There are some unhappy Republicans in Erie County this fine Sunday morning.
Some guy named Sergio Rodriguez has come along and just might ruin everything.
Rodriguez is a 32-year-old administrator at Medaille College who said last week he is “100 percent committed” to running for mayor of Buffalo this year on the Republican line.
“What’s wrong with that?” you ask. “Shouldn’t the GOP seek such up-and-coming professionals for such a post?”
Well, yes and no.
Running for mayor of Buffalo on the Republican line has become a heavy lift. Outnumbered 7 to 1 by Democrats, it’s pretty much impossible in the 21st century to elect a Republican in this town and others around the Northeast. In fact, you have to go back 52 years to find the last GOP type to be elected Buffalo’s chief executive.
So a few years ago, Erie County Republicans recognized reality and saw the opportunity to turn weakness into strength. Fewer and fewer Republicans began appearing on the city ballot, especially when the GOP was concentrating on big countywide contests. Then, in 2009, the party failed to field any mayoral candidate for the first time since 1855, when good old Lewis L. Hodges appeared on the brand-new line.
The idea (though nobody would ever say it out loud) was to suppress turnout in the heavily Democratic city. Why draw thousands of Democrats to the polls with a contest for mayor? And why not boost countywide candidates with the advantage of all those Republican votes in the suburbs?
Pretty sound strategy, as far as strategy goes. But Rodriguez said last week that he has the right to compete, wants to offer Buffalo voters a choice, and plans to run even if the party discourages him.
“Ignoring the city is something we can’t afford to do,” Rodriguez said. “It’s just like showing the white flag.”
Bill Nowakowski, an attorney who is the new Buffalo Republican chairman, views all of this from a special vantage point. Chester Kowal, the last Republican mayor of Buffalo, was his uncle.
“You can make an argument about what 50 years of Democratic rule has done for the City of Buffalo,” he said last week. “It’s not a pretty picture.”
The new chairman is no dreamer. He knows the score in Democratic Buffalo. And he recognizes that after Kevin Helfer mounted a thoughtful, organized and well-financed campaign against Byron Brown in 2005 – and got clobbered – it’s unlikely a top-tier candidate will ever again make the effort.
But Nowakowski’s job in 2013 is really not to reclaim City Hall. Like much of the national discussion surrounding the GOP, he must simply make his organization relevant again. That’s why he talks about “growing the party” even in the face of those overwhelming numbers.
“I’d like to have viable candidates with the wherewithal to do it,” Nowakowski said. “Hopefully, we’ll attract more people.”
But it’s a doubly difficult assignment when some in his own party insist on discouraging even token opposition – let alone growing the party.
Rodriguez enters the mayoral picture with some credentials. He is a Marine Corps veteran, earned a master’s degree from Medaille and coordinates the college’s military and veteran affairs. He is chairman of the Niagara District GOP, and ran for Niagara Council member in 2007. Even countywide Republican leaders like him.
And, oh yes, aren’t all the national talking heads expounding on the need to attract Hispanic votes with people like Rodriguez – a Dominican immigrant?
Lots of time and politics lie ahead before Rodriguez’s status is settled. Brown may still face a Democratic primary; maybe some other Republican will step forward, and who knows if Rodriguez’s “100 percent commitment” is solid.
But at least he is having fun upending a political strategy based on discouraging people to vote. Lewis L. Hodges would be proud.