When Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant took on State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy in the 2012 Democratic primary, voters in the 63rd District had to wait six weeks before the incumbent was declared the winner by a mere 139 votes.
Just about everybody watching this year’s rematch expects a another squeaker.
The pair of old adversaries is again slugging it out in a district taking in much of Grant’s African-American base and Kennedy’s South Buffalo turf, plus key suburban battlegrounds. And who wins Tuesday will hinge on whether Grant can duplicate the numbers she racked up two years ago, or whether 2014 presents a new political dynamic benefiting Kennedy.
In addition, much of the final days of the contest appear to revolve around Democratic credentials – and the candidates’ commitment to competing Democratic factions in the Senate. Kennedy makes much of supporting Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Yonkers as the first female African-American majority leader should his party gain a majority in the Senate and vows loyalty to her regular Democratic caucus.
But Grant’s campaign has been supported by Bronx Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein’s Independent Democratic Caucus, or IRC, which last year organized with Senate Republicans to form a coalition majority before returning to the Stewart-Cousins fold in a tenuous truce. Kennedy says he’s the real Democrat, while Grant refuses to commit to anybody.
Outside forces at play
In the meantime, several outside forces may play key roles in this affair, since turnout driven by other contests could determine the outcome. Some of those outside factors affecting this year’s race include:
• An Assembly primary between Democrats Camille Brandon and Mark M. Mazurek for the Cheektowaga-based seat vacated in January by Democrat Dennis H. Gabryszak. The race was orchestrated by Kennedy supporters to increase turnout in a town comprising mostly white voters.
• A counterbalancing Assembly primary centered on Buffalo’s East Side featuring incumbent Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, former Sen. Antoine M. Thompson and newcomer Veronica Hemphill-Nichols.
Heavy turnout in those primarily black districts is expected to benefit Grant.
• Town Board and town justice primaries in Cheektowaga that could help Kennedy.
• The lack of contests specific to Kennedy’s South Buffalo base to bolster his numbers, as occurred in 2012.
But neither of the candidates seems concerned about influences beyond their control. Both are not only working their home bases, but venturing into areas where they are not well-known. And both know that in this contest, every vote counts. “If you eliminate any portion of the district because you don’t think you’ll do well, you really should not be running,” Grant said.
And Kennedy constantly emphasizes that since the last election, he has represented the East Side as well as South Buffalo, Cheektowaga and Lackawanna. He has attended dozens of events and church services throughout the black community during that period and says he stakes his claim for votes in every neighborhood.
“I would argue that mine is the most diverse district in the State of New York. I absolutely love it,” he said. “And I represent every area of this district.”
Along Tudor Road in Cheektowaga a few days ago, Grant and an aide were knocking on doors, dropping off campaign literature and making their case. It is in these neighborhoods of neat brick homes – racially diverse and working-class – that Grant and Kennedy know the election may be decided.
Grant can’t seem to progress along Tudor as people driving by recognize her, stop and offer their support. She knows most of their families, recalls attending services in their church or helping in some effort as a county legislator.
Disparity in finances
Retired Firefighter Jerome Pinkston stopped his car to urge her to take action against “deadbeat dads” and later revealed exactly how he would vote. “I got Betty,” he said. “Betty Jean has been around a little longer than Tim. And she rolls up her sleeves and gets out among the people. That’s the name of the game.”
Grant arrived in heavily Polish Cheektowaga armed with fliers showing her with supporters such as County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and reminding everyone that she is endorsed by former Legislator Thomas J. Mazur of Cheektowaga. When she stops at the home of Wade Lewis, a deacon at the primarily black Second Avenue Baptist Church in Lackawanna, she reminds him of her backing by Buffalo Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen.
If Grant, the Legislature’s minority leader, is to have a chance against the incumbent, it will result only from such personal interaction. Though she has been on television from time to time and participates in debates, her paltry treasury of about $4,100 will not allow for any broadcast advertising on her own. That compares with about $377,000 for Kennedy. But both are benefiting from advertising by independent committees, such as more than $100,000 spent by Klein’s caucus on mailings for Grant, while the New York State United Teachers is sponsoring the latest round of Kennedy television ads.
Grant recalls that she came oh-so-close in 2012 when she spent about $20,000 and Kennedy dropped around $400,000. She labeled as “disheartening” the failure of area unions to support her despite long associations with several labor organizations.
“I’m sure that when I win election, raising money will not be so difficult,” she said. “And I found out two years ago that I don’t need the money as long as I have the support.”
After four years in the Senate since defeating veteran Sen. William T. Stachowski in the 2010 Democratic primary, Kennedy says it’s different this time around. He was making the rounds of the Cheektowaga Senior Center on Broadway a few days ago, a favorite stop for politicians in a key town that often reflects the prevailing sentiment of the entire state.
Kennedy seemed to connect with Bill Daigler, a retired salesman who predicted another close vote.
“I’ll vote for someone who’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and work for the little people,” Daigler said. “And just as much, I’ll be voting against her. I don’t think she does the job as it should be done.”
Still at the Senior Center, Kennedy recites a long list of Senate accomplishments, such as sponsoring bills strengthening county Child Protective Services. His action followed the deaths of area children whose families had been investigated by the county, and he sponsored an anti-stalking law after a woman was murdered in Erie County Medical Center last year by a man who had electronically tracked her movements.
He labels as paramount his status as Western New York’s only Senate Democrat, and that means voting for increasing the minimum wage, ethics reform and campaign finance reform. He said he is committed to the Senate Democratic agenda, including the Women’s Equality Act and its expanded abortion rights – a position that brought a rebuke from Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo earlier this year when he switched his views to a pro-choice stand.
Today he is set to receive the endorsements of two key Buffalo Democrats: Rep. Brian Higgins and Mayor Byron W. Brown. Kennedy is hoping that Brown’s endorsement will help him win votes in the African-American community.
Alliances at issue
Indeed, Kennedy makes his stand on total commitment to the Senate’s Democratic caucus, constantly labeling Grant as sympathetic to the Klein group that enabled the GOP to retain coalition leadership.
“I strongly believe she has committed to joining the ranks of the Republican-led coalition,” Kennedy said, noting that Klein’s “quasi-deal” to unify with Senate Democrats has not yet been tested.
“If everything stays as is, I believe the Republican-led coalition will continue to rule the Senate and block legislation for working families. That’s unacceptable and why we need a Democratic majority.”
Despite a much-publicized January meeting in which Klein declared his support for Grant, she says she has promised nothing to anybody. And just days before the primary, she will not indicate which faction she will organize with in January should she win.
Grant said she just saw the IDC mailing backing her a few days ago and has not spoken to Klein or anyone else about it. “I’m weighing my options and am not committed to anybody,” she said. “I’m a Democrat, but I have had no help from the traditional Democrats.”
Grant is also running on a minor-party line Women’s Equality, while Kennedy is also competing in the Independence primary against Ricky T. Donovan Sr., who is also backed by the Republican and Conservative parties.
But the Democratic primary in the heavily Democratic district is seen by most observers as tantamount to the general election.