State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy found himself in the front row of Bethel AME Church on Sunday morning, clapping in time to the joyous hymns rocking through the historic congregation at Michigan Avenue and East Ferry Street.
An Irish Catholic with deep roots in South Buffalo, Kennedy had already fulfilled his Sunday obligation at St. Martin’s Catholic Church on Abbott Road. But his stop at Bethel AME marked the first of five more church visits Sunday – all with African-American congregations where politics and politicians are traditionally welcomed and even encouraged.
As Kennedy struggles with reapportionment realities that thrust him into a much more African-American district, and as he once again faces Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, an African-American, in a Democratic primary, he is plunging headfirst into a community that overwhelmingly rejected him in 2012. But it is here – in the pulpits of traditional houses of worship such as Bethel AME, as well as smaller ministries such as Miracle Missions Full Gospel Church on Sycamore Street, that the senator is making his stand.
Even his most ardent supporters recognize that black voters almost universally rally behind black candidates, and that his multiple morning service visits might need to inspire divine intervention to turn that tide. But they also say his effort is worth the try; that a mere 15 percent of the black vote might prove enough to overcome Grant, who is expected to be far more organized and better financed this time around.
“We all want the same things no matter where we’re from or what ethnicity we are; we want what is best for our communities and families,” he said while driving from Evangelistic Temple on Hedley Street to Mount Aaron Baptist on Genesee Street. “When people get to know me and where my mind, heart and work ethic is, they’ll be willing to vote for me.”
Indeed, Kennedy was welcomed with pastoral bear hugs and enthusiastic applause in every sanctuary on Sunday, delivering the same basic message. Last week he successfully secured a $366,000 grant to support a targeted neighborhood violence prevention project, he told worshipers. He spoke of the need for advanced job-training programs “as President Obama said in his State of the Union address,” while promising to seek significant increases in state budget allocations for Metro buses and trains that move so many inner-city residents.
And he continually invoked the name of Assemblywoman Crystal D. People-Stokes, the East Side Democrat with whom he is proposing to strengthen child-abuse laws – but who has not committed to any candidate.
Usually the only white face in the East Side churches where he has become a fixture in recent months, Kennedy has stepped up his efforts throughout the black community. His ads are already airing on black-oriented WUFO radio, where he also was invited to appear on a show Saturday to discuss child-abuse legislation. And later on Sunday, he planned to knock on as many local doors as possible before taking in his son’s hockey game Sunday night and heading off to Albany this morning.
Sara Lugo, of Evangelistic Temple, said she has noticed Kennedy making the rounds on many Sundays.
“He’s in church so many times; he’s always here,” she said.
Would he have a chance against Grant?
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “He’s very polite and very sincere.”
And Kennedy seemed to revel in the familiarity, welcome and praise showered upon him from every pulpit.
“There is one good man right here – Sen. Kennedy,” said Pastor Dwayne Jones at Mount Aaron Baptist. “He’s got a great heart and great ideas. God works through people, and I thank God for Sen. Kennedy.”
But the senator faces a tough assignment. After spending more than $400,000 in his 2012 primary contest against Grant, he won by a mere 139 votes. His opponent spent only $20,000.
Grant said late Sunday that she plans to campaign hard in Kennedy’s home turf, but doesn’t need to introduce herself on the East Side.
“I hope he doesn’t make me feel unwelcome when I campaign in South Buffalo,” she said, while blaming Kennedy’s alliance with the Chris Collins administration while serving in the County Legislature for cutting cultural programs benefiting the voters he now tries to woo.
And while registration figures show black voters at about 30 percent of the district, those who studied the last election say they comprised about 42 percent of the vote. That explains why Kennedy allies are encouraging turnout in the heavily Polish-American Cheektowaga portion of the district, where a Democratic primary is expected to fill the Assembly vacancy created by the resignation of Dennis H. Gabryszak.
Veteran political observers such as former Common Council President George K. Arthur say the effort to turn out votes in Cheektowaga makes sense, since ethnic voting patterns still rule in most Erie County elections.
Arthur noted that forces loyal to Democratic Headquarters and Mayor Byron W. Brown will encourage African-American support for Kennedy. But he also said no matter how hard Kennedy tries, he faces long odds.
“I think Betty will do better in the churches and in the rest of the community than Kennedy will,” he said. “The ministers will open their doors and be very nice, but the bottom line is that black voters are going to vote black.”
That’s why some Democrats are privately counseling the senator to return to his roots in South Buffalo, Cheektowaga and Lackawanna. Sources familiar with those conversations who asked not to be identified because of their private nature say Kennedy rejects that advice, and is determined to bolster his inner-city visibility and vote totals.
Arthur, meanwhile, expects Grant to be a better candidate this time around, with top Albany figures such as Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, D-Bronx, stepping up to her aid. Klein, leader of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Caucus sharing the majority with Republicans, last month said he would support Grant and is expected to help her tap into his vast fundraising network.
“So I look for it to be a dogfight,” Arthur said.
Kennedy remains mostly hampered, he said, by the loyalty of black voters toward one of their own. While the late Mayor Frank A. Sedita always scored big numbers in the black community, only former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello ever scored significant inroads against another black candidate.
In the 2001 primary for mayor, for example, Masiello captured almost one-third of the black vote against the late Council Member at-Large Beverly A. Gray, an African-American. Today, Masiello credits that to growing up with black kids, playing basketball on their playgrounds, and competing against them while playing for Cardinal Dougherty High School and Canisius College.
“It’s difficult to do that now; times have changed,” Masiello said. “You don’t have long-entrenched political leaders to network for you, nor is there a network of African-American leaders to support candidates of the party. Now, everybody’s on their own.
“It’s not Tim’s doing,” he said of Kennedy. “It’s just the way it is.”
The former mayor says the Assembly primary for the seat from Cheektowaga may represent the most encouraging development yet for Kennedy, but acknowledges that Grant starts with a natural advantage among black voters.
The district represents parts of Buffalo’s East Side, South Buffalo, Cheektowaga and Lackawanna.
“He could win,” Masiello said of Kennedy, “but it won’t be easy.”