Two days before the most crucial Buffalo School Board election in recent history, factions from across the community are ramping up their efforts to get voters to the polls and hoping to drum up support in a race that typically garners little interest.
But indicators point to this year’s race drawing more interest than the usual less-than-10-percent turnout.
The future of School Superintendent Pamela Brown and the direction of the school district hinge on Tuesday’s election of three at-large board members.
And while 13 individuals vie for the three seats, their candidacies have attracted support from churches and parent groups, high-profile business and community leaders, and state and local unions.
“I think there’s a recognition that this is a very important election, so there are a number of efforts all around town – and in this community – to bring everyone together,” said Kenneth Peterson, a member of Unity, a faction of the Democratic Party.
“People seem to be real tuned in,” said Buffalo Republican Chairman William Nowakowski. “The question is, will they be motivated to show up Tuesday? That’s going to be the fascinating thing. Who will show up?”
Following the candidate forums, mailers and other advertising, efforts now focus on getting out the vote. Candidates are using different techniques, from walking door-to-door in familiar and unfamiliar neighborhoods, to organizing motorcades and providing rides to the polls, to running phone banks and using social media like Facebook. These efforts bleed across neighborhood lines and underscore the diversity – and division – in the community.
“People have already had a chance to hear what my platform is about, who I am, what solutions I am providing,” said Sergio Rodriguez, who no doubt could be speaking for all 13 candidates. “Now, it’s time to get out and vote.”
Interest in Buffalo School Board elections has been historically low, with fewer than one in 10 registered voters typically casting a ballot. That turnout varies dramatically across the city, ranging from 2 percent to 15 percent in some neighborhoods.
Nearly every candidate – including those with limited financial resources – is waging an effort to get those numbers up, but strategies cover a spectrum as broad as their political experience and connections.
“Basically, it’s just walking the streets and talking to people,” said Stephen Buccilli, a newcomer to the political scene. “I was in North Buffalo, the Elmwood strip and Hertel. I get a sense that people are more aware of what’s going on than they have been in past elections.”
Stephon Wright, who at 20 is the youngest in the race, is also hitting the pavement with family and friends, distributing flyers and offering people rides to the polls on Tuesday.
Wright, the former student representative to the Buffalo School Board, has targeted student voters in particular.
“We’re hoping they understand the importance of the election and their education,” he said.
From Facebook to phone banks, Adrian Fitzgerald Harris is employing several tactics to drum up voters. This weekend he will campaign with flyers in neighborhoods where he hasn’t been yet – such as the West Side.
“I’ll be working all weekend long with flyers going through some areas of the city I haven’t been to before,” he said.
Wendy S. Mistretta said focusing on her North District base made the most sense for her campaign.
Mistretta said her lawn signs will be out this weekend, and on Election Day she plans to drive around “to however many homes I can visit in one day.”
“It’s all people power,” Mistretta said. “We’re doing our own flyers. We looked at who voted last year and five years ago to get some idea of where the people are who are voting because I can’t afford a big glossy mailer to send to everyone.”
Focus on the East Side
Across the board, candidates have identified the East Side of the city as a critical battleground in this year’s election.
“What’s important is getting out the vote and making sure that polls show the East Side has a voice,” said candidate Samuel P. Davis, who has had teams of supporters going “door-to-door to get people out to vote.”
Larry Quinn, who is supported by board member Carl Paladino and likely to draw strong support in other parts of the city, also is reaching out to East Side voters through a mailer that features him with resident Korey Green. The two previously made a movie, “The Romans,” about life on the East Side.
Leaders of several community groups point to the fact that the vast majority of students in city schools are black or Hispanic, and say it is imperative to elect leaders who understand where those students come from.
“Your constituents are the children, and the children you are serving are mainly black and brown,” said Janique Curry, chairwoman of the nominating committee for Grassroots, Inc., the faction of the Democratic Party supportive of Mayor Byron W. Brown. “It’s important that you’re engaged in the community that you want to represent.”
Grassroots held a rally and motorcade Saturday to encourage East Side residents to go to the polls, and promote the candidates it endorsed – Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, Davis and Gizelle Stokes.
Leaders of other community groups say interest in this year’s race has been fueled by the division on the board and what many consider a racial divide among board members.
“What we see is the takeover of the board by people like Paladino, who refer to the black members of the sisterhood,” said Frank Mesiah, president of the NAACP. “There are people in the community who are very upset about it.”
The NAACP reached out to several ministers, asking them to use the pulpit to encourage people to get to the polls, and to use church vans to offer rides for voters.
Yet those efforts could be cut by divisions within the East Side community, with some of the most prominent political groups split on who to back in the election.
Peterson said Unity was hoping to work with other groups on a get-out-the-vote effort, but that never happened, largely because of disagreement over whether to support the superintendent.
“Elevating the status of Pam Brown as the focus of this campaign has magnified political factions in this community, particularly on the East Side, and made it difficult for people to work together,” he said.
“I’m frustrated; I’m very frustrated,” he added. “I had a lot of hope that folks would be able to put aside differences regarding their superintendent and really think about issues like board governance, student achievement and engaging parents. There’s a wide range of issues. But I’m not as hopeful about that now.”
Historically, a major force influencing School Board races is the Buffalo Teachers Federation, and this year is no different.
The union has mailed letters to current and retired members living in the city. Those mailings promoted Nevergold, John Licata and Ralph Hernandez and encouraged voters to maintain faith in the district’s current leadership.
“Yes, mistakes have been made and some people downtown are leaking every negative thing they can,” BTF President Phillip Rumore wrote in the letter. “We know you will see through the smoke screen and realize that this election is really about getting more pro-charter school candidates elected to continue the for-profit privatization agenda and anti-union attacks.”
Along with that local blitz, the union is receiving substantial support from the AFL-CIO, which has paid for mailers for the three candidates endorsed by BTF and is operating phone banks.
Less than a week before the election, BTF also launched its Believe campaign, which aims to promote the positive aspects of the Buffalo schools, using language strikingly similar to that included on union campaign advertisements. The campaign is being paid for with a $500,000 grant from the National Education Association.
The union also released a scathing report Thursday about the state of the city’s charter schools, which several candidates support.
Rumore said the timing of both the Believe campaign and the charter schools report, which is based on data that has been publicly available for a year, was coincidental.
Countering the union’s efforts in both dollars and influence are two candidates supported by Paladino. That base of support comes from South Buffalo.
Both Quinn and Patti Pierce have raised thousands of dollars to pay for mailers, phone banks and a billboard on one of Paladino’s buildings across from the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino. Some of their fundraisers attracted nearly 200 people, including prominent business and political leaders.
“Patti has a pretty strong presence down there,” said Nowakowski, who was one of about 200 people who attended Pierce’s fundraiser last week. “She’s from there. My impression is she’s got a very strong group of friends down there.”