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Walton challenges incumbent Brown on last-minute wealthy donors

Democratic primary challenger India Walton spoke out against Brown's donation record outside the headquarters of Delaware North. The company is owned by the Jacobs family, who are among the recent high-dollar donors to Brown's campaign
Nick Lippa
Democratic primary challenger India Walton spoke out against Brown's donation record outside the headquarters of Delaware North. The company is owned by the Jacobs family, who are among the recent high-dollar donors to Brown's campaign

One of the biggest races to follow in Tuesday's primary is Buffalo’s mayoral campaign. Incumbent Byron Brown, who chose not to debate his challengers as he seeks a fifth term, had run a fairly quiet campaign until this last week. In the final days leading up to in-person voting at the polls on Election Day, wealthy donors contributed nearly $120,000 to Brown’s campaign. Challenger India Walton has generated a lot of attention herself over the past month, including a grassroots campaign that raised $50,000 in June.

Walton said she learned quite a bit from one of Brown’s previous challengers, Betty Jean Grant.

“The barriers that we faced running in a local election and not having the support of our entrenched Democratic Party makes that challenge very difficult," Walton said. "This has been a different type of campaign, the look and feel, the statewide and national attention that we've garnered. I think it's just exciting. And I think it's going to drive people to the polls who traditionally do not vote in primary elections, because we have given people someone to vote for.”

Veteran political analyst Ken Kruly, who blogs for Politics and Other Stuff, said Walton has run a terrific campaign, but thinks it may not be enough to win this time around.

“The thing is, is that there isn't an issue overriding the city election this year," Kruly said. "Something that's going to have people march to the polls to say we've had enough of Byron Brown. There's just nothing there. History shows in Buffalo that unless you have that, then the incumbent is going to be reelected." The last time an incumbent mayor was defeated was in 1961. Kruly said the money is coming in from donors that believe Brown has the race secured.

“The mayor had more than enough money in his campaign two weeks ago to fund whatever was left of the campaign in terms of television and stuff, because he hasn't done an awful lot of those things," Kruly said. "So this is just people, frankly, just seeing the train pulling out of the station. And suddenly they want to get on board, I guess. And that's the reason for those sorts of contributions. Also, contributions at the end don't get the kind of attention that contributions do when they're made in January or April or May. And so people may be hoping that they can fly under the radar. But that's not working.”

Walton has raised over $150,000 since the beginning of the year and has gained steam the past few months with endorsements from singer/songwriter Ani Difranco, the actor and political activist Cynthia Nixon, and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Speaking at a campaign event Monday, she said the primary marks her final shot at the mayor's seat in this election season.

"Unfortunately, tomorrow is our chance. We always knew this election was going to be decided in the primary. This is a city that is 65% Democrat," Walton said. "There's not a general election challenge. So (Tuesday) is it. I will not be on the ballot in November. (But) if I don't win tomorrow, I am not going anywhere."

Brown continues to receive support from elected government officials within the Democratic party including Brian Higgins and Tim Kennedy. Walton said if the primary does not go in her favor, she plans to support down-ballot candidates into November.

The Brown for Buffalo campaign shared this statement with WBFO:

"The Brown for Buffalo campaign is proud to have the support of hundreds of residents and businesses in the City of Buffalo. His record of success has earned him the support of Buffalo's anchor institutions and leading employers.

The lengthy list of last-minute donors caught the attention of Investigative Post’s Geoff Kelly. To learn more about it, WBFO’s Nick Lippa spoke with Kelly on Monday, along with a spokesperson from New York State’s Board of Elections.

Nick Lippa: I caught up with Investigative Post’s Geoff Kelly Monday morning outside the headquarters of Delaware North. The company is owned by the Jacobs family, who are among the recent high-dollar donors to Brown’s campaign. It’s also where Democratic primary challenger India Walton spoke out against Brown’s donation record.

NL: You took a look at incumbent Byron Brown and challenger India Walton’s campaign contributions. You just heard Walton discussing her displeasure of Brown taking money from billionaires. What did you find?

GK: What we saw was that in about a week's time, the mayor, in big donations of $1,000 or more, that's what goes into 24 hour notices, raised about $120,000. Walton, by comparison, had two donations to qualify for 24 hour notices totaling about $5, 500. Compare this to 2017. In a similar period, those big money donations to Brown amounted to just a little over $26,000. And in that time period total, including smaller donations, he raised about $43,000. So obviously, this is more, a lot more in a short period of time. And maybe this was the strategy all along to just pump the gas in the last week. Or maybe, maybe as Walton just said in this press conference, the Brown campaign has found themselves in a campaign that's a little tighter than they thought.

NL: What does that money equate to for a campaign?

GK: Well, the biggest expense is television ads. And the mayor has been flooding the airwaves with TV ads in the last few days. That's expensive in 2017. In this time period, he spent over $300,000, and more than half of that was for TV time. Probably, when when we're able to see those expense reports, we'll see something similar now. But there are other things too. There's mailing, There's paying for canvassing. You can afford, if you're a rich candidate, you can afford to pay people to go door to door for you and drop off pamphlets or knock on doors to call and say, 'Hey, are you gonna come out and vote tomorrow? Please get to the polls and vote for our candidate.' You can afford to pay for that. So it's important for any candidate, whether they're well known or not, to get your name out there and to get your voters out the door into the polls, some of that costs money.

NL: Is there any concerns in regards to either candidate exceeding the limit at this point? Or are there any laws that specifically state that?

GK: Well, in these 24 hour notices, there were a couple of donations that raised red flags. One was from Bob Rich of Rich Products for $10,000. On the face of that, that seems to exceed the individual limit for a campaign donation. If you're in a contested primary, you get to fundraise twice, once for the primary, once for the general. The limit for an individual donation in the primary is about $5,300 for a mayoral primary, so $10,000 on the face of it seems to exceed that. Now, very often, when this happens, a campaign and the donor will say, 'Well, I meant that to be split between the primary and the general. I'm, in effect, donating twice.'

So are donations like these a red flag? To help answer that question, I spoke to the Director of Public Information at the New York State Board of Elections, John Conklin. He explains it is legal as long as the money is divided between separate elections.

JC: A candidate can get a separate limit for every primary that they're participating in. So I'm not familiar with what the the numbers are in Buffalo, what the individual limits are there, because it's a local office. But if there's a Democratic primary, there'll be one limit for that. If there's a Working Families primary, there'll be a separate limit for that, and the candidates entitled to take both limits. And then there'll be a general election limit too, and a candidate can take that, subject to the fact that if they don't make it to the general election, they might have to refund any over contributions they received beyond what the primary limit would be.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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