The Public Record: The Betty Jean Effect

by / Apr. 26, 2017 3pm EST

When Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant made official her candidacy for mayor of Buffalo on Sunday, she insisted, as all long-shot candidates must, that she was running to win. And so let us do Grant the honor of taking her at her word.

And then let’s move right along to an analysis of her potential as a spoiler in the Democratic primary pitting Mark Schroeder, Buffalo’s comptroller, against incumbent Byron Brown. The common wisdom is Grant’s candidacy pulls votes from the Eat Side, African-American base she shares with Brown, opening up a lane for Schroeder. Is that possible?

Grant represents the 2nd District in the Erie County Legislature, which comprises all of the University District (which Grant represented on the city’s Common Council before becoming a county legislator), a significant swath of the Masten District (Brown’s home base, where voter turnout has swamped Brown’s opponents in his previous three runs for mayor), most of the Delaware, Niagara, and North districts (including the Elmwood Village), and a smidgen of both the Lovejoy and Ellicott districts.

Grant is popular in her district: In 2013, she faced a significant primary challenge from Joyce Nixon, who had the support of Brown’s Grassroots organization, as well as Western New York Progressive Caucus , the scandalous Steve Pigeon PAC whose activities led to last week’s indictments of Pigeon and two of his operatives. Grant beat Nixon 5,173 to 2,078 with 60 percent of her votes coming from the key University and Masten districts, where she outpolled Nixon by better than three-to-one.

In 2009, Brown was primaried by Mickey Kearns, then the South District councilman and now a state assemblyman. Like Schroeder, Kearns was an elected official with decent citywide name recognition and a solid base of support in the South District, which turns out lots of voters in Democratic primaries. It was a high-profile race in 2009, and the East Side turned out in big numbers to give Brown a win, 26,314 votes to Kearns’s 14,866.  

For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that total Democratic turnout will be about the same as it was in 2009, and let’s assume Schroeder brings to the table the same base, neither more nor less, as Kearns brought in 2009, and that the mayor’s political machine will nail down the same votes this fall as it did in 2009.

To win in that scenario, Schroeder needs a 6,000-vote swing. Maybe turnout will be higher this year, and Schroeder can pick up some votes across the districts that Kearns won in 2009. But to have a real shot, he must perform far better than Kearns did on the East Side, because a vote for Schroeder there is likely a vote lost from the mayor’s column—a double win.

In 2009, Masten and University alone contributed 9,500 of the mayor’s votes. The Ellicott District added another 5,000; Fillmore and Lovejoy combined for 5,300. So nearly 20,000, or 77 percent, of the mayor’s votes came from the East Side. To stand a chance, the Schroeder campaign must either win some of those voters, keep them at home, or divert their votes to another candidate.

Enter Betty Jean. Her 5,100 votes in the 2013 primary—if that’s all she got in a mayoral primary, and none of them voted for Brown, which is unlikely—are not enough to swing the election to Schroeder. But she’ll get many more votes than that. In the 2012 Democratic primary, she nearly unseated incumbent state Senator Tim Kennedy, an ally of the mayor. (She lost by just 156 votes.) In the City of Buffalo, she took 10,161 votes to Kennedy’s 6,024. Almost all of her votes came from the East Side. If she posts even half those numbers in the same districts, and then taps into the progressive communities of voters on the West Side, and polls decently among people of color in other districts, then the mayor could be in trouble.

Come down to it, Schroeder could be in trouble, too. Just shy of 42,000 people voted in the 2009 Democratic primary for mayor, and that was a high turnout. In a three-way race, 14,001 votes wins. It is conceivable that Grant takes 6,000 votes from Brown on the East Side alone, making Schroeder viable—if he doesn’t lose any of Kearns’s 2009 voters to Grant, which he will. And if the mayor or his allies try to counter Grant’s draw on his support by running a South Buffalo Irishman to draw on Schroeder’s, then 10,501 votes wins, and that’s easily within Grant’s reach—and the mayor’s, of course, and Schroeder’s. (But probably well out of reach for the putative sap from South Buffalo, and who would that be anyway? Who’d agree to play the mayor’s straw man?) It’d be anybody’s race, with advanatge always, in all scenarios, to the mayor, who has the advantages of incumbency, campaign money, a tight political machine, and a loyal base.

Who knows, maybe Grant is in it to win it.

But Schroeder is lucky to have Kearns campaigning for county clerk this summer and fall. The two come from different South Buffalo Democratic factions, so they’ll be working (just) slightly different voter lists, and whoever one candidate turns out to the polls will vote for the other candidate, too. So Schroeder may top Kearns’s 2009 numbers in South Buffalo; indeed, he’ll need to do so, if he is to beat Brown and Grant.