This story was first posted at Jacobin.
For the people of Buffalo, Tuesday’s election will test whether the city really is truly ready to break from a history of poverty and corruption and steer toward new horizons. But for Byron Brown, the sitting mayor, write-in candidate, and loser of June’s Democratic primary, it’ll mean either the foreseeable end of his political career, or the next chapter in a more-than-decade-long tale of improbable political survival.
Normally, in a city that went 77 percent for Joe Biden this year, the winner of Buffalo’s Democratic mayoral primary is also the winner of its mayoral election. But Brown, through a combination of his own stubbornness, steadfast business backing, and some well-placed conflicts of interest, has survived what would’ve been a fatal defeat for anyone else and is running a viable independent write-in campaign — so viable that, as per one eleventh-hour poll, he’s now leading India Walton, the woman who beat him for the Democratic nomination, by seventeen points.
Brown’s political future now hinges on whether Walton can repeat her June success and drive up turnout from disaffected parts of the city long neglected by City Hall. He has every chance to win: over fifteen years and four elections, mounting corruption scandals, rampant city mismanagement, and the steadily deteriorating living standards of voters haven’t been enough to dislodge Brown from power. Will Tuesday end this state of affairs, or be one more Houdini-like escape in the career of Byron Brown?
Reformer vs. the machine
Brown the officeholder came up in the ’90s. Seven years into heading Erie County’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, a less-than-excited Brown was one of the black officeholders urging African Americans to swallow their doubts and back Arkansas Democrat Bill Clinton for president, who had spent the campaign signaling his disdain for people like Brown to the white electorate.
“If we don’t win, we can’t change anything,” said Brown, a Clinton delegate at the time. “If we don’t change from an administration that has proven in twelve years to be insensitive to African Americans, things won’t get better for people who are locked out of the system.”
Ironically, given subsequent events, Brown entered electoral politics as the young upstart challenging the county’s old guard black leadership, who ran a spoiler to defeat him in his first county legislature race in 1993 and smeared him in the press. He learned the hard way that taking on an incumbent was a tall order. “Without significant resources to spend, many in the community did not know of their option to vote for me,” Brown later recalled. It was a lesson he learned well.
As with his support for Clinton, Brown’s theory of change was to get his foot in the door of the political hierarchy and serve as a bridge between institutions of power and the inner-city communities he came out of. “We’re trying to give power back to the people in our community because the political establishment has left people in our community feeling powerless and uninvolved,” he told the Buffalo News.
Key to this was Grassroots Inc., an African-American political organization formed in 1986 by two grandmothers and a handful of other local activists and community leaders from the city’s Masten district. The idea was to help their underserved neighborhoods — get their streets plowed, pot holes fixed, garbage collected, and the like — by winning political office and, in the process, throwing out the do-nothing establishment cronies and hacks taking up space at the time.
Brown was one of the young turks pursuing this mission. By the time he rose to second vice president for the group in the mid-1990s, Grassroots had become a political force, growing to more than two hundred fifty members, many of them elected to all manner of public office, and had set up a headquarters in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s former Buffalo center.
With Grassroots resources behind him and the endorsement of Buffalo’s largest black newspaper, which lamented that Masten’s “decline, blight, hopelessness and stagnation” pointed to a “time for a change,” Brown narrowly ousted a eighteen-year incumbent from the district council in 1995.
Brown soon built up a reputation as an astute politician with multiracial appeal and skilled at securing city resources to his poverty-stricken district. At one point he even budgeted funds to benefit a program assisting women coming out of prison that was run by the wife of the machine boss Grassroots was taking on. “I just think it’s a good program,” he said.
Yet he also built up a reputation as too politically calculating and unwilling to take hard stances. A survey of nearly two hundred local leaders gave him the lowest marks for “independence,” “willingness to take unpopular stands,” and “fiscal management.”
Little noticed at the time was Brown’s adoption of a neoliberal, market-centric ethos that fit the mood of the era. Brown was taken by the individualistic message of the 1995 Million Man March and its emphasis on improving personal behavior. “The march said to us, ‘You can do these things,’” he said. “Racism doesn’t stop you from doing them. Unemployment doesn’t stop you. […] The only thing that stops you from doing these things is you.”
He advised local high schoolers complaining about a lack of jobs and activities “to get used to less and less money coming from the government for jobs,” and focused on partnering with and enticing businesses with tax breaks as the basis of economic development, telling people it was the private, not public, sector that had to be the driving force of economic improvement.
Hope, and change?
Brown’s ambition soon sent him sailing up the ranks of government. After easily winning reelection in 1999, he knocked off a union-backed, seventeen-year veteran in 2000 to become the first state senate candidate to oust an incumbent since 1966, and then considered running for a suddenly open House seat two years later. The only thing that stopped him was his inability to raise enough cash. It would be the last time he would have that problem.
Brown won reelection to the state senate twice more, and was talked about as a potential lieutenant governor, before deciding to run for mayor of Buffalo. The constant moving seemed calculated. “The longer you’re [in office], the more you think about what it takes to make certain constituencies happy and to perpetuate yourself in office,” Brown had said years earlier. He entered the mayoral race in February 2005 as the frontrunner, casting himself as a change agent who would turn around the city’s fortune.
But Brown’s ambitions began to clash with his talk of change. While in the state senate, he had…