Maybe it’s the fact that Buffalo voters have twice elected a black mayor.
Or maybe it’s because they have twice helped elect a black president.
Whatever the reason, the presence of two African-Americans and one Hispanic on this year’s mayoral ballot – and the absence of a white candidate – doesn’t impress many voters. While some said this first for Buffalo signals progress in the black and Hispanic communities, many others are taking it in stride.
“I don’t look at it as a phenomenon,” said 80-year-old Clarence Barr, who is black and lives near Erie County Medical Center. “It’s just developed this way.”
Voters say they are more interested in what the candidates are going to do.
“It should be a qualified person with a plan,” said Jim Anderson, who is African-American and a community organizer with Citizen Action. “The color thing shouldn’t matter.”
The city’s first black mayor, Byron W. Brown, is running for a third term against former FBI Special Agent in Charge Bernard Tolbert. The two Democrats will face each other in a primary Sept. 10. Republican Sergio R. Rodriguez, a Marine veteran who was born in the Dominican Republic, is running in the general election.
In interviews about the racial aspects of the contest, voters time and again wanted to talk about bad landlords, the overgrown vacant lot next door or the potholes on their street.
When the conversation was steered back to the historic nature of the race, opinions varied about whether this year’s mayoral field signals a shift in the city’s racial politics, or if it has more to do with dynamics that have nothing to do with race.
Ethnic politics have historically played a key role in Buffalo elections, and winning support from Irish, Polish, Italian, African-American and Hispanic communities has been a task for any candidate running citywide.
The absence of a white candidate from this year’s race is a sign that some of that is changing, though ethnic politics still plays a role, said Fillmore Common Council Member David A. Franczyk, whose long political career began when there was a large Polish population on the East Side.
“The city’s changed a lot,” Franczyk said. “Minorities are as likely to be elected mayor as anybody else.”
The city’s white population fell from 54 percent in 2000 to 50 percent in 2010, and the black population grew from 37 percent to 39 percent. At the same time, 11 percent of residents were identified as Hispanic or Latino in 2010, up from 8 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Despite the political landscape, racism persists, according to Dwayne Knightner, an African-American who lives near Willert Park on the East Side. He recalled a recent incident when he was called a racial epithet while he was traveling in a different part of the city.
“The city’s progressing, but in certain areas we’re regressing,” said Knightner, 53.
Former Common Council President George K. Arthur, an African-American who ran for mayor in 1985, thinks the presence of two black candidates does mean that the black community has come a long way, but he also thinks it is part of a completely different trend, one that has more to do with the public’s distaste for modern politics.
“It’s getting harder to recruit candidates,” he said. “Today people are turned off.”
The absence of a white candidate is a product of a political reality that has nothing to do with race, some observers said.
Brown has more than $1 million in campaign funds, and 65 percent of voters think the city is on the right track, according to a poll Siena College conducted for the Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV last month.
Brown’s favorable rating in that poll was also at 66 percent.
“I just don’t think other candidates had an option to win, and they are sitting this particular race out,” said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo.
Brown also has been able to neutralize people and power bases that could have posed a challenge to him, including wealthy developer Carl Paladino of South Buffalo and the Common Council, where seven of nine members now support him, Taylor said.
City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder, who is white and has a political base in South Buffalo, was rumored earlier this year to be interested in the race. Several observers predicted that white mayoral candidates will emerge in four years.
Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera said he, too, expected more candidates to enter the race this year, but there were only a few “with the fire to run.”
“You have to be passionate – they are the ones that stepped forward,” he said.
Rodriguez’s entry into the race is creating some excitement in the Hispanic community, but a Hispanic candidate could gain more traction if the community came together, said 56-year-old Edwin Vazquez, who lives on the Lower West Side.
“There’s a lot of division,” Vazquez said. “If the Hispanic community would unify itself, it would be quite an outcome.”
There also might not be a buzz about the racial makeup of the field because there isn’t much of a buzz about the race at all.
“It’s very low-key right now,” Rivera said.
West Side resident Eleanor Paterson said she hasn’t heard much talk about the mayor’s race yet.
Paterson is white, but she serves on the boards of the Hispanic Women’s League and Hispanics United of Buffalo. She is more interested in why the candidates want to be mayor and what they will do than with their race or ethnicity.
“A lot of cities do have black mayors,” she said. “So what? Whatever. Whoever does the best job.”
Other voters said that no matter who is mayor, a single elected official can’t change the conditions in their neighborhood, or in the schools, or in an entire community.
“We do need help in these communities, but we also need communities to take personal responsibility for their neighborhoods,” said Larrone Williams, president of the Glenwood Avenue Block Club on the East Side. “I’m more interested in the development of the community than getting caught in today’s politics.”