Byron W. Brown and Sergio R. Rodriguez are campaigning to govern the same city. But they could just as well be campaigning on different planets.
On Brown’s planet, there is a large and experienced campaign organization, hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, the benefits of incumbency and a Democratic enrollment edge of 7-to-1.
On Rodriguez’s planet, there is lots of shoe leather, a much smaller organization, but no significant party support, and less than $1,000 to spend.
The mayoral campaign in Buffalo is far from competitive, and since the primary, the candidates have barely occupied the same room, let alone engaged in a debate about issues facing the city.
Voters, meanwhile, say they want a public discussion of the city’s challenges, and experts warn that noncompetitive elections, while not uncommon, can negatively affect cities.
“The lack of competition tends to lead to inertia and reinforces the status quo,” said Bruce J. Katz, founding director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “Issues are not joined, challenges are not recognized, opportunities are not seized.”
Disagreement is healthy, even in cities where things are going well, said Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College.
“If you don’t have that check,” Muzzio said, “unchecked, unexamined power is no good, it’s just no good period.”
Since Sept. 10, when just one in five Democratic voters cast ballots, giving Brown a resounding victory over Bernie Tolbert, there hasn’t been much of a visible mayoral campaign.
Both candidates are working but they don’t appear to be creating any energy or excitement, and there is no back-and-forth between them.
That competition is “essential,” according to Katz, and is a way for incumbents and challengers “to communicate their vision, articulate their priorities, defend their record and gain a democratic mandate for action and reform.”
Buffalo isn’t the only city where one candidate appears poised to cruise to victory. Mayoral contests in Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and New York City are lopsided, or non-existent.
Voters are “either apathetic or satisfied or both,” Muzzio said. “As a political scientist, I think this is bad. You need vibrant competition.”
Brown’s low-key campaign
Buffalo’s two-term mayor is known for keeping a busy calendar, and that has been no different in the last month, with appearances at Curtain Up!, an unveiling of new fire equipment and a ribbon-cutting for an East Side housing development.
But Brown has done little in the way of publicly campaigning since the primary. No debates, no commercials and no news conferences outside his capacity as mayor.
If a campaign about issues were to take place, it would have to originate with Brown, said Canisius College Professor Michael V. Haselswerdt.
“If we want any sort of good government campaign, a campaign that will educate people about the differences between the candidates, it’s up to Mayor Brown to do that,” Haselswerdt said. “And he doesn’t have to do that to win.”
Between the governmental and political machine Brown has built, and people’s positive perceptions of the city – polls show nearly 80 percent of voters think the city is on the right track – Brown “doesn’t really need to take any risks that would come with trying to engage,” Haselswerdt said.
Brown has declined invitations to two post-primary forums where Rodriguez appeared, and has said he would not debate.
“When you have a well-known incumbent and a largely unknown challenger, and underfinanced challenger, generally the incumbent says, ‘Why should I help this challenger become known?’ ” said Steven A. Greenberg, a pollster for Siena College.
Any attention Brown gives to Rodriguez helps raise Rodriguez’s profile, Greenberg said.
There might not be media events or public statements from the Brown campaign, but activity at the mayor’s Statler City headquarters is in full swing.
“We continue to campaign and work hard every day,” the Brown campaign said in a statement. There have been recent “lit drops,” in which volunteers left positive literature about Brown in voters’ doors.
That positive message likely will continue.
Rodriguez’s ground game
Brown didn’t release negative ads or direct mail in the primary, and given the campaign’s relatively low-key post-primary approach, he likely won’t spend money or political capital attacking Rodriguez.
Brown’s most recent campaign finance report shows $603,463 in the bank, and expenses for literature, lawn signs and polls. In the last month he was helped by three donations larger than $1,000, including a $12,000 donation from Kim Pegula, wife of Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula. The Pegulas are building a hockey-themed complex on waterfront land sold to them by the city after a development contest Brown initiated.
The Republican candidate may not be garnering much media attention but he has been out walking the city’s neighborhoods every day.
“We believe we will win this in the streets,” Rodriguez said during a morning interview this week in his otherwise empty campaign headquarters in the Electric Tower.
Rodriguez, who has never been elected to public office, said he is not disappointed that Brown is not paying him any attention.
In addition to sending out several news releases a week, the former Marine has been walking door-to-door, and said voters appreciate that he appears to be working to earn their vote.
He doesn’t mind having the stage at forums all to himself, either. He has attended three, and five more are on his calendar.
He is able to talk about his platform, which includes a push for mayoral control of city schools and increasing foot patrols in the Police Department.
“It’s a win-win for me,” Rodriguez said, noting that he thinks he connects well with the crowds and is able to demonstrate that he is willing to have a dialogue and ask for their votes.
Though he is confident more people are getting to know who he is, a Siena poll in early September, sponsored by The Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV, showed that 38 percent of Democratic voters didn’t have an opinion of him.
His aggressive grass-roots strategy does not deny the fact that fundraising has been a severe challenge. His latest campaign finance report shows $969 on hand.
Voters take notice
He said money is being raised to put up one of his campaign commercials, which have thus far been shared only online, on cable television.
To appeal to Democratic voters, Rodriguez created his own ballot line, the Progressive Party, giving him two places on the ballot, to Brown’s four: Democrat, Conservative, Working Families and Independence.
He is also targeting voters like himself: younger people – he is 33 – military veterans and Hispanic voters.
For city residents looking for a two-way debate about issues, they won’t find it in this campaign.
“We need an enlightened public discourse,” said Charley H. Fisher III, president of BUILD, an advocacy organization headquartered on the East Side. “We deserve it in Buffalo, and we should have it.”
Voters who weren’t paying attention to the three debates in which Brown, Rodriguez and Tolbert participated before the primary are out of luck if they were hoping Brown and Rodriguez would square off again before the Nov. 5 general election.
To some voters, this is not a surprise.
“I don’t think anybody running against Brown would worry him,” said West Side resident Jim Goodman, 78. “I think he’s doing a really good job and he has it locked up, and I’m a Republican.”
On the other side of the city, Gertrude Shemski, 78, wishes there was more of a dialogue between the candidates.
Brown “doesn’t consider Sergio a real opponent, evidently,” said Shemski, a Republican who lives in the Bailey-Doat neighborhood and supports Rodriguez. “I think (Brown) figures he’s got it won.”
The September Siena poll found that 62 percent of Democrats were poised to re-elect Brown, and just 32 percent said they preferred someone else.
Upper West Side resident Margo Downey, 59, is a Brown supporter, but said she still wants to hear the candidates discuss the issues and ask for her vote.
“I would think someone would be knocking on my door by now,” she said. “It’s October.”