Out on the campaign trail, Antoine M. Thompson hugs women, slaps men on the back and jumps around encouraging senior citizens to have a hot dog or hamburger during a senior barbecue he hosts at Martin Luther King Park.
Thompson’s mother, Wanda, says a prayer before the meal, thanking God for all that is good, including her son.
“Thank you for giving Antoine the vision to know seniors are a blessing,” she prays.
The candidate takes the floor. Crime, Thompson says, is too high; homes need roofs; people are out of work.
“If you know 10 guys 55 or younger,” Thompson says to the friendly crowd, “half of them are out of work. You have to give them an alternative to a life of crime. I’m drawing my line in the sand over putting people back to work.”
And then, in what takes on a bit of a nostalgic air, Thompson recalls former Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve’s penchant for busing Buffalonians to Albany to lobby for the city’s needs.
“When I win, I need you in buses to come to Albany when the Legislature is there,” he tells the crowd.
Next stop, another luncheon with a senior citizens group, this one at Walden Heights.
After that, some door-to-door campaigning as Thompson, a former state senator, attempts a political comeback that requires beating incumbent Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, who is also busy campaigning for the Sept. 9 Democratic primary – the first election challenge she has faced since 2002.
The district that they want to represent includes some of Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods, largely minority communities east of Main Street such as the area around the expanding Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
On the campaign trail, Thompson, Peoples-Stokes and another challenger, Veronica Hemphill-Nichols, talk about jobs and whether the Medical Campus expansion is helping lower-income neighborhoods nearby.
Power of seniority
The campaign is largely a fight between a six-term incumbent who has the power of seniority in Albany and a challenger trying to make a political comeback after an embarrassing loss four years ago to a Republican, Mark J. Grisanti, in a Senate district that was overwhelmingly Democratic.
It also is a fight between an incumbent who wants her constituents to take advantage of the training and job opportunities that exist with the growing local economy and a challenger who says the state must do more to put minorities to work.
And because the district is considered a safe Democratic seat, a primary victory next week virtually ensures the victor of winning in November.
This has been a busy time for the incumbent, filled with campaigning, constituent meetings and a fundraiser sponsored by Scott A. Croce, a Buffalo chiropractor grateful to Peoples-Stokes for sponsoring legislation that – over the objection of the state Medical Society – allows chiropractors and medical doctors to form partnerships.
“It’s an important bill. You’ve been terrific,” Croce tells Peoples-Stokes before a room full of supporters in Statler City.
Peoples-Stokes looks toward the back of the room and spots Louis Croce. She thanks him for his sons – Mark, who owns Statler City, and Scott, who is renovating a building on nearby Delaware Avenue.
“His sons are a part of the resurgence of our economy,” she says.
“It is so exciting,” she tells the crowd. “We have finally found a way to grow our economy. … It doesn’t make sense to listen to the negativity of my opponents. It can only get better.”
Peoples-Stokes then turns to the jazz band performing at the fundraiser.
“Is not this band awesome?” she asks the crowd.
“She’s wonderful,” the Rev. James A. Lewis III. senior pastor of Miracle Missions Full Gospel Church, says while standing on the other side of the room. Peoples-Stokes helped a group with which he was involved make testing for AIDS and HIV easier to obtain, he says.
The fundraiser is starting to wind down, and Peoples-Stokes leaves shortly before 8 p.m. and drives to a meeting at the Parkside Community Association.
‘Shake up government’
Hemphill-Nichols joined the race late. She doesn’t have campaign experience or political money. But she has a stack of fliers and plenty of energy. She walks the Fruit Belt displaying both.
“We need to shake up government,” she says as she goes from Grape Street to East North. “The bureaucrats and their loyalists are bought and sold every day by the power brokers.”
Her message resonates with the residents she approaches, some of whom know her as the community organizer fighting to ensure that Fruit Belt residents have some say in their neighborhood as the nearby Medical Campus starts to have ripple effects on their community.
“I’m glad for you,” says Ruth L. Kennedy, a Jefferson Avenue resident who was on Grape Street as Hemphill-Nichols was handing out her fliers. “We need someone with new blood who has guts in order to bring new ideas and perspective. Good luck to you.”
The 141st Assembly District, wholly within the City of Buffalo, spans from Delaware Avenue and Main Street east to the city line, and from Seneca Street north to Kenmore Avenue. Within those borders are some of the city’s poorest East Side streets, as well as the Medical Campus and middle-class neighborhoods in North Buffalo and Parkside.
On the campaign trail, there is a lots of talk about whether the Medical Campus expansion is helping lower-income neighborhoods.
“We are one of the poorest districts in the state,” Thompson says. “In some neighborhoods, 75 percent of men and 50 percent of women are not working. We need an aggressive advocate in Albany that is going to help put people back to work.
“I supported the Medical Campus when in the State Senate. There are 12,000 jobs on the Medical Campus. But that has not created the type of economic opportunity to rise people out of poverty in the 141st District. The trickle-down policy of hoping people will get jobs simply is not working.”
More outreach by the state is needed to reach people in need, he says as he calls for opening a state Department of Labor office in the Broadway-Fillmore area.
“If we keep waiting for people to come to the services,” Thompson says, “they’ll never get them.”
There’s a need to create more jobs and get people training, but much has already been done, Peoples-Stokes maintains.
“The City of Buffalo, with the help of the state and federal governments, is going in the right direction,” she says.
A global economy is being created in Buffalo, she says, but unlike the past local economy, based on manufacturing jobs, this economy is based around clinical and scientific health care, as well as higher education. It requires skilled, trained workers. Training programs, she says, are in place.
“I have put together a list of where all the training opportunities are,” Peoples-Stokes says.
Already, more minorities are taking advantage of the new opportunities and entering this new economy, she insists. Others, she says, “have to decide what they are going to do in life and pursue it.”
“What my opponent is doing,” she continues, “is spewing rhetoric that gets to people’s emotions, but that’s not going to help them. What is going to help them is if they take advantage of the opportunities created for them. If you don’t get the training, you are not eligible for the job.
“There is opportunity in every neighborhood. It’s not going to come to you. You have to go to it.”
Hemphill-Nichols is concerned that the Medical Campus will lead to gentrification of the Fruit Belt, forcing longtime residents out of their homes as taxes and rents increase.
“Gentrification sounds like an ugly word,” Peoples-Stokes says, “but it is not black, and it’s not white. It’s green – and we need to make sure everyone gets access to that green.”
This is the first time Hemphill-Nichols, 48, has run for public office. She has been involved in community organizing in the Fruit Belt neighborhood, as well as McCarley Gardens, a subsidized housing development on the verge of being sold to make way for the Medical Campus expansion.
Peoples-Stokes, 62, has been in public office since 1993, serving nine years in the Erie County Legislature before being elected to the Assembly in 2002. She first ran for the job in 2000, losing to Eve, who then retired in 2002.
Peoples-Stokes has a leadership position in the Assembly as chairwoman of the Majority Caucus, and also as chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Oversight of Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises. She also has a leadership role with the Legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.
In addition, Peoples-Stokes is a co-chairwoman of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s re-election campaign.
‘Against the status quo’
Thompson, 44, served on the Buffalo Common Council from 2001 until 2006, when he won the Senate seat previously held by Mayor Byron W. Brown.
His time in the Senate proved controversial. Thompson was criticized for his overzealousness in sending constituent mail at taxpayer expense, and missing a day of a legislative session for a working trip to Jamaica he initially declined to publicly disclose. Thompson also took flak early in his tenure for denouncing a proposed pay raise that he had co-sponsored.
In 2010, Thompson lost the seat to Grisanti.
Thompson last week said he has learned a lot since being voted out of office. He now understands, he said, that a balance must be sought between keeping constituents informed and overwhelming them with mailings.
Thompson said he should have waited a day to travel to Jamaica so he didn’t miss any legislative time.
However, he said, the trip did succeed in bringing business to Buffalo, something he said he should have explained better at the time. Thompson also said Democratic leaders listed his name on the pay raise bill without his knowledge – something he said he would never let happen again.
In 2012, Brown appointed him to an $80,000 position as head of the Buffalo Employment & Training Center. He quit that position in June to run for the Assembly.
In earlier campaigns, Thompson ran with support from the Grassroots political organization that Peoples-Stokes now heads and that was a political springboard for Brown. Thompson says his decision to challenge People-Stokes has no connection to a recent schism in Grassroots.
“I’m running against the status quo,” he says. “The assemblywoman has done some good things, but not enough has changed.”
Peoples-Stokes says she is running “to continue the progress we have in Buffalo.”
Hemphill-Nichols says that, as a community organizer in the Fruit Belt, she has seen a leadership void among elected officials and considers her running for office an outgrowth of the neighborhood work she’s now doing.