2023 elections

Buffalo primary elections: Progressives strike out — again

Try as they might, progressive Democrats in Buffalo are having a hard time gaining traction. That reality was underscored in lopsided electoral losses Tuesday.

Zeneta Everhart

Zeneta Everhart Nathan Howard/Getty Images

This story was originally published on Investigative Post.

So much for the revolution. 

Hopes ran high among Buffalo progressives after India Walton won the Democratic mayoral primary two years ago, shocking four-term incumbent Byron Brown. Walton lost to Brown’s well-funded and often vicious write-in campaign in the general election, but the coalition of progressives who supported her seemed poised to start winning smaller elections. 

Our City Action Buffalo, or OCAB, played a key role in Walton’s mayoral run. The coalition of progressive activists didn’t run candidates for Democratic Party committee seats last year, opting to fight the party establishment from the outside. It endorsed incumbent Jen Mecozzi’s successful reelection to Buffalo’s school board, but didn’t run candidates for other seats. It mounted, but ultimately dropped, a spirited challenge to the Common Council’s redistricting plan.

This election cycle, OCAB endorsed three candidates for Council. The left-leaning Working Families Party lined up behind those three and one more. 

All four lost to incumbents or to candidates supported by established Democratic powers, including state Sen. Tim Kennedy, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, and Brown. 

They lost by margins of two-to-one or worse. A fifth challenger, running independently, also lost badly. 

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, OCAB’s executive director, Harper Bishop — a former Council staffer — insisted that there were silver linings to those losses: Two incumbents declined to run for reelection in the first place, decisions Bishop attributed to the organization’s activism and “insurgent candidates’ challenge to their power.” 

“While our three endorsed candidates did not win their races, it would be a lie to say that they did not win major victories that help to propel our larger movement forward,” Bishop said.

Tuesday’s results — if they are affirmed in November’s general election — will introduce two women to the Council, which has been a boys’ club since 2014. The newcomers will change the Council’s power dynamics in ways that will be revealed right away, in January, when lawmakers choose a new Council president. 

The primaries are over, but the dealmaking has just begun.

But first, the results:

  • Leah Halton-Pope, senior advisor to Peoples-Stokes, handily defeated three other candidates in the Ellicott District. The seat was open, as incumbent Darius Pridgen declined to run for a fourth term. Halton-Pope got 49 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results. The Working Families Party candidate, Matt Dearing, finished third with 15 percent.
  • Zeneta Everhart, diversity director for Kennedy, easily beat Walton, who was endorsed by both OCAB and the Working Families Party. Everhart got 67 percent of the vote. This seat was open, too, as incumbent Ulysses Wingo stepped aside rather than face a challenge from Walton, clearing the path for Everhart.
  • In the University and North districts, incumbents Rasheed Wyatt and Joe Golombek easily dispatched their challengers, social worker Kathryn Franco and public schools teacher Eve Shippens, respectively — both supported by OCAB and Working Families. Golombek won 70 percent of the vote in his district; Wyatt won 65 percent of the vote in his district. 
  • In Lovejoy, incumbent Bryan Bollman fended off an independent challenger, Bangladeshi businessman Mohammed Uddin, with nearly 70 percent of the vote.

Bollman’s reelection is guaranteed, as he has no opponent in the November general election.

Wyatt and Golombek will face Franco and Shippens again in November, as the challengers will appear on the Working Families Party line. Walton, too, will appear on the Working Families Party line against Everhart.

Halton-Pope will face Dearing on the Working Families Party line, as well as two other candidates. Murray Holman, a Democrat, will appear on the Conservative Party line. Michael Chapman, pastor of St. John Baptist Church in the Fruit Belt, will be on the ballot as an independent. Chapman has financial resources and a large congregation, should he choose to mount a vigorous campaign.

That wild card aside, the city’s political history suggests the new Council lineup was set on Tuesday. That lineup may benefit Brown, as he enters the second half of his fifth term.

For the past four years, a majority bloc of five (and sometimes six) Council members have proved willing to buck the mayor on some issues. On budget matters, they’ve only tinkered at the margins. 

That majority bloc comprises Wyatt, Bollman, Pridgen, Niagara District Council Member David Rivera, and Fillmore District Council Member Mitch Nowakowski. 

The minority bloc comprises Golombek, Wingo, and South District Council Member Chris Scanlon.

Delaware District Council Member Joel Feroleto moves between the two factions, depending on the issue.

Brown lost a reliable factotum with Wingo’s departure, but also shed a powerful counterweight in Pridgen, whose power base rivals the mayor’s.

The mayor supported Everhart and Halton-Pope, though he remained largely invisible during their campaigns. (“Brown’s polling numbers are terrible,” a Democratic insider who supported Everhart told Investigative Post.) He also backed Golombek, who usually supports the mayor’s agenda, but not Bollman or Wyatt, who sometimes do not.

Brown has good reason to believe the balance of power has swung in his favor: The mayor, Peoples-Stokes and Kennedy are allies, and Everhart’s and Halton-Pope’s candidacies arose from that alliance.

Indeed, the two first-time candidates raised astonishing sums of money for their races, aided by the extensive donor networks of their bosses. A parade of Democratic officials — including several incumbent Council members and even state Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs — offered endorsements and money. So did a host of real estate developers, lobbyists and other political insiders.

“Our candidates were faced with decades and generations of entrenched mediocrity, corporate backings and status-quo politics that serve a small and powerful group of Buffalonians,” OCAB said in its post-election statement.

Turnout was low on Tuesday: About 16.5 percent of eligible voters cast votes in the five Council districts that had races. That’s comparable to turnout in Council races four years ago, which suggests the insurgents failed to bring new voters to the polls. 

“OCAB’s candidates missed the mark when it came to connecting with voters,” Fillmore District’s Nowakowski told Investigative Post. 

He described the primary results as a victory of “progress over platitudes.” 

Nowakowski faced no challenger in the primary and has no opponent in the Nov. 7 general election. He was first elected in 2019 with the party endorsement, after serving as a Council staffer. His husband won a Buffalo City Court judgeship last year, with backing from Democratic leadership and the mayor — two parties that rarely agree on anything. 

He’s a dealmaker.

At the same time, Nowakowski has been a key member of that majority bloc of five (and sometimes six) Council members that occasionally stick their finger in the mayor’s eye.

That majority ended Brown’s school zone speed camera program, for example, and codified a reserve fund policy against the mayor’s wishes. Just this week the majority bloc voted down a $562,000 subsidy to Braymiller Market downtown — a subsidy the Brown administration pushed hard. Early in his first term, Nowakowski used that majority to compel the Brown administration to adopt and implement a long-stalled program to combat lead poisoning.

Nowakowski said he believes Everhart — assuming she beats Walton again in November — will fill Pridgen’s spot in the current majority’s caucus.

“What we lost, we gained,” he said. “I think next year you’ll see at least five members acting independently of the mayor.”

The proof of Nowakowski’s assertion will manifest in January, when the new Council chooses a president. Scanlon — an ally of the mayor who rallied vital South Buffalo support to re-elect Brown in 2021 — has been angling for the job. So has Nowakowski. 

A compromise candidate could emerge, possibly even one of the newcomers. Regardless, Halton-Pope’s and Everhart’s votes will win the day for someone. 

Meantime, OCAB looks to the future. 

“Our City Action Buffalo and our endorsed candidates are building a movement that will set the table for generations to come through smart,strategic and people-focused policy platforms that just make sense. Our work is far from over,” said Leighton Jones, the organization’s communications coordinator.

They might find inspiration for their work in Cheektowaga, a bastion of conservative Democratic politics. 

There, two-term Town Council Member Brian Nowak — like Walton, a self-described democratic socialist — is mounting a campaign for town supervisor. 

Nowak didn’t have a primary on Tuesday. He’ll appear on the Democratic and Working Families party ballot lines in November. He will face Michael Jasinski, who has the Republican and Conservative Party lines.

Voter registration numbers suggest Nowak has a good chance of prevailing.

There are about 28,000 registered Democrats in Cheektowaga and 400 members of the Working Families Party. There are 12,000 Republicans and 1,300 Conservatives. Another 13,000 registered voters are independents.