The Long, Troubling Career of Buffalo's Byron Brown
The career trajectory of Byron Brown is familiar to U.S. cities: a young reformer who took on the city’s corrupt establishment—and who soon embodied the very establishment he’d run against.
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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 come under the wing of Steve Pigeon, the well-connected and scandal-plagued former chair of the Erie County Democratic Committee who worked, not always within the bounds of the law, as a conduit between the worlds of politics and private wealth.
It was a marriage of convenience: Brown set Pigeon and the operatives associated with him up with lucrative jobs that allowed them to continue influence-peddling; and Pigeon helped Brown build up his campaign operation and raise funds for a formidable war chest. All Brown had to do was ignore Pigeon’s hostility to local Democrats and his closeness to GOP operatives like Roger Stone.
Needing to rid himself of the stench of impropriety, Brown cut Pigeon and one of his associates loose mere months before launching his run. (After many more years of similar activities, Pigeon was finally convicted of bribery last year, though he is, somehow, yet to be sentenced.) But the damage had been done.
Though criticized during the campaign for few accomplishments in the senate, Brown, under the influence of Pigeon and his crew, had still managed to raise eyebrows, as when he voted to make it harder to punish lobbyists who broke the law, or tried to roll back a statewide smoking ban by exempting bingo halls. The whole thing would turn out somewhat moot when his opponent, the sitting mayor, suddenly declared he wouldn’t seek a fourth term, clearing his way to the office.
For a while, Brown caught more flak for appearing to be a standard Democrat. The press and the incumbent mayor slammed him for being backed by city and health care unions, which they charged undermined his status as a reformer, and criticized him for not backing charter schools. Brown joined his opponent’s call for “Medicaid reform” — but by urging officials to pressure the federal government to raise New York state’s low Medicaid reimbursement rate, taking the burden off the city.
But Brown had other loyalties besides unions. In order to head into the mayoral primary with over $700,000 in the bank, or more than four times the funding of his two opponents combined, Brown drew heavily from the developers, contractors, and lawyers who did business with the city, and raised more than $200,000 from businesses.
At one point, Brown held a fundraiser where top tickets were priced $10,000 a pop, a record — or, to some, a new low — for Buffalo’s mayoral elections. He went to a fundraiser held by the city’s embattled inspections commissioner, then under fire for, among other things, a backlog of hundreds of inspections and accusations of retaliation. He sought out and got the endorsement of the city’s Conservative Party.
Also shaping Brown’s future mayoralty were the people who’d surrounded himself with. He stacked his campaign staff with personnel from the county’s last chief executive Dennis Gorski, a conservative Democrat who’d been adored by businesses and hated by unions and community groups.
One of them was Steve Casey, the Pigeon protégé who, until the day in 2014 he spun through the revolving door out of Brown’s administration and into a developer firm, commentators would accuse of being the real power behind the throne. Shortly after the election, it would come out that Brown had gotten taxpayers to foot the bill for Casey’s campaign salary.
Still, voters were hopeful. They pointed to Brown’s union ties and his calls for change, and hoped he would throw out the cronies and direct investment into the city’s blighted East Side. “I expect him to clean up the politicians, get rid of all the ones with patronage jobs and don’t hire every member of your family and every person you ever said hello to,” one eighty-two-year-old North Buffalo resident told the Buffalo News.
Brown won with 64 percent of the vote to his GOP opponent’s 27 percent, becoming the first black mayor of Buffalo — symbolically, days after Rosa Parks was buried.
Even if you beat them, join them
By the end of his first term, Brown had established a lot of what his critics would assail about his mayoralty.
At first, those who feared he would be an older, pre-Clinton style of Democrat, beholden to unions and focused on the city’s working class, seemed to be proven right. Brown lifted the municipal wage freeze that had frustrated city workers for three years and his initial budget proposal called for a 9 percent increase in spending, putting forward a plan to raise the city’s contribution to the school district for the first time in three years. His campaign coffers at first swelled with donations from city employees and their spouses, and he would consistently propose hiring more police and firefighters.
But things weren’t quite as they seemed. Brown tried to get the Buffalo Common Council to pass an exemption to Buffalo’s living wage law, letting Rural/Metro Medical Services, a contractor the city paid $8 million to provide ambulance services, get off with paying their workers substandard wages. He offered firefighters a contract that raised their wages for the first time in five years while cutting their health insurance, vacation, and overtime benefits, which they rejected. He was hit with a lawsuit by dozens of city workers underpaid by being designated seasonal laborers.
Years later, workers fighting for a $15 minimum wage would complain about being ignored by City Hall until, of all people, the corporate-backed Andrew Cuomo’s embrace of the demand forced Brown’s hand. In 2012, Brown backed Cuomo’s pension cut plan, which raised the retirement age for public school teachers while cutting benefits for workers hired in the future, including police officers.
Meanwhile, the fair housing law Brown signed in 2006, Buffalo’s first, carved out a host of exemptions alongside its genuinely good provisions. The same year, he signed another bill into law, this one making it harder for social service agencies like homeless shelters and soup kitchens to operate in neighborhoods — in the second-poorest big city in the country no less.
When he finally got around to tackling Buffalo’s endemic poverty two years in, he appointed a deputy mayor whose past experience was in management at a construction firm, HSBC, and General Motors (and who swiftly donated $700 to Brown in the months after). It took fifteen months for her to produce her highly anticipated anti-poverty plan, a profoundly disappointing report that took eighty pages to simply recommend a task force.
In reality, there were many obvious problems with Brown’s anti-poverty efforts. A scathing 2009 housing and urban development (HUD) audit found that only about half of the $22 million a year of federal anti-poverty aid was actually spent on projects directly benefiting the city’s low- and medium-income people, with too much spent on dubious up-market residential development and bureaucrats.
As in one example, a month later it came out Brown’s administration had used $30,000 of this aid to buy Blackberries for fifteen officials, far more than governments in bigger and wealthier cities. The negative press didn’t change much: three years later, HUD had designated Buffalo an “at-risk” recipient of federal funds for the first time, conditioning future aid to prevent it from being misspent. In 2014, the city comptroller found Buffalo was the slowest out of sixty-eight cities at putting out the anti-poverty money, to the point that it had a backlog of unspent funds worth $31 million.
Instead of revitalizing the city by investing in people, and competently managing the city’s funds to do so, Brown instead pursued a strategy of financial giveaways to businesses and developers, a municipal version of the “supply-side” economics that had been tried and failed at the national level. In his second budget, Brown called for a 4.7 percent tax cut for homeowners, and a massive 9.2 percent tax cut for businesses.
He would continue to further slash both in the years ahead, always favoring bigger cuts for businesses, with commercial property taxes in the city having dropped 28 percent by 2017. The declining revenue left the city more dependent on federal and state aid to plug constant budget shortfalls, and led to painful spending cuts. By 2020, Brown was denying city workers a 2 percent raise.
The cuts to Buffalo’s property tax rate could be justified by shifting the tax burden to those who could pay more. But instead, Brown stealthily raised taxes on the working class through hikes on user fees, increasingly aggressive parking and traffic fines, and other aggressive claw-back measures, like late fees on overdue bills — for some, anyway. After six years, Brown’s administration had simply left $22 million of housing fines uncollected for nearly fifteen hundred property owners who had violated building and health codes, further starving the city of funds while undermining the work of city inspectors.
After winning praise from developers in his first year, Brown followed this up with a ten-year tax break for around sixty owners of expensive waterfront condos, saving them an average of $100,000 in taxes and losing around $6 million worth of revenue for the city.
A 2008 analysis by the Buffalo News’ James Heaney found that the figure of $4 billion worth of construction projects Brown touted, the only measure of the city’s economic well-being that seemed to matter to the mayor, not only referred to projects that had no guarantee of being built, but two-thirds of which was tax-exempt, and much of which had been funded by taxpayers through grants and tax abatements and waivers.
It had also been partly funded by revenue from a Niagara Falls casino Brown had touted and worked to get up and running while he had been state senator, before turning against it. It had become clear shortly before he started running that its social costs would be felt mostly by Buffalo residents with few of the economic benefits he’d promised. In the end, Brown ended up giving the project tepid support, despite opposition to the project from local communities and small businesses, and the fact that the city was only getting a tiny cut of its profits. (The casino ultimately stopped sharing its profits with the city in 2017, which didn’t stop Brown from padding his budgets with its phantom contributions anyway).
This was par for the course for Brown, who celebrated any business and development moving in to the city, regardless of their impact or level of support from locals. He cheered when a Buffalo debt collection agency planned to expand in the region, just as he backed the construction of a waterfront ethanol plant that local residents opposed, and just as he would join the NY Needs Uber coalition to bring the abusive, low-paying rideshare company to the state — despite its potential to kill jobs in Buffalo, which he steadfastly denied. One such case that turned into a high-profile defeat for Brown was the notorious attempt to get big box retailer Bass Pro Shop to open up a store on the city’s waterfront, killed thanks to citizen outrage and opposition.
Brown’s favorability to business didn’t necessarily produce jobs, nor was it consistent. By the close of 2009, the News found that under Brown, lending from the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation (BERC) — the city’s chief economic development agency — had nearly halved, in terms of both the amount of loans and the number of businesses it was lending to. What money it did give out went to retail businesses, large fractions of which were delinquent in repaying, and creating at most 112 jobs over four years.
What’s more, it turned out that 71 percent of the BERC grants in Brown’s first term, or around $1.3 million, went to businesses on Jefferson Avenue in Brown’s old district, largely barbershops and beauty salons. The grants had, in fact, succeeded in revitalizing the community, a demonstration of the power of the economic investment in the city’s poorest areas that dribbled out from Brown’s administration. Too bad they so narrowly focused only on his former constituents.
After only two years, one Buffalo resident summed up the feelings that many came to have about Buffalo’s mayor: “Overall, he’s a giant disappointment. I expected more.”
A cloud of corruption
Brown’s mismanagement and bias toward the city’s moneyed interests was paired with a spate of scandals that suggested the rise of Brown and Grassroots had simply replaced one corrupt machine with another — and which have continued to haunt Brown right up to this election.
First, there was the One Sunset scandal in 2009, when Heaney and other News reporters uncovered that BERC had diverted funds meant for the Ellicott District to approve a $160,000 loan for Leonard Stokes, a local basketball player, to start a restaurant in the tony Delaware District, a loan he later defaulted on.
Not only had he been rejected once already by a BERC committee, owing to his lack of experience and a poor business plan — and not only had federal officials expressed concerns about the loan — but it turned out a top BERC official who helped approve it was deeply involved in both planning and running the restaurant, all while dealing with irate vendors demanding their money. Instead of being disciplined, the official was then given more responsibilities at the agency as the controversy roiled.
The controversy never stuck to Brown, who claimed, despite being the chair of BERC, to know nothing about the issue — believable, given his documented track record of barely attending its meetings. He ordered an investigation by a different agency that he also chaired, which concluded the city had done nothing wrong, even as the FBI got involved.
But Brown’s claims to simple incompetence were undercut when it turned out he’d not only told BERC officials to “see if you can be helpful” to Stokes, but that years earlier, after being arrested for using a stolen handicapped parking permit, Stokes had told police he knew the mayor and had his phone number — and that Brown soon interceded and got him let off with a parking summons.
Then, in 2011, Cleveland developer NRP Group filed a suit accusing Brown and a council member of scuttling a $12 million plan to build fifty rent-to-own houses in the city, after the developer hired a different local minority-run firm to work with. “I told you what you had to do, and you hired the wrong company,” a lawyer charged in an affidavit that he was told by Brown, who had allegedly wanted to reward political ally Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse, an East Side minister. For all Brown’s claims that he had simply decided the project wasn’t a good idea, while under oath, he claimed not to remember any of the conversation, and a panel of federal judges later said there was “substantial evidence” of the accusers claims, even as they threw the case out.
Even more serious was the Kensington Heights scandal, which saw city and state inspectors and two companies federally indicted for recklessly dumping asbestos through holes cut in the floor of six buildings set to be demolished and turned into a retirement community — and next to a park where kids trained for football.
Brown’s mismanagement was again at the root: he headed the board of directors of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority (BMHA), the blighted buildings had sat for decades in the district he’d represented and the developer at fault was Hormoz Mansouri, who was linked to Steve Pigeon and was a major donor to Brown. The mayor again denied he was involved in the project, despite appearing with Mansouri in 2009 for a public demolition at the site.
Worse, even though Mansouri went on the record that he’d informed the BMHA immediately about the contractors responsible for the illegal dumping, they were hired by the agency to work on another project. This time, a faulty air machine blew asbestos into the rooms it was meant to be cleaning. It was the byproduct of what seemed to be the city’s shady demolition contracting practices: a 2012 News investigation found that costs for the administration’s demolition program had gone up 169 percent over the course of Brown’s six years, and two-thirds were carried out by just four companies — two of which were Brown donors.
It’s hard to overstate the scale of ever-present impropriety that seems to shadow Brown, a mayor somehow perpetually clueless about what seems like pervasive corruption in his administration. There was economic development official Timothy Wanamaker, who used federal money to travel and party, once after he flew out to Las Vegas with Brown and Casey but didn’t return with them. Or there’s Adam Perry, Brown’s attorney friend who one BMHA commissioner accused of using his connections to Brown and Grassroots to funnel work to his law firm Hodgson Russ, which made oodles of money representing the city.
It’s part of a pay-to-play mentality that seems to have become routine under Brown. Last year, an FBI investigation found waste disposal companies contracting with the city were pressured to donate to the mayor. Time and again, Brown’s appointees happen to be past and future donors. For years, the city’s fire department was run by three Brown donors who lacked the uniform rank to command a firehouse, let alone lead in case of a fire; in 2016, the city’s firefighters voted 85 percent in favor of no confidence in one of these men, the commissioner.
“If you don’t [contribute], you’re not going to get work in the city,” one anonymous donor explained in 2009. “[Brown] looks to see who gives him money. You have to [contribute], because the cost of not doing it is too high.”
In 2012, the vice president of the Buffalo firefighters union told city lawmakers its members were told they’d be passed over for promotions if they didn’t donate to the mayor’s campaign. Seasonal sanitation worker Bill George sued the city, charging that he was passed over repeatedly for a permanent position for refusing to give money. Former city water board member Warren Galloway charged he was removed by Casey after he questioned the Brown’s appointment of a chairman with a conflict of interest.
The city’s former police commissioner Dan Derenda was similarly plucked by Brown from the middle of the police ranks, who didn’t even look for candidates outside of the city. He, too, was a generous giver, having donated $2,700 to Brown in the years and months before getting the position, and $5,100 in the years that followed. Such cronyism helped fuel the serious policing issues in the city.
These scandals have continued to hound Brown right up to today; the mayor has been fighting for his political life as the FBI continues its years of investigations of people and entities associated with him, flipping his former deputy into an informant, and raiding one of his offices. But for most of his mayoralty, the scandals failed to dent him. Brown had quickly consolidated his power and racked up donations after becoming mayor, and in 2009, won the primary with 63 percent of the vote. In 2013, he cruised to a third term with 68 percent of the vote in the primary, and convincingly won a fourth in 2017 with 51 percent.
A city suffers
What makes Brown’s survival so remarkable is that the mushrooming cloud of corruption around him has been paired with large-scale failure to improve the lives of Buffalo’s residents.
Poverty remains endemic, unsurprising given the Brown administration’s record on fighting it. From the time he took office in 2006 to the last known figure in 2019, poverty fell just 1.1 point to 28.8 percent, and Buffalo went from the nation’s second-poorest city to its third-poorest. Tragically, this has been especially bad for the people of the city’s mostly black East Side, normally the mayor’s base: after thirty years, black unemployment is still in double digits, average household income is only $3,000 more than it was in real terms, and 35 percent of African Americans have incomes below the poverty line, three points less than in 1990. “Black Buffalonians have not made progress over the past thirty-one years,” concluded a University of Buffalo Center for Urban Studies follow-up report to a landmark 1990 study.
The city’s brutal housing market has been central to this. The cost of renting in the city has risen by 38.9 percent since 2010, it had the country’s third-fastest growing rent by 2017, and last year it recorded an eviction rate of 14.6 percent, far higher than the 7 – 9 percent recorded in similar cities like Philadelphia and Milwaukee — all while its child poverty rate stood at a staggering 47.2 percent, the fourth-worst among the country’s major cities.
All of this is a direct outgrowth of Brown’s developer- and business-centered policies. A separate Center for Urban Studies report in 2019 concluded the city’s aggressive pursuit of tax foreclosure — seizing and auctioning off properties over back taxes and fees, usually by selling to investors and well-off buyers — moved gradually eastward, where it reduced homeownership rates and displaced low-income residents. At the same time, the uneven commercial developments stimulated by Brown through taxpayer giveaways drove up prices, pushing out longtime residents with no affordable housing alternative to turn to.
Meanwhile, the large-scale demolition program that proved so lucrative to a handful of the mayor’s campaign contributors also depleted the available housing stock. Of the $179 million the city invested in the East Side from 2006 to 2016, the largest share (33 percent) went to demolition, and this part of the city now has nearly all of Buffalo’s more than sixteen thousand vacant lots. Despite owning close to ten thousand of these, the city has left them undeveloped, sitting on them and waiting to sell for a tidy profit instead of building housing.
The 2021 report also concluded what some economists and community groups had been saying ever since Brown was first elected: that revitalizing neighborhoods through commercial developments was the backward way to go about things. Without the human investment that’s been consistently slow-walked or misdirected by his administration, Brown’s business enticements only drove growth in areas that were already well-off. No wonder that on the eve of winning his fourth term, East Side residents grumbled that their neighborhoods were being left behind.
At the same time that he’s fueled these problems, Brown’s done little to cushion residents from them. His administration seems to have been deliberately negligent in enforcing the city’s fair housing law, sitting on cases until the statute of limitations expired, taking no action against landlords who violate it, and allowing landlords to flagrantly (and illegally) discriminate against poor tenants getting federal help.
A 2013 report found that Brown had left the fair housing officer position created by the law chronically understaffed and even empty. Brown’s plan to use federal relief money to give sixteen hundred poor residents $500 a month for two years might’ve helped, had he not scrapped it at the last minute.
It’s been a similar case with other festering crises. As Buffalo’s Investigative Post has exhaustively detailed, despite Buffalo’s status as the next, far bigger Flint — “ground zero in the entire country for lead poisoning,” in the words of one local activist — Brown dragged his feet on doing anything about the problem, sitting on his hands for ten months, even ignoring county officials’ outreach to deal with it, as the number of kids found with lead in their blood jumped by 14 percent.
When he was forced to finally release a plan, it left out the mandatory inspection program that had worked in nearby Rochester. Once it passed, as with the city’s fair housing law, Brown’s administration simply didn’t bother enforcing it: a year later, only ninety-three of the estimated eighty-five thousand Buffalo homes at risk for lead exposure had been inspected, just one of a number of sorry measures of non-progress on the issue.
All the while, it’s fair to say that Brown has run the city into the fiscal ground thanks to years of reckless tax cuts, business giveaways, and fiscal mismanagement. Brown has consistently balanced his budgets on the backs of working Buffalonians, as well as the city’s ability to deal with future crises, keeping property taxes low by gouging residents with city fees and fines. The city’s bond rating has now been downgraded two years in a row.
Most recklessly, Brown plugged up the constant shortfalls by simply draining $109 million of the city’s reserve funds, with more than half of that total used in 2017 and 2018. By 2019, it was tapped out, with only $38 million of emergency “rainy day” money left, after which the city would need to start slashing services and laying off workers.
The dangers of this approach became very real when the pandemic hit in 2020, further shredding the city’s finances, and forcing it to borrow $25 million. Though Buffalo’s accounts may well be rescued by the infusion of federal aid from Biden’s pandemic relief bill, there is still a good chance that if Brown loses the mayoral race, he’ll be handing his successor a fiscal hospital pass.
Moment of truth
It’s a testament to Brown’s political skill that, despite one of the longest and deepest records of failure and corruption you’re likely to see in the country’s cities, he could well beat India Walton and survive for another term.
Brown has successfully turned the conversation away from his own many scandals and misdeeds in elected office to the flaws of his opponent’s private life: a 2014 arrest, an accusation of welfare fraud, a failure to pay taxes in 2004, and a vulgar Facebook post. It’s grimly symbolic that to after fifteen years of grinding the city’s poor and black residents, Brown has spent the past months smearing and attacking one in order to win reelection — not just a woman who happens to be black, but, but one who resisted his program by creating a community land trust for affordable housing.
It’s also a testament to the kind of city Brown has built over his mayoral career. Though things are in some ways worse than ever for the majority of the city’s low-wage working class — as indicated by the low voter turnout that’s characterized every race since Brown’s first reelection — Brown’s four terms have been very good for the city’s power brokers and business elite, with income inequality worse in Buffalo than the United States as a whole.
It’s these quarters that are now fighting tooth and nail to save Brown’s career and, ultimately, to preserve their wealth and power in the crumbling status quo. The judge who controversially allowed Brown to run as a write-in candidate is the brother of a major developer and Brown donor. His campaign is being backed and directly aided by New York state’s Republican and Conservative parties. And a familiar coalition of developers, city contractors, and corporations has funneled $851,000 to Brown’s campaign in just four months to drag him across the finish line.
Will it work? The rule in US politics is that money trumps everything, and the betting markets seem to agree. One thing is for sure: if voters pull the lever for the incumbent on Tuesday, they won’t be getting the positive change and end to cronyism that a young, idealistic Brown promised in his first run. Those days are long gone.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.