Upstate incumbent mayors face challenges from the left

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown
Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP/Shutterstock
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown

Upstate incumbent mayors face challenges from the left

Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany all have races to watch on June 22.
June 7, 2021

Incumbent mayors are facing challenges in upstate New York’s four largest cities, and with overwhelmingly Democratic enrollment in Buffalo, Rochester and Albany, the next mayor will likely be decided in the June 22 primary. (Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh is an independent.)

All four cities are connected by Interstate 90, and they have a lot in common besides holding local elections in odd years. These races are largely following a pattern found in recent Democratic primaries in New York, especially in New York City: More moderate incumbents are being challenged by opponents who say they have failed to address injustices like police brutality and income inequality.

Shana Kushner Gadarian, a political science professor at Syracuse University, said these mayoral races reflect the rise of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. “I think what you’re seeing in upstate is pretty similar to what the discussion is at the national level in the Democratic Party, which is the progressive wing being more prominent than what you’ve seen in the past, and progressive Democrats running quite clearly on being progressive,” she said.

In most of the races, the challengers have a steep hill to climb, with the advantages of incumbency – name recognition, fundraising, institutional support – magnified in a low turnout, off-year election cycle.

One difference between the mayoral races in these upstate cities and some of the congressional races where upsets have played out, or even in the Democratic primary in New York City’s mayoral race, is that while some of the bigger national issues like police accountability and health care disparities will play a significant role in the campaigns, so too will hyperlocal issues like snow removal.

Gadarian, who has hosted a virtual meet-and-greet event and donated to the campaign of Syracuse Common Councilor-at-Large Michael Greene, one of the mayoral candidates in the city’s Democratic primary, said that the issue of city sidewalk maintenance and snow removal could resonate with primary voters. A measure to expand a program to repair sidewalks and remove snow from walkways throughout the city, was recently introduced by Greene and voted down by the council. “Those are the kinds of things that local politics can actually help with,” she said.

With the primary almost here, candidates are out pushing their messages on issues big and small, hoping to get their supporters to the polls.


In New York’s second-largest city, history will be made one way or another. Mayor Byron Brown, who became the first Black mayor in the city’s history with his 2005 victory, would now become the first five-term mayor if he is able to beat his challengers. But he will have to fend off a strong campaign from community activist India Walton. If she or the lesser known political newcomer Le’Candice Durham, also running for the Democratic nomination, were to pull off what would be a significant upset, either would become the first woman elected to the city’s highest office.

With almost 16 years as Buffalo’s top elected official, Brown’s name is universally known in town and he has a deep war chest. In the pre-primary filing, Brown reported raising $178,000 for the period and spending nearly $75,000, leaving him with almost $275,000 on hand going into the final weeks of the race. He also has the backing, financially and institutionally, of the Erie County Democratic Party and a finely tuned political apparatus, one that includes many loyal city workers who have done well under his reign.

Walton has stepped up her fundraising game recently, with her pre-primary filing showing more than $38,000 spent so far this year and another $53,000 on hand. While impressive amounts for a political newcomer, they are dwarfed by Brown’s.

The mayor touts his record on economic development, pointing to additions to the downtown area such as the new children’s museum and the Harborcenter hockey complex and the public amenities now available at Canalside. He also boasts of the police reforms that have been implemented in recent years, including the formation of a pilot program that partners mental health professionals with police officers when responding to mental health calls and the issuance of body cameras across the department.

The mayor said Buffalo was experiencing “something of a renaissance” before the pandemic.

“I want to build that back better than before, and make sure that the prosperity that was rising in the city reaches every single neighborhood in the city of Buffalo,” Brown told City & State.

But he has also faced a litany of problems. In the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, a septuagenarian was shoved to the ground by police as they moved to clear the remnants of a protest. The elderly man’s head bouncing off the ground sent him to the hospital for a month. When the police department first made a statement about the incident they claimed the man, Martin Gugino, had tripped, putting out a press release before a video showing the shove was posted to the local NPR affiliate’s website. The video and the ugly fallout with the police union after officers were charged by the Erie County District Attorney made international headlines. The two officers who pushed Gugino were suspended without pay, and Brown took heat from the police union, a powerful entity in city politics, after criticizing members of the department’s emergency response team, who all resigned from the special events unit in protest of the suspensions.

And before the murder of Floyd, a string of deaths during interactions with the Buffalo police drove a movement among activists and other city leaders for reforms.

The city’s fiscal health is among the worst in the country, in part due to poor budgeting practices – inflated revenue projections, using spending reserves to fill budget holes – according to a financial analysis published in the National Tax Journal.

The mayor noted in an interview with City & State that he urged federal officials like U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to secure money for cities suffering shortfalls because of the pandemic.

However, those one-shot funds will not address the city’s underlying fiscal issues.

Brown has often touted downtown development, but has been criticized for a lack of development in some of Buffalo’s economically struggling neighborhoods.

And while the mayor has not been accused of any crimes, federal agents raided City Hall in 2019, taking carts of boxes with them.

Walton, a registered nurse, community activist and organizer, who has compared herself to Rep. Cori Bush, the first-term member of Congress from St. Louis who excited progressives nationwide with her 2020 campaign and is also a registered nurse and organizer. A single mother of four, Walton spent last summer rallying crowds with stirring speeches on police reform, expanding affordable housing opportunities and access to health care.

She challenged the mayor on his assertions that he has handled the scrutiny of the police department and the pandemic well.

“I think a lot of people feel like I feel: tired – tired of waiting for real leadership,” Walton told City & State.

She views Brown as vulnerable, with voter fatigue setting in, pointing to a lack of progress on some of Buffalo’s most intractable issues, like persistently high levels of poverty and segregation.

“Why do we keep giving you more chances?” Walton said of Brown. “You had 16 years and our community still looks this way.”

Brown defended his record on creating opportunity in the city, pointing to state investment in the Northland Workforce Training Center, a sprawling high tech manufacturing training center that graduates hundreds of students a year, about half of them people of color, with average starting salaries upward of $45,000.

“Rhetoric, talking, making promises, it doesn’t work when you’re the incumbent, when you’re the officeholder,” Brown said. “People want to see the work getting done from the officeholder.”

Walton and Durham must also contend with the widespread perception that Buffalo is enjoying a renaissance, a narrative that has been pushed by Brown, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other city, county and state leaders, as ice rinks and hotels went up in a previously dead downtown.

Brown has fended off previous challengers, but none of them were leaders of the progressive movement. Walton points to her endorsement from the Working Families Party – the first time that Brown has not received the WFP’s support – as a sign that change is afoot.

Durham, a city employee who lists Brown as a role model on her campaign website, is running on a platform of making City Hall more engaged with the public, supporting community groups and development on the east side of Buffalo, a part of the city that has suffered from disinvestment for decades.

Brown has been a dominant force in Western New York politics for a long time, but the political winds are shifting.


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Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren
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Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren
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Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren
Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren
Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren
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Adrian Kraus/AP/Shutterstock
The bad news just keeps coming for Mayor Lovely Warren. The two-term incumbent has had a year to forget, and when her house was raided by state police last month – part of an investigation into her estranged husband Timothy Granison, who was arrested on May 19 on gun and drug charges – it was just the latest in a long list of scandals.

After news broke that state police were searching her home, Warren held an extraordinary press conference in which she recounted personal and professional hardships from what she described as her “Job year,” referencing the biblical parable, before calling into question the timing of the search and her husband’s court date the day before the primary.

Now her bid for reelection is in peril. A WROC/Emerson College poll conducted just after her husband’s arrest found that Warren trails her primary opponent, City Council Member Malik Evans by 10 percentage points.

Warren rode a progressive message to her historic victory in 2013, becoming the first woman mayor of Rochester.

In a series of videos recently released on the city’s website in lieu of a State of the City speech, Warren touts progress on the expansion of affordable housing availability, police reforms and economic development.

“We’ve done extraordinary work in the last seven years with all the investments that we’ve made,” she said.

Like Brown, she has been under the microscope for her handling of police issues. In September 2020, an investigation authorized by the City Council found police had suppressed video from the death of Daniel Prude, a man having a mental health episode who died after police pinned him to the ground with a “spit hood” over his head, and that Warren lied when she claimed at a press conference she hadn’t learned about Prude until August when she reportedly spoke to then-Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary on the day it happened in March. In a statement at the time, Counsel to the city of Rochester Carrie Cohen blamed any mayoral misstatements on Warren being misled by Singletary. “At all times, Mayor Warren spoke based on the facts known to her at the time,” Cohen said.

In the months that followed, police pepper-sprayed a handcuffed 9-year-old girl and tackled a mother to the ground and pepper-sprayed her in front of her toddler. Although Rochester recently created a non-police mental health emergency response team, they were not dispatched to the scene. Police bodycam footage of all these incidents accompanied news stories that made their way around the globe.

This all comes on top of Warren’s own legal troubles. The mayor was indicted on charges of state campaign finance violations in October for allegedly using a political action committee to exceed campaign contribution limits. Warren and her co-defendants pleaded not guilty and the mayor maintains her innocence.

Despite all that, Evans is trying to unseat her without the support of Monroe County Democrats. Warren secured the local county party’s endorsement earlier this year.

“We really have to work to try to rebuild trust with the community,” Evans said. And that message is not only resonating with potential voters, but with donors as well. While Warren has been outspending Evans so far, the candidates pre-primary filings show that Evans has outraised Warren during the filing period, reporting $83,000 in contributions to her $75,000. Still, all but one of Warren’s large donors are sticking by her or declining to criticize her publicly. Warren’s campaign did not make the mayor available for an interview by the time of publication.

Evans stressed that police accountability and reform are necessary moving forward. But he also made it clear that he believes residents in all neighborhoods need to be able to work with police to make the city safer for everyone.

“We see public safety as both an economic issue as well as a social justice issue,” Evans said. “It’s an economic issue because people will not want to relocate to Rochester to start their business or maintain their business if they see that there’s crime, but also that there’s unrest between the police department and the citizens.”


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Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh
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Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh
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Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh
Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh
Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh
Image Credit: 
Hans Pennik/AP/Shutterstock
The most complicated of the races, Syracuse will see its first independent mayor in over a century try to defend his seat. Ben Walsh, who won election on two minor party lines, the Independence and Reform parties, in 2017, has collected the signatures he needs to secure the Indepence Party line again.

Walsh touted his ability to work with officials from all parties and communities, saying his status as an independent has allowed him to bring people together from all neighborhoods in the city and all levels of government, Democrats and Republicans alike.

He said that spirit is also reflected in what he called the most diverse government in Syracuse history. “Our vision is for Syracuse to be a growing city that embraces diversity and creates opportunity for all,” he said in an interview with City & State.

Meanwhile, two Democrats, Greene and fellow City Councilor Khalid Bey, are competing for the Democratic line. The winner of this contest will be Walsh’s biggest obstacle to a second term in the general election.

Walsh, the scion of a legendary family of Central New York Republicans, has governed as a centrist, more progressive on social issues, who is tied into the business community. Walsh’s business connections, family name and incumbency make him a formidable fundraiser.

Greene, a Cornell-educated real estate executive who worked for the Port Authority of New York before returning to his home town in 2016, gained the Onondaga County Democrats’ endorsement earlier this year.

While Greene has found room to work with Walsh on some issues, he believes the mayor to be too timid in his approach to economic development, criticizing the mayor for being too supportive of generous tax breaks for developers. “He’s kind of liberal on social issues, but maybe fiscally aligned with the business community,” Greene said. “You’ll see from me a little bit more of an economic populism.”

In response, Walsh said he has asked the Syracuse Industrial Development Agency to review its criteria for granting tax breaks in an effort to tighten restrictions on tax breaks for developers. “We’re always going to try to be supportive of businesses,” Walsh said. “But you always want to strike that right balance and never provide benefits that would be considered excessive.”

Greene proposes to work with developers to create more affordable housing, create a community land trust – a city run organization that will buy and manage vacant and neglected property – and to reform city zoning laws.

Bey, who has written several motivational books and spent time as a recording artist before being elected to the Council in 2004, told the Syracuse Post-Standard that his top priorities are providing opportunities for the chronically unemployed and improving the city’s housing stock.

“I believe in the promise of the city,” he told the newspaper. “I think we have potential we haven’t even realized yet.”

Two Republicans, economist Janet Burman and attorney Thomas Babilon, will fight for the GOP line, but Syracuse hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1997.


Mayor Kathy Sheehan is seeking a third term, but will have to fight for the Democratic nomination with the Rev. Valerie Faust.

Sheehan, who has the backing of the Albany County Democrats, is touting her record on investments in infrastructure and parks and her record on police reform.

“I believe that experience matters, and I also wasn’t able to accomplish things that we thought we were going to get done this year because of COVID, and I want to really see those things through, so I’ve decided that I am running again,” Sheehan told the Albany Business Review when announcing her run for reelection last year.

Like other upstate mayors, Sheehan and her police department have faced scrutiny. In April, local civil rights leaders criticized the mayor and the police after a group of protestors were cleared from an encampment near a police station, resulting in a clash.

At a press conference where police body cam footage was shared, Sheehan compared the protestors to the crowd that stormed the Capital on Jan. 6, comments she later apologized for.

Faust is making her third bid for mayor after defeats in 2009 and 2013. She believes that she has a better shot now, because so little has changed for the better during Sheehan’s time in office, she told WAMC, the local NPR affiliate.

“My stump speech and all of my concerns I used in 2009, I could still use today,” Faust told the radio station. “And that was because nothing really changed. And some things had gotten worse.”

Republican radio host Alicia Purdy and comedian and comedian Greg Aidala are also running.

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Justin Sondel
is a freelance reporter in Buffalo.