Here at The New Leaf Journal I have covered inspiring New York political comeback stories and classic New York political scandals. In the wake of the November 2, 2021 elections, I present two very different inspiring New York comeback stories. One involves an incumbent Mayor retaining his seat by way of a write-in campaign after losing it through a very lazy primary effort. The second involves a politician returning from more than a decade in the wilderness after a scandal that involved driving under the influence and a “second family.” The comebacks are different, but they are tied by both being comebacks. Behold, the stories of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and Staten Island Borough President-elect Vito Fossella.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s Inspiring Political Comeback Story
Byron Brown is the 62nd and current Mayor of Buffalo, New York. He has served in that office since 2006.
Like most relatively large cities in the United States, the Democratic Party is dominant in Buffalo. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Brown, the Chair of the New York State Democratic Party from May 23, 2016, to January 14, 2019, was a relative stranger to electoral challenge drama. Mr. Brown won the Democratic Primary for Mayor of Buffalo in 2005 with 59% of the vote. He went on to win the 2005 general election with 63.79% of the vote, ran unopposed in 2009, and then won the 2013 and 2017 general elections with 70.87% and 62.76%, respectively.
Sure, Mr. Brown has been named in several investigations while Mayor, but what could the most powerful Democrat in western New York have to come back from?
The answer, we will find, is trouble in his own Democrat house.
The 2021 Mayoral Primary in Buffalo
Mr. Brown sought a fifth term as Mayor of Buffalo in 2021. His aspirations to be Mayor for life ran into a roadblock. While I have never been to Buffalo and have no plans to go, it appears that Mr. Brown, a powerful Democratic party boss who has not been accused of being a crypto-Republican or anything of the sort, became the target of a well-known New York City Congresswoman, Ms. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and other left-wing activists. These activists championed the cause of Ms. India Walton. Ms. Walton is a self-described “democratic socialist” and member of the Democratic Socialists of America. She championed numerous causes such as declaring Buffalo a sanctuary city from Federal immigration enforcement, blocking the establishing of new charter schools, and significantly decreasing the funding of the Buffalo Police Department.
The late Senator John Glenn from Ohio once provided the following piece of political wisdom:
There are two ways to run for office—scared or unopposed
As we noted, Mr. Brown ran unopposed with some degree of success in 2009. In the 2021 Democratic primary, it appears he chose a third option, negligent complacency. By the time Mr. Brown ascertained that the third option would not be conducive to his quest to serve as Mayor of Buffalo for life, it was too late. Ms. Walton defeated Mr. Brown by seven percentage points and became the Democrat nominee for Mayor of Buffalo.
Writing In a Comeback
In 2018, Ms. Walton’s most prominent supporter, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, had stunningly defeated the Democratic party boss in Queens and fourth-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, Mr. Joe Crowley, in the primary. Mr. Crowley, like Mr. Brown, failed to heed the wisdom of John Glenn and only seemed to realize that he was in trouble after it was too late to turn the tide. He graciously conceded defeat to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and endorsed her in the election.
Surely Mr. Brown would congratulate Ms. Walton and endorse her.
Not quite. Instead he decided to run a rare write-in campaign. Mr. Brown may have been a bit complacent in the primary, but he was not going to let his job be taken away by activists from the Democratic Socialists of America in a low turnout primary.
Ms. Walton secured the endorsements of most of the powerful Democrats in New York, including Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. She notably did not secure the endorsement of Mr. Brown’s predecessor as the State party head, Mr. Jay Jacobs, who not only declined to make an endorsement, but also seemed to compare Ms. Walton’s surprising primary victory to that of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke making the gubernatorial general election runoff in Louisiana in 1991.
Alas for Ms. Walton, Mr. Brown was no longer asleep at the wheel, nor were the American citizens in Buffalo who appeared to be less enthusiastic about the prospect of a “democratic socialist” Mayor than the primary voters and much of the State party leadership.
The Comeback Victory
As of November 4, 2021, “Write-Ins” leads the Buffalo mayoral election over Ms. Walton with about 59% of the vote. While the write-in votes need to be sorted, Mr. Brown has almost definitely secured a record-setting fifth term as Mayor of Buffalo, which Ms. Walton acknowledged in a quasi-concession speech.
In an event that surely convinced Ms. Walton’s democratic socialist backers that they had chosen the wrong candidate. Mr. Brown received public congratulations from Mr. Nick Langworthy, chairman of the New York State Republican Party.
What We Can Learn
What to make of Mr. Brown’s inspiring comeback story?
Mr. Brown put himself in position for a political comeback when he failed to take the threat to him in the Democratic primary seriously. He not only did not “run scared,” he also did not have his finger on the pulse of local party activists, even after they received backing from vocal outside figures.
But for all the political negligence that Mr. Brown displayed in the primary, he showed the fight and resolve that one would expect from a local politician of his standing and caliber in holding his seat with a novel write-in campaign. Mr. Brown understood that the very things that made Mr. Walton appealing to national and local activists made her equally unappealing to independents, Republicans, and many Democrats who, like Mr. Brown, did not see a need to go all out in the primary.
On the strength of a broad coalition motivated enough to avoid a Walton mayoralty to write-in Mr. Brown’s name, he has secured his office for four more years. Little may change in Buffalo, but it should be an interesting four years after Mr. Brown held his seat in no small part thanks to Republicans and voters unaffiliated with either major party.
If Mr. Brown decides that 20 years is not enough, I have little doubt that he will treat any primary threats in 2025 with significantly more urgency than he treated the near-end to his political career in June 2021.
Staten Island Borough President-elect Vito Fossella’s Inspiring Comeback Story
While Mr. Brown has been serving as Mayor of Buffalo continuously since 2005, Mr. Vito Fossella had a bit of a hiatus from politics. Why did Mr. Fossella have a hiatus? What did he need to “come back” from? Let’s examine.
Vito Fossella’s Political Rise
Staten Island’s Vito Fossella’s started his electoral career young. In 1994, at age 29, Mr. Fossella won a special election to a New York City Council seat representing a Staten Island district. Three years later, he won a bit of an upgrade when he won a special election for a United States House of Representatives seat covering Staten Island and a sliver of Brooklyn.
Mr. Fossella won a regular election for his U.S. House seat in 1998, and re-election in 2000, 2002, 2004, and lastly 2006.
Being one of the few elected Republicans in New York City, he instantly became one of the most recognizable – perhaps only trailing former Mayor’s Rudy Giuliani and Michael R. Bloomberg (when he was pretending to be a Republican). Mr. Fossella was floated as a potential future Republican candidate for New York City mayor.
Mr. Fossella’s Political Fall
Mr. Fossella was young, and while his congressional seat was not a perennially safe Republican seat – evinced by the fact he was to be succeeded by a Democrat – it had and still has a distinct Republican lean. What could have caused him to disappear from the political map for more than a decade?
Perhaps something similar in kind to other New York City political scandals?
In 2008, Mr. Fossella, who was married and shared children with his wife, was arrested for driving while intoxicated in Virginia. That arrest set events in motion, events that revealed his relationship with a “second family”. Optimistic readers may choose to interpret that as a statement about his strong friendship with then-Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Ms. Lynne Cheney. Alas, things can never be that simple.
There were several issues with Mr. Fossella’s “second family” arrangement. Beyond the general adultery issues, reports indicated that Mr. Fossella’s first family (i.e., lawfully-wedded wife) was not aware of the existence of his “second family”, while his “second family” (i.e., mistress/girlfriend) discovered that Mr. Fossella was not, in fact, “separated” from his wife.
No one was happy was this state of affairs (pun intended).
After contemplating the situation, Mr. Fossella decided to not seek reelection to his U.S. House seat.
Mr. Fossella’s Comeback Receives a Hand
Mr. Fossella reportedly considered running for his old Congressional seat in 2014, but ultimately passed. He would remain in the political wilderness until March 2021, when he announced that he would be a candidate for Staten Island Borough President, a position that was open due to the incumbent, Mr. James Oddo, being term-limited.
Before the general election, Mr. Fossella would have to prevail in the Republican primary, in which he had to overcome a strong opponent in City Councilman Steven Matteo. Fortunately for Mr. Fossella, he found an ally in former President Donald Trump, who waded into very local politics to formally endorse Mr. Fossella on the eve of the primary. Thanks to New York City’s absurd ranked choice voting system, it took three rounds to determine that Mr. Fossella had defeated Mr. Matteo by less than two percentage points.
Mr. Fossella’s Triumph
In the mayoral election the same day, Democrat Eric Adams defeated Republican (for the election, at least) Curtis Sliwa by close to 40 points. Mr. Sliwa, in turn, won Staten Island by more than 40 points.
I offer that fact to illustrate that Mr. Fossella was in a favorable position as the Republican standard-bearer in Staten Island. But would his past ruin his coronation? Would he pull a reverse-Mayor Brown, winning the primary only to lose the general election?
Mr. Fossella defeated his rival, Mr. Mark Murphy, by nearly 30 points, completing his long-deferred political comeback in electoral triumph.
What We Can Learn
Mr. Fossella did not seek a return to office for more than a decade after his “second family”scandal. When he did opt to make his return, he chose his race well. To be sure, the narrowness of his primary victory suggests that he likely had needed Mr. Trump’s endorsement to prevail – but what is a comeback without a little help?
After his victory, Mr. Fossella stated that he is “humbled” that the people of Staten Island gave him a second chance to serve in elected office. Reports suggest that Mr. Fossella had also put his own house and affairs in order to some extent – something that I will venture is far more important than his political ambitions. He remains married to his wife after having “reconciled,” according to the New York Post.
Borough President is not a demanding job. But in the case of Staten Island, a lone Republican enclave in a large City with very few of them, the Borough President is the official best-positioned to advocate for the interests of its residents. Mr. Fossella does not lack for experience in government or local affairs. I wish him luck in his second stint in office and hope he does his job effectively while avoiding the trouble and unpleasantness that characterized the end of the first act of his political life.
Coming Back With Parting Thoughts
The comebacks of Mr. Brown and Mr. Fossella were quite different. Mr. Brown came back from a political failure caused by being lackadaisical. Mr. Fossella came back from a political scandal resulting from recklessness and personal malfeasance. But both Mr. Brown and Mr. Fossella overcame self-inflicted challenges, albeit very different ones, and both benefited from the timely assistance of external parties.
Many people who did not vote in the Democratic primary in Buffalo, including Republicans and independents, turned up at the polls in the general election to give Mr. Brown a fifth term in office. After Republican primaries gave Mr. Fossella the narrowest of primary victories, the voters of Staten Island overwhelmingly endorsed him as their next Borough President. In both cases, an absolute majority of voters concluded that Mr. Brown and Mr. Fossella were the best of the available candidates to represent their interests.
I hope that both comeback politicians validate the trust put in them by voters, and I look forward to covering different sorts of political comeback stories in the future.