When word of Antoine M. Thompson’s Democratic primary challenge to Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes surfaced Friday, it not only signaled the start of a torrid electoral contest, but a major milestone in local politics as well.
Thompson, the former state senator whose 2010 defeat by Republican Mark J. Grisanti ranks as one of the biggest upsets in local history, is launching a comeback effort spawning a whole set of new dynamics, including:
• A challenge to Peoples-Stokes, who has assumed a growing stature in Albany in recent years and who was previously viewed as politically invulnerable.
• A widening rift among Buffalo’s black Democrats, as even the once-solid Grassroots club that spawned Mayor Byron W. Brown’s rise to power now wallows in disarray.
• Far-reaching implications in other races, such as the Democratic primary contest between incumbent State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy of Buffalo and Legislature Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant. The increased turnout in the primarily African-American Assembly district that constitutes a major portion of Kennedy’s Senate turf provides a boost to Grant and could negate the heavy turnout in the primarily white Cheektowaga portion stemming from a separate Assembly primary there.
• Statewide implications are also expected, since Peoples-Stokes has emerged as a favorite of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who named her co-chairwoman of his re-election campaign.
• More candidates could yet enter the Senate race, with sources indicating efforts are underway to entice Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams into the contest, too – which could further diffuse the African-American vote.
Sources now predict an intense effort by both sides, with several drawing an analogy to this week’s defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who many say ran a campaign that failed to connect with voters.
“Cantor spent $5 million but did nothing retail,” said one veteran of Buffalo politics who asked not be identified. “This will be a battle in the streets.”
Thompson said Friday that he would not discuss his plans, preferring to wait until he officially addresses the situation today, possibly in conjunction with the annual Juneteenth Festival, expected to draw thousands to various East Side venues. But he acknowledged that he met Friday with the mayor – who in 2012 appointed him to his approximately $80,000-a-year job as executive director of the Buffalo Employment and Training Center – to submit his resignation.
“I resigned today and gave the mayor an exit report which highlights all the things the office has accomplished over the last two years,” he said.
Nevertheless, a source close to the former senator said he is getting into the race because of disappointment over the failure of programs like the Buffalo Billion to benefit a struggling East Side.
Peoples-Stokes on Friday quashed rumors that she will not run again because of the Thompson challenge.
“That is the absolute furthest thing from the truth,” she said, predicting she will win the primary.
“I’ll run on my record,” she said. “And if he runs on his, people will see that, too.”
The assemblywoman also noted her recent key positions such as the Cuomo campaign leadership and her chairwomanship of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus in the Legislature.
“That’s very helpful for me, quite frankly,” she said. “I don’t know why he does not consider these things.”
Peoples-Stokes said political rifts often occur in all Democratic constituencies, including the black community. But she also acknowledged that the Grassroots split underscored by the Thompson candidacy is puzzling.
“I personally did not expect a split in an organization that has carried so many people so far,” she said.
Thompson, who sources said came close to entering the 2012 Senate race that Kennedy eventually won by a razor-thin margin over Grant, enters the Assembly contest backed by significant constituencies. The Buffalo Teachers Federation, for example, has always loomed as a major supporter.
“Antoine has been a longtime friend of the BTF,” said BTF President Philip Rumore. “He was our go-to guy in the Senate.”
He said the teachers union has supported Peoples-Stokes, too, but he gave the endorsement edge to Thompson because of the incumbent’s backing of a bill opposed by the union that proposed parents be given the power to convert regular public schools into charter schools.
“If he got our endorsement, it would give him a leg up with NYSUT,” Rumore said, referring to the statewide teachers union that could offer significant resources to a Thompson candidacy.
One source said Thompson’s entrance may entice Miller-Williams into the Senate race already featuring Kennedy and Grant. The aim would be to diffuse the strong black vote now projected for Grant.
Miller-Williams did not return calls seeking comment.