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Common Council needs to set its alarm clock

Common council

Mayor Byron Brown has come in for his share of criticism in this blog -- how's that for an understatement? -- and I'd like to change the object of my "affections" to the Common Council in light of Brian Meyer's story on the pending reconfirmation of Tanya Perrin-Johnson as commissioner of community services.

I don't necessarily have a problem with the Council approving Perrin-Johnson -- I don't know if she is doing a good job or not. I've heard it both ways.

But I take issue with Council members not asking her a single question about the e-mails she sent to her staff last summer all but ordering them to volunteer for the mayor's re-election campaign last summer.

Sorry, but the woman is under federal investigation. If her conduct was sufficient to prompt the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to send two attorneys to Buffalo a few months back to ask her questions -- along with Deputy Mayor Steve Casey, among others -- it ought to prompt a few questions from the Council.

Council Majority Leader Richard Fontana is among a reported six members who are prepared to reconfirm Perrin-Johnson.

"She's definitely qualified to do the job," said Fontana. "And as for the investigation, she's innocent until proven guilty."

This is the same guy who just weeks ago was leading the charge for the Council to appoint Don Allen to succeed Brian Davis in the Ellicott District. Then came word that Allen's financial history includes 11 liens for failure to pay income taxes and personal bills and a personal bankruptcy last year.


A week later, the Council came to is senses and appointed Curtis Haynes Jr.

Hey, Rich, next time we need someone's job qualifications vetted, don't call us, we'll call you.

Not to pick on Fontana. I mean, the Council as a whole isn't exactly an inspiring crew.

Yeah, the majority snipes at the mayor a fair bit, and the minority snipes at the majority, but as an institution, its bark is a lot worse than its bite. And much of the barking has more to do with narrow political considerations than broad public policy.

A while back, I took a look at its track record for reviewing and revising operating and block grant budgets submitted by the mayor and found the Council is largely a rubber stamp.

More recently, the Council was mostly mum in the face of the Brown administration jerking around community-based organizations dealing with the city's worsening poverty that are reliant on city funding.

Think of it -- when was the last time someone on the Council authored legislation involving major public policy?

It might have been Brian Higgins. 

Question: Where is the Council on the great issues of the day that confront the city -- education, crime, poverty, economic development?

Answer: Missing in action.

Just like the mayor.

Individually, there are some decent members, and Haynes in particular has potential. But as a group, they're lackluster. In this, a town crying for real leadership.

You don't find it on the second floor of City Hall - or the 13th.

As for the headline to this post -- Common Council needs to set its alarm clock -- if you don't get it, let me spell it out:

The Council needs to wake up.


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Collins ends his flirtation with governor's race

Chris Collins faced facts Tuesday and withdrew from his exploratory campaign for governor.

He cited the difficulty in raising money, which is true enough, and said his antiChrist and lap dance comments had nothing to do with his decision, which I find hard to swallow. The reality is that those gaffes cost him the support of potential backers and killed Collins' candidacy before he left the starter's block.

With the race over before it began, Collins will instead focus on the job he was elected to do just two years ago.

Reports Bob McCarthy:

Collins said he still faces a "big job" in Erie County and anticipates significant financial problems in the years ahead. Although he had been exploring a run for governor, he said, he now believes he needs to serve the remainder of his term and run for re-election in 2011.

To that end, he said he would keep in his campaign account the $600,000 in personal funds he recently loaned it, pointing to the re-election effort he plans to launch next year.

"The county has some speed bumps ahead, and I think I am the right one to guide the process ahead," he said. "I have no regrets."

Just a hunch, but I think Collins has at least two regrets - his antiChrist and lap dance comments.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Benjamin of the New York Daily News offers this take on Collins' decision to not run.

Elsewhere on the campaign trail, Gov. David Paterson has landed the best zinger so far, calling out Andrew Cuomo with a quip about the coy attorney general being enrolled in a "candidate protection plan."

"I don't think anyone should be floating that they're going to be a candidate and then go into the candidate protection program where you can't ask them any questions," the governor said.

"This, to me, is not commensurate with anyone that thinks they're going to bring reform and transparency and openness to government in Albany," he said.

As Howard Cosell used to say, the guv is "telling it like it is."

Oh, what I wouldn't do for a video clip of Humble Howard repeating that line. Help me here, people.

Update: Robert Harding, online producer with the Auburn Citizen, came through with this clip. Howard delivers the line about 4:15 in. Thanks.



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A rogue's gallery of politicians

Odds & ends for a chilly Tuesday (how soon until pitchers and catchers report?) ...

I read where the tab for Chris Collins and Tim Howard's insistence that they don't have to correct the documented mistreatment of prisoners at the county jail and holding center has hit $140,000 in outside attorney fees - and the matter hasn't even come to trial yet. At $450 an hour, things are going to get worse before they get better. Do you think his handling of the situation is one of the things Collins mentions when he is out on the stump campaigning for governor?

Mayor Byron Brown went to Albany Monday to complain about Gov. David Paterson's proposed budget, which, among other things, would trim state aid to cities by up to 5 percent. The mayor told a panel of state Senators and Assembly members that, far from a cut, Albany should increase aid to Buffalo. Hmmmm. The state is facing a multi-billion-dollar deficit, while the city has enough money in the bank that Brown wants to share the wealth by cutting property taxes. So, in effect, the gut with a fat wallet wants a raise from the guy holding a tin cup. Unbelievable. The city has been on the dole so long that it now suffers from a distorted sense of entitlement.

Senate wannabe Harold Ford made the rounds in Buffalo on Sunday -- if you can call a handful of wham-bam appearances making the rounds. You've probably read The News' account of the visit. Here's what the New York Times reported. And here's what Times columnist Paul Krugman has to say about Ford - it's not flattering.

Should girlfriend-beating Hiram Monserrate get the hook from the state Senate? Yeah. Does the party that promoted his coup partner Pedro Espada deserve the grief that comes with keeping him around? Oh yeah.

On the day Barack Obama took office I wrote that while I was hoping for the best, I was prepared to be disappointed. Well, folks, I'm disappointed. But also mindful that whatever grade I might give Obama for his first year it office, it is way better than the "Z-minus" his predecessor earned for eight years running.

I have a one-word response for those ready to toss Obama overboard for a return of the Republicans: Dubya.

If you've already forgotten the nightmare, take this stroll down memory lane.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.


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Too many city streets are not safe

Police at crime scene

I worked my occasional shift Sunday covering the police beat and was reminded anew of how violent the city can be. The happenings of Saturday night and Sunday morning were scarier than what I've seen in some time, and it wasn't confined to the neighborhoods where the mayhem tends to be concentrated.

No, East Side, North Side, it was all around the town. This follows the fatal shooting little more than a week ago at Merge Restaurant, pictured above.

Three episodes this past weekend involved large groups of young men congregating on street corners.

In one instance, someone in a gang of 10 in Ken-Bailey took at shot at a cop who had pulled one of the crew aside for questioning.

In another instance, someone in another group of 10 hanging in Black Rock took at shot at a woman driving down a side street off Hertel Avenue.

In a third episode, a crew of 15 to 17 men went to a house in Northeast Buffalo and ordered someone off their block -- and cut his face to drive home the point.

Elsewhere, someone walking down Niagara Street got shot in the ankle and two stores along Elmwood Avenue were the targets of robbers claiming to have guns.

One bad Saturday night does not make a trend. But the police reports I read confirm what FBI statistics showed the last time they were released, that violent crime is up in the city.

It's little wonder. Too many thugs hanging around street corners, too many guns within easy reach.

Meanwhile, the search to replace H. McCarthy Gipson as police commissioner has yet to begin. Judging by what I read in police reports over the weekend, the search can't start soon enough.


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Curtis Haynes is not your average Council member

I sat down Wednesday with Curtis Haynes Jr. for an 80-minute interview that will be the basis of a profile I'll write sometime in the next week for the print edition. In the meantime, I wanted to share some impressions of the new Ellicott District representative while the interview is fresh in my mind.

My take on Haynes, who I had never met before, in brief: smart, progressive, serious-minded.

I will admit to being impressed, which, as anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, doesn't happen all that often. Or maybe I was just happy to be in Room 1408 of City Hall for the first time since Jim Pitts occupied the real estate. For some reason, Brian Davis never invited me into the inner sanctum.

Haynes might be the most educated Council member we've had, at least in recent times, having earned a doctorate. More importantly, that education, and a lot of practical experience since he graduated, is in economics. Urban economics, to be precise. That might come in handy in the nation's third-poorest city. 

At a time when some Council members have trouble paying their taxes, along comes a new guy who teaches courses at Buffalo State College that include microeconomics, industrial organization and technical analysis of financial markets.

That makes him smarter than the average bear. To say nothing of the average Council member.

Here are some other crib notes from the interview:

Haynes is well traveled. His father served in the Air Force and the family lived everywhere from California and New Jersey to England and Germany. When he took a sabbatical from Buffalo State, he bought an Amtrak pass and traveled to 26 cities across the United States.

He earned his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, whose school of economics at the time was considered perhaps the only progressive program of its type in the nation. He's gone on to focus on urban economics, and regards his appointment to the Council as an opportunity to put his knowledge to work. He's taken his economic theory and applied it in the community through a number of initiatives, including a prototype of an academy that teaches leadership, entrepreneurial and financial skills to city residents.

Haynes, curtis 2 Haynes taught at several universities -- and prisons that were part of the University Without Walls. (When he said, "I taught convicts," I couldn't help but quip that, with that experience, he shouldn't have any problem dealing with his colleagues on the Council). He joined the faculty at Buff State in 1993 and has been voted the college's best professor three times by the student senate.

His one school-age child attends public school in the city.

Ask him what kind of economist he is and he answers "urban economist." Ask him to describe his politics and he says "progressive." Ask him to describe his M/O back in the 1990s when he and some colleagues at Buff State first ventured into community issues and he says "scholar activist."

He intends to focus on economic issues and sees the future tied to creating young entrepreneurs. "We need to find a way of linking the economy to the kids," he said. Haynes said it's time to stop chasing smokestack industries and build businesses that reflect the reality of the new economy. Knowledge, Green. Stuff like that.

Haynes does not plan to be an automatic sixth vote in an anti-Brown majority on the Council. "I'm going to be independent," he said. One of his first acts as Council member was to venture down to the second floor of City Hall in an effort to introduce himself the the mayor, whose political organization worked hard on behalf of the Rev. Darius Pridgen. Alas, the mayor wasn't in. Probably at another photo op.

He'll have plenty of opportunities to stumble along the way, but Haynes comes to the job with a lot of tools you don't often see in a freshman Council member. Most members arrive first and foremost as political animals, and, if we're lucky, learn a thing or two about policy along the way.

Haynes' challenge is to learn the politics, and they will be tricky, given all the hootin' and hollerin' that surrounded his appointment. But my hunch is that if he can figure out how financial markets work, he can probably figure out City Hall politics. Whether or not he can survive them is another story, of course.

Again, this is all first-impression stuff, but I grilled him pretty good during the interview and think I have a pretty good nose for this kind of stuff. All I can say is so far, so good, and that Haynes appears to have the potential for a big upside.

Look for a fuller profile coming to a newspaper near you soon.


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Cut state budget with a chain saw, not a penknife

Paterson, budget announcement

On one hand, the proposed budget Gov. David A. Paterson released Tuesday goes further than many in the  status quo minded State Legislature would like. Through that prism, his spending plan is kind of bold.

But, given the state's grim fiscal reality -- it's staring at the prospect of a $7.4 billion deficit -- Paterson's proposed budget doesn't go nearly far enough. The state's legacy of over-the-top spending calls for structural changes, and that's largely absent in what Paterson has submitted.

Here's what I find striking:

-- No employee layoffs. How can a significant reduction in payroll costs not be part of the equation, given the size of the budget deficit?

-- A cut in school aid of just 5 percent. Given that school aid has skyrocketed in recent years -- up an average of 7.2 percent annually over the past decade --  and spending on education in New York is among the highest in the nation, the state has been generous to a fault  -- and will continue to be, even if the Legislature were to go along with Paterson's proposed cut.

-- For that matter, the governor is calling for only a small cut in aid to local government, no more than 5 percent. Let's see, Buffalo is sitting on top of a $48.2 million surplus and a $33.6 million rainy day fund, which has prompted the mayor to float the idea of a property tax cut to "share the wealth," which, of course, comes from Albany. It seems like City Hall, for one, could weather a deeper cut.

-- The budget calls for nearly $1 billion in higher taxes and fees that come on top of $8.34 billion in increases last year. Enough already.

-- The Legislature, with its lulus and other perks for lawmakers, and its bloated staff, sets its own budget and it needs to tighten its belt -- by a lot, not a little. Let's see what they do.

A suggestion: Lead by example.

A prediction: They won't.

For years, the governor and Legislature have increased spending, raised taxes and avoided making hard budget decisions. New York is now in financial crisis and while Paterson's spending plan takes some steps in the right direction, too many of them are baby steps, given the task at hand.

As the adage says, it's time to "go big or go home."

Or, as my boys sing, "Let's see action."

Hit it, Pete.


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Putting the brakes to red light cameras

Buffalo is proceeding, albeit more slowly than anticipated, with plans to install red-light cameras at 50 intersections around the city. Meanwhile, the cameras are becoming a fading fad elsewhere around the country, according to a front page report in USA Today and a sidebar story.

Red-light cameras that have been gaining a foothold in many states face a growing public backlash and outright removal.

Motorists are increasingly viewing them as a money-grabbing move by government - Mayor Byron Brown thinks the cameras would provide the city $2.75 million a year, thanks to fines that would start at $50 a pop.

The pace of installations has slowed, however. Seven state legislatures have banned their use, voters have approved referendums to stop their deployment in three cities, and numerous lawsuits have been filed in Florida challenging their legality.

It's not just critics who are unhappy. One state lawmaker in Illinois who had championed the cameras is now contemplating legislation to curtail their use, saying they have not delivered as promised.

Reported USA Today:

"They were sold to us in a different manner than what they're being used for," says state Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat. "The municipalities have put them in areas where they're just to make revenue."

He says that since 2006, crashes have increased at half the intersections in Illinois that have cameras, stayed the same at 25% and decreased at 25%.

Here in Buffalo, Brown has obtained the necessary approvals from the state and Common Council. But his administration is six months behind its original schedule to solicit requests for proposals for a system and operator, and the Council still needs to approve enabling legislation.

Might the cooling of interest elsewhere prompt second thoughts?


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Governor Chris Collins? Yeah, right.

Chris Collins wants to be governor.

It seemed like a stretch from the get-go.

Seemed like a longer stretch after his Antichrist comment.

Seemed like an even longer stretch after his lap-dance comment.

Now comes the news that Collins has raised only $220,000 for his campaign, according to his disclosure  report filed Friday with the state Board of Elections. Yeah, he's got some $1 million in the bank, but $800,000 of that he lent to his campaign.

Chris collins in front of aud While $220,000 might buy a lot of lap dances, it's not going to go very far in a race for governor. Not when the other likely candidates are raising big bucks.

David Paterson, the beleaguered governor, raised $2.2 million over the past six months and has about $3 million in the bank. Attorney General, and presumptive candidate, Andrew Cuomo has raised $6.8 million over the past six months and has $16.1 million in the bank. 

If there's any consolation, Rick Lazio, the only announced Republican, isn't doing much better than Collins. He's raised $1.1 million and has $637,357 in the bank. But at least he's raised the $1.1 million, as opposed to mostly lending it to himself.

The Albany Times Union has a nifty chart that lays how all the fund-raising compares with past gubernatorial campaigns.

Collins can argue, and I presume he will, that his fund-raising won't kick into gear until he formally announces his candidacy. Under normal circumstances, that would be true. But his mouth has damaged him such that I seriously doubt many big donors are going to be willing to whip out the checkbook.

Here's the count as I see it:

Strike One -- Collins is an unknown from Upstate.

Strike Two -- Collins is a Republican in a decidedly blue state.

Strike Three -- Collins would have a lot less money to campaign with than his Democratic opponent.

Strike Four -- His Antichrist and lap dance comments.

It seems to me, Collins has struck out, and then some, before he even gets to the plate. He's whiffed from the on-deck circle, maybe even the clubhouse.

Meanwhile, there's the matter of the job he was elected to do.

This region isn't exactly in great shape. As county executive, he could and should be leading the charge on any number of fronts. He's in no position to do any of that if he spends the coming year traipsing around the state conducting a dead-on-arrival campaign for governor.

It seems to me that Collins, or at least his constituents, would be better served if he closed his mouth and put his nose to the grindstone doing what he was elected to do. A vanity campaign for governor does us no good, unless you think Collins does less damage out of town than working out of the 16th floor of the Rath Building.


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Phony protests over Council appointment

Haynes, curtis before council

It's a phrase that's been evoked since Saturday, one we're going to hear right through Election Day:

"Honor the Process."

That's what supporters of The Rev. Darius Pridgen are saying in the wake of the Common Council's decision to appoint Buffalo State economics professor Curtis Haynes Jr. to succeed Brian Davis as representative of the Ellicott District. (Haynes is pictured above, flanked by Mickey Kearns and David Rivera.)

In doing so, the Council rejected the recommendation of Democratic Party committeemen to appoint the Rev. Darius Pridgen, who won the nod by a razor-thin margin over city firefighter Bryon McIntyre. Haynes finished third.  According to the Honor The Process crowd, the Council should have rubber-stamped the recommendation.

News flash to you Honor the Process people -- the process has been honored.

Thanks to a citywide referendum in 2006, it's a different process than the one historically used to fill vacant Council seats. One that didn't always result in the party choice getting the appointment, I might add.   

Yes, it's true, the Council historically has approved the party's recommendation. But not always.

Take 1981. Eugene Fahey vacated his University District seat for an at-large position. Committeemen voted to recommend Rosemarie LoTempio. Fahey persuaded his colleagues to instead appoint Scott Gehl.

Fast forward to 2005. Jimmy Griffin resigns his South District seat and a fellow named Mickey Kearns decides he'd like to be considered to replace him. He gets nowhere; some Council members refuse to even accept his resume or meet with him. Committeemen recommend Jeff Conrad and the Council obliges. The process didn't strike Kearns as transparent or democratic.

Kearns subsequently runs for the seat and wins. In 2006, he gets the Council to approve a measure that changes the process, requiring candidates for vacant seats to submit a resume to the Council and sets the stage for interviews and other scrutiny.

Sounds reasonable. I mean, how many employers don't vet job candidates in such a fashion, and instead simply hire people -- no questions asked -- based on the recommendation of a third party.

The Council approved the change unanimously, and so did voters in a referendum. The measure passed with 81 percent of the vote, including 82 percent in Ellicott.

The new process was soon put to work, when Antoine Thompson vacated his Masten District seat after winning election to the State Senate. The Council appointed someone with obvious qualifications, who at the time was serving as a member of the Erie County Legislature. He also managed to win the recommendation of Democratic committeemen.

The fellow in question was Demone Smith, who on Thursday called his colleagues "tyrants and despots," in part, I guess, because they used the process proscribed by city law rather than old-school politics.

Smith and the protesters who convened Wednesday night on the steps of City Hall -- led by Sam Herbert, who does not even live in the Ellicott District -- would lead us to believe they are upset because the process was not honored. The old process, that is.

What they're really mad about is that Pridgen -- their preferred candidate -- was bypassed.

They believe, and rightfully so, it was primarily because Pridgen was in league with Grassroots, the mayor's political organization. The Council majority bloc is at odds with Brown and they were not about to appoint someone sympathetic to the mayor, especially when a veto-proof six-member majority was at hand.

Is that fair? Nope.

Is that politics? Yup.

Would Byron Brown have done things any differently than Dave Franczyk and Co.? I think you know the answer.

Brown and his surrogates are in no position to cry politics.

I mean, this is the mayor who appointed his campaign manager as deputy mayor.

Who nominated the chairperson of Grassroots to the one commissioner job in City Hall that provides a six-year job guarantee, while every other commissioner serves at the pleasure of the mayor.

Who reacted to news that one of his other commissioners strong-armed her employees to work on his
campaign by holding his tongue for six months and then nominating her for another term.

Brown and his deputy, Steve Casey, have done more than anyone in City Hall to poison the waters. In the Ellicott District vote, they have reaped what they have helped sow. 

Then there's the argument that the appointment of Haynes somehow thwarts the "Will of the People."

The people, in this instance, are voters and committeemen.

Seems to me, voters approved the new process.

And yes, they voted for Brown in the mayoral primary last September by a three-to-one margin.  But it's a stretch to say that obligates the Council to appoint the mayor's preferred candidate. Using that logic, if Kearns were to resign, the Council would be obligated to appoint an opponent of the mayor, given that Brown garnered only 22 percent of the vote in the South District last fall.

It doesn't work that way.

Then there's the committeemen. I'm sorry, but the district's battling political factions bear little resemblance to the Will of the People. We're talking strictly self-interest.

And even the committeemen's "will" seems pretty indecisive. In a weighted vote, Pridgen defeated McIntyre by  3,325 to 3,152.  That doesn't exactly make him Landslide Lyndon.

Put another way, of the 62 committeemen in attendance, 31, maybe 32 voted for Pridgen -- including Brian Davis. Another 30, maybe 31, cast their lot for McIntyre.

Put yet another way, almost as many committeemen blew off the meeting -- 22 -- as voted for Pridgen.

Will of the People?


The will of the people will be exercised come Primary Day this September, when Haynes stands for election for the final year of the term of office. Voters will exercise their will again in 2011 when the office will be up for a full four-year term.

In the meantime, please, no more Will of the People. Or Honor the Process. 

Call it what is is -- political posturing.

When you consider who Haynes succeeds -- Brian Davis, a deadbeat with a criminal record -- he represents a huge upgrade.

I have three questions for those protesting his appointment. Why didn't we hear from you when you learned Davis:

-- Lied to voters about his education.
-- Gave $30,000 in anti-poverty funds earmarked for his district to help fund a restaurant owned by one of his buddies on the other side of town.
-- Intended to keep his Council seat after pleading guilty to criminal charges, despite state law that required him to step down.

The fact is, you were OK with all that, or at least silent. And that silence -- indeed, tacit approval -- extended all the way to the second floor of City Hall.

Now comes outrage, over what? The appointment of an educator and an economist -- an economist, for crying out loud, in the third-poorest city in the nation -- to hold office for the next 11 1/2 months?

Uh, oh, I feel a John McEnroe moment coming on.

Elsewhere, the Buffalo Geek has a good post on Thursday's theatrics, including video.


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A sensible choice for Ellicott Council seat

Brian Meyer is reporting that the Council majority has settled on Curtis Haynes Jr. to succeed Brian Davis to represent the Ellicott District.

Haynes is not a politician, but rather a college professor and an economist.

That makes the choice atypical and sensible.

Think of it -- a Councilman whose district includes downtown and the waterfront who has expertise in economics. When's the last time we had that kind of expertise on the job?

And, as a bonus, Haynes pays his bills.

And, for better or worse, depending on your perspective, Haynes gives the majority block that is expected to appoint him Thursday the sixth vote that represents a veto-proof majority on the Council. The politics of the district are such that Haynes may be well served by not walking in lock-step with that majority, however.

Haynes, curtisAs I've written previously, his credentials, and the backing of Arthur O. Eve Jr., made Haynes a serious contender for the job since the day he applied, along with the Rev. Darius Pridgen, who, besides being accomplished in his own right, enjoyed the backing of Grassroots, the mayor's political organization.

Firefighter Bryon McIntyre emerged as a serious third contender, finishing a close second to Pridgen in a vote of Democratic committeemenSaturday. He remains a potentially serious challenger to Haynes if he decides to oppose him in the special election this fall that will determine who will serve the balance of the term. For all we know, Pridgen, too, may make a run for it.

Given what's at stake this fall, with all the seats in the State Senate and Assembly up for grabs, you can expect the various factions in the Democratic Party to all run candidates to boost turnout. Party HQ will no doubt be behind Haynes, barring an unexpected falling out, and Brown/Grassroots will almost certainly field a candidate. And the field may not be limited to those two.

Haynes has a bit of a handicap, in that he's a political neophyte without an independent political base. That's not a major problem, so long as Eve and HQ provide the necessary backup.

Haynes' more-immediate challenge is establishing himself in the community and building as much of a track record as one can expect in less than a year. The majority that has selected him owes it to him and themselves to see to it that he succeeds. And that means, among other things, doing right by the Ellicott District.


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