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Democrats mostly stayed home for Brown-Tolbert primary, leaving political analysts to sort out why.

By Robert J. McCarthy

News Political Reporter

In a city of about 261,000 residents, only about 14,000 Democrats voted in Tuesday’s primary for Byron W. Brown as mayor of Buffalo.

This means that less than 6 percent of the city’s population gave him the votes that are tantamount to his re-election to a third term in November in heavily Democratic Buffalo.

Tuesday’s turnout of about 21,000 city voters boils down to a mere 20 percent of registered Democrats, the lowest showing at the polls in the memory of Buffalo’s most senior political figures.

“We used to think 40 to 45 percent turnout for a primary,” said former Common Council President George K. Arthur, an unsuccessful mayoral candidate in 1985. “Now what you have here is the highest office in the city and about 20,000 votes.”

Some observers blame the paltry turnout to the low-key campaign of challenger Bernard A. Tolbert, while others point to polls that consistently reported Brown with an insurmountable lead.

Still others say that neither candidate stirred passions, as Brown’s big lead resulted in campaign advertising that never went negative.

And the fact that there were no Council primaries may have held down the vote, too.

Republican candidate Sergio R. Rodriguez wasted no time in jumping all over the “historic low turnout” as a sign of Brown’s tepid support. “That means he has failed to uplift, inspire and motivate people to go out there and vote for him,” Rodriguez said. “There was no reason to vote.”

The paltry turnout raised Rodriguez’s hopes that he can win in November, but he still faces the tough odds in a city that counts seven Democrats for every Republican.

Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey, who managed the Brown victory, said many voters whom his candidate met on front porches believed that the mayor had the election won and that there was no reason to come out. And if some people fault Brown for failing to inspire any real enthusiasm, Casey said, Tolbert didn’t, either.

“In the end,” Casey said, “almost 70 percent of those who voted supported the mayor.”

Arthur, a student of Buffalo politics, points first and foremost to the City Charter revisions of recent years that now draw voters to Council elections only every four years instead of every two. This year’s primary ballot featured not a single district contest, he said.

In addition, the 2013 primary offered few contests for the Erie County Democratic Committee, the base-level posts that sometimes ignite the hottest races.

“The four-year terms for councilmen prevent the district campaigning,” Arthur said. “And there’s no real hoopla in the campaigns anymore, anyway. The message and the methods have completely changed.”

Other veteran political operatives such as Stephen T. Banko III, who managed all of former three-term Mayor Anthony M. Masiello’s citywide campaigns, point out that the racial and ethnic voting patterns dominating almost all past mayoral races evaporated in a face-off of two African-Americans.

“In the old days, you often had a white guy running against a black guy, which you didn’t have this year,” he said. “So the black community was not particularly energized to vote, and neither was the white community. There was an apathy.”

“And Tolbert, from the beginning, seemed to have no chance of winning, never energized anyone and had no real agenda,” Banko added. “So even people who don’t like Brown saw no viable alternative. They stayed home.”

Arthur remembers when sound trucks roamed East Side neighborhoods, urging voters to the polls, or when campaign beer blasts at corner taverns and kaffeeklatsches in living rooms generated enthusiasm.

“All that is gone now,” Banko said, adding that few voters now personally experience campaigns. Their only exposure, he said, stems from mailings and slick television ads.

“As a result,” he said, “there’s no real reason to come out.”

And as a member of the political operation of former County Democratic Chairman Joseph F. Crangle, Banko said the current party organization fails to use the old devices to create interest and enthusiasm. “Joe was the absolute master mechanic of getting all the nuts and bolts in sync,” Banko said. “He would manufacture committee fights where he needed a vote. And it was all geared toward the bigger picture.”

The last Siena Research Institute poll conducted for The Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV debunks the notion that Buffalo voters were unhappy with their mayoral choices this year. When asked if they were satisfied with the 2013 candidates, 76 percent said yes, while only 20 percent said they would have preferred someone else.

Arthur and Banko both say that much has combined in recent years to produce so little enthusiasm for so important an office.

“There are all these little things that, when added together, create a sense of enthusiasm,” Banko said. “It’s a kind of passive political affiliation now.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com