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It is like trying to box a shadow, to grasp a ghost, to call out an illusion.

Sergio Rodriguez knows that Byron Brown is out there. Somewhere.

The Republican candidate for mayor would like to make contact before Election Day. Don’t count on it.

Brown’s refusal to engage has turned the mayoral campaign into a one-man show, a “Waiting for Godot” exercise in anti-democracy. As a money-challenged, party-abandoned candidate in a city with seven times as many Democrats as Republicans, Rodriguez should expect to get schooled. But the Dominican Republic native didn’t anticipate a side-swiping of democracy.

“I’m from a Third World country where political corruption is in your face,” Rodriguez told me Wednesday, at a downtown lunch spot. “The Founding Fathers would be rolling in their graves to see this.”

Given the problems of America’s fifth-poorest city, Brown’s missing-in-action campaign strikes me as a civic insult. Since crushing an uninspiring Bernie Tolbert in the September primary, the vision-lite Democratic mayor has hidden in plain sight. He refused to debate Rodriguez and is a habitual no-show at Candidates Night forums.

It’s the political version of Where’s Waldo?

Rodriguez is not some dismissible crackpot. The bilingual former Marine has a master’s degree and, at 33, boasts a decade of political experience. His jobs/schools/police reforms are attention-worthy. Abandoned by party officials fearful that a heavy city turnout will hurt Republican candidates countywide, Rodriguez has knocked on thousands of doors and papered neighborhoods with palm cards. Bright and engaging, he stole the three-way primary-season debates and awaited a one-on-one with Brown.

Instead, he got a one-on-none.

Granted, there is no law forcing Brown out of the foxhole. Rodriguez’s current “Jeep Tour” won’t get him into as many living rooms as Brown did with TV news clips of UB’s medical school groundbreaking. With nearly $1 million in campaign cash, a huge Democratic enrollment advantage and lofty poll numbers, the mayor has the luxury of sitting it out.

It is a luxury I don’t think voters can afford.

Buffalo is the fifth-poorest, 11th-most violent city in America. Some 20,000 people fled the city during Brown’s two terms, pushed out by troubled schools and disappearing jobs. Brown is politically savvy and has curb appeal, but is riding the feel-good vibe of a waterfront revival, downtown repopulation and medical campus growth that he didn’t have much to do with. He should at least state his case for another term.

“The waterfront is mostly about entertainment,” Rodriguez said. “I’m talking about what’s happening in the inner city.”

Rodriguez does not have the money to kick open the door. The cost of 500 lawn signs last week drained his campaign account. He will be lucky to raise $30,000 in a town where law firms, contractors and developers see a mayoral campaign donation as the price of doing business in – or getting business from – the city.

Which leaves Rodriguez as the only man in the ring, swinging wildly – and hoping that a mash-up of disaffected Democrats, Hispanics, veterans and youth will lift him to unlikely victory. Brown ignores him, but Rodriguez hasn’t gone away. His perseverance gives voters the gift passed down by the Founding Fathers: a choice.

email: desmonde@buffnews.com