campaigning in such solid Democratic turf with virtually no hope of success.
Nowakowski, slated to be formally elected to his post on Thursday, was out of town last week and unable to discuss his future plans with the Politics Column. But he can't be brimming with optimism.
A one-time candidate for city judge in Buffalo, he recognizes the odds as much as anyone. Still, his views and how he directs the Buffalo GOP will prove to be of keen interest.
Will Nowakowski attempt to re-establish the party and make old Lewis L. Hodges proud? Or will he simply manage the party's decline?
For the moment, he might as well don Jesse White's old Maytag uniform. The phone won't be ringing off the hook.