Old tensions have boiled to the surface in the race between Betty Jean Grant and Timothy Kennedy to represent the new 63rd State Senate District.
Grant, a leader in the Erie County Democratic Party, and Kennedy, closely aligned with Rep. Brian Higgins, served in the Erie County Legislature together for six years before Kennedy won election in 2010 to represent the 58th Senate District. After redistricting earlier this year, they’re now fighting to represent the 63rd District, which encompasses South Buffalo, Lackawanna and Cheektowaga. The district is 32 percent white and 56 percent black. There is no serious Republican contender in the general election, so the primary Sept. 13 is likely to yield the eventual winner of the seat.
The two tout similar goals as part of their platforms: creating jobs, building opportunities to keep people in Western New York and making sure downstate interests don’t overshadow Western New York interests.
But in a debate last week, Grant pointed to disagreements during their time in the Legislature, using harsh language to link Kennedy to policies of former Erie County Executive Chris Collins, a Republican.
Grant said Kennedy led two other Democrats to form a coalition with Republicans that laid the groundwork for Collins and the GOP to cut money to libraries, day cares and cultural organizations.
“I charge him with being responsible for putting the coalition in place,” said Grant, who now serves as Legislature chairwoman.
Kennedy responds that Grant’s characterization is misleading, mainly because he voted with the Democrats to oppose those cuts.
Kennedy stressed he would rather talk about his goals than about the “petty, negative” politics of the past.
The ferocity of last week’s debate was an indication of the fight being waged in what could be a close race. Kennedy has the endorsement of Democratic Party leaders, as well as the Independence Party. He also has an overwhelming amount of campaign money compared with Grant.
But the party hasn’t backed away from Grant, who is vice chairwoman of the county party and has a good reputation on the Legislature. She jumped into the race the day after party leaders endorsed Kennedy.
“We’ve endorsed Tim Kennedy; Tim has a very healthy campaign treasury,” said Len Lenihan, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee. “With that being said, certainly Betty Jean Grant cannot be taken for granted. She is very formidable.”
Here’s a look at each candidate’s accomplishments and goals:
Kennedy, 35, a lifelong resident of South Buffalo and father of three, started out in area politics by working for then-Assemblyman Brian Higgins, who is now a member of Congress.
Kennedy was appointed to the Erie County Legislature in 2004 and served through 2010, when he defeated 28-year incumbent Democratic Sen. William Stachowski in a primary.
In the past 19 months as a state senator, Kennedy says, he has fought dysfunction, created jobs and brought attention and money back to Western New York.
“I’m running on a record of proven results – of creating jobs and standing up for Western New York,” he said.
On job creation, Kennedy cites working with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to secure a $1 billion commitment over five years to create jobs in Western New York. He is also working on an initiative to keep call center jobs in the state and a workforce achievement plan to get local students the skilled training they need for jobs in the area.
On standing up for Western New York, Kennedy continuously touts his relationship with Cuomo and cites a $166 million grant from the Department of Transportation as an achievement in his first term.
Cleaning up Albany was also a goal of Kennedy’s, and one in which he says Senate Democrats are succeeding. The Democratic caucus walked out during a vote on redistricting because they said the Republicans were gerrymandering the districts.
Other accomplishments Kennedy cites include introducing legislation to make texting and driving a primary offense, to implement a new system for monitoring prescription drug abuse, and to implement a property tax cap.
While Grant criticizes Kennedy for aligning with Republicans in the County Legislature, he would rather talk about his Senate record and look toward the future.
“Folks want to know what we are going to do as New York State senators,” he said. “In the last 19 months, I have a proven record of providing results in this community and across New York State, and I’ll let my record in the New York State Senate speak for itself.”
Grant, 64, current chairwoman of the County Legislature, jumped into the race when former State Sen. Antoine M. Thompson decided he would not run. She felt the voters needed a choice and that state politics could use more women.
She previously has served as a Buffalo School Board member and a Common Council member, and she and her husband run a family-owned deli in Buffalo.
She says job creation is her top priority. High school and college graduates are fleeing the area because there aren’t enough good jobs, and families are forced to leave when the breadwinner can’t find employment, she said.
If elected, other goals include advocating for school districts and after-school programs, promoting growth of small businesses and women and minorities in business, and increasing family health initiatives.
During her time in the County Legislature she has worked to restore cuts to cultural programs and community organizations that the Collins administration cut, she said. She characterizes herself as a “true blue Democrat” who will always legislate on behalf of the people. Other accomplishments include supporting a Minority and Women Business Enterprise Committee, protecting public safety programs and advocating on behalf of veterans.
Kennedy, she says, can’t say the same. Although he did not vote to cut programs to day cares and cultural organizations, his alignment with county Republicans allowed those cuts to be on the table, Grant says. She used deeply partisan language to characterize his partnership with Republicans – saying Democrats should always act and look like Democrats. But she also said she is not against bipartisanship.
“Anything that’s going to empower, to assist, to relieve the suffering of the residents is something I’ll vote for,” she said. “So I never did an anti-Republican vote, I never did an anti-suburban vote.”
During her tenure as chairwoman of the Legislature, she’s received widespread support from both parties and said she has remained calm in the face of adversity. Grant has never missed a vote in any of her positions and pledged to do the same if elected to the State Senate.
“If you’re going to represent the people, then you stay and vote for the people,” she said. “Whether it’s negative or affirmative, you must vote.”
Like Kennedy, she agrees that upstate and Western New York deserve their fair share of Albany’s attention. She said she will fight for investments in Buffalo, because the city’s success is crucial to the region’s success.
“I see a position where we’ve got a governor who says, ‘OK, Erie County and upstate matter, the region matters, let me put the money here, let’s see what you’re going to do with it.’?” she said. “And I want to be a part of the decision-making.”