Ryan Whalen

Ryan Whalen is Capital Tonight's Western New York political reporter. He covers politics in Rochester, Buffalo and the Southern Tier. Ryan was a general assignment reporter for Time Warner Cable News Buffalo for nearly five years and worked in several other markets before joining the Cap Tonight team in 2016.

Posts by Ryan Whalen

WNY Leaders Promote Peace At Charlottesville Vigil

From the Morning Memo:

The crowd was literally shoulder-to-shoulder last night at Durham Memorial Church in Buffalo. Clergy, local and state leaders took turns condemning hate during a prayer vigil for the victims in Charlottesville, Va.

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul made the trip to her hometown after spending most of the day in the Twin Tiers region. She said she needed to be there, although she came both confused and troubled.

“I know that elsewhere people are being taught to hate because one does not naturally become born and hate other people,” she said. “It’s something that is learned.”

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz also had strong words for the crowd, which began to gather outside when the church was full. He said while the First Amendement gives white supremacists the right to freedom of speech, it also provides him the right to call them small, weak, bigots.

Poloncarz told the story of Karl Hand, a local white supremacist who held a rally in Buffalo in 1981. Not one person showed up.

“But instead of our nation extinguishing the embers of hatred represented by Hand, the smoldering embers were fanned,” the county executive said. “They have taken fire. This fire must be doused.”

State Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat, called out the president for saying both sides are to blame for the Charlottesville violence – remarks the senator believes have left the community frustrated and confused.

“While we may not be able to change the minds of those who promote such hateful and shameful ideology, we can take a stand against all of those individuals,” Kennedy said. “Against bigotry, against racism, against that divide and stand up and say, ‘Not here, not ever.'”

DEC Looking Into Another Potential Discharge Near Niagara Falls

From the Morning Memo:

State and local leaders are still dealing with the fallout from a plume of sewage, 2 1/2 weeks after it ended up in the river by Niagara Falls. Tuesday, the state Department of Environmental Conservation dropped a potential bomb.

Did it happen again?

“DEC Environmental Conservation Officers and technical staff responded to a call today at 3:40 p.m. regarding the presence of discolored water from the main outfall near the Maid of the Mist dock,” the statement, which appeared in inboxes Thursday evening, read.

The department said a high intensity storm was reported that may have contributed to the potential sewage discharge. It continued to say it was investigating to see if the incident was related to last month’s discharge.

A spokesperson for the Niagara Falls Water Board acknowledged there was an overflow situation and said it was indeed because of the heavy rain.

“When this volume of water occurs, the waste water treatment plant is permitted to overflow the hundred foot weir, with the water then passing through the monitoring station. These sort of overflow events, which are different then the July 29th discharge incident, are formally reported on both the SPDEDS permit and the NY Alert System,” Matt Davison said.

Niagara Falls has hired international engineering firm Aecom to investigate what happened last month.

Grant Says She’s Not Playing Spoiler In Buffalo Mayoral Primary

From the Morning Memo:

Go ahead and call Buffalo mayoral candidate Betty Jean Grant an underdog. The long-time Erie County legislator said she’s not surprised she’s running third in the Democratic primary, according to this week’s Spectrum News/Siena Poll.

Grant pointed out she was the last of three candidates to enter the the fray, and is at a significant fundraising disadvantage compared to incumbent Mayor Byron Brown and current Buffalo Comptroller Mark Schroeder.

“It is an uphill battle,” Grant said. “Every election I have won or ran has been an uphill battle.”

On the other hand, she said she doesn’t think much of a common narrative she’s running a spoiler campaign against Brown, insisting: “It doesn’t offend me, but it really shows how backwards we’re thinking.”

Grant said historically the concept of a spoiler campaign has meant two candidates of the same ethnicity, often African American, split the demographic during an election, allowing another candidate to win. But she doesn’t believe Buffalo voters think that way anymore.

“People have come beyond that,” she said. “People have known that people vote for, they vote because of their pocketbook. They don’t vote because of race.”

Grant also said people shouldn’t automatically assume Schroeder, who has an Irish background, will perform poorly with black voters. In fact, all three candidates polled favorably, but nearly half of the African Americans who participated said they either didn’t know or didn’t have an opinion about the current comptroller.

“If you follow Mark Schroeder as he goes to churches and you follow him as he goes to the east side of Buffalo to campaign, he has his own base,” Grant said. “He doesn’t need Betty Jean Grant to help him in any kind of way.”

Grant suggested Schroeder and Brown could even split other demographics throughout the city, opening the door for her to win. While she acknowledged she has ground to gain, she said she has both enough momentum and time to close the gap before the primary next month.


Sen. Jacobs Discusses Race For His Former Office

From the Morning Memo:

Current state Sen. Chris Jacobs, a Buffalo Republican, wouldn’t say who he’s supporting this fall in an election for Erie County Clerk, the office he formerly held. The seat has been vacant since Jacobs joined the Legislature at the beginning of the year.

“I haven’t really been involved in that,” Jacobs said.

The two candidates are current Democratic Assemblyman Mickey Kearns and former radio personality and community advocate Steve Cichon. Jacobs and Kearns have often worked together, both in their districts and Albany, despite different party affiliations.

The senator said neither candidates typically gets caught up in partisan politics.

“Along those lines, Mickey and I are very similar, and I’m certainly willing to talk to anybody about my thoughts on the office, any of the candidates, because I just am passionate about the work they do and the good people that are in the organization,” he said.

The Erie County Democratic Committee has been highly critical of Kearns since he accepted the Republican nomination, choosing to endorse the newcomer, Cichon, instead.

ECDC Chairman Jeremy Zellner has called the assemblyman an opportunist who often votes against the values of the party.

Jacobs said that regardless of which candidate wins, he wants to make sure the next clerk is service oriented. He said the office does things that are very important to the day-to-day lives of many Buffalonians.

“I just want to make sure that the work that I think we’ve done, the good work at the clerk’s office, the DMV, our real estate records, continues with professionalism, that politics don’t again dominate that office that I think years ago did, patronage hires, ineffective people,” he said. “That’s really what I tried to eradicate when I was there. I think I put good people in place in our leadership positions.”

Mayor Brown Says Law Enforcement Would Be Prepared For Mass Demonstrations In Buffalo

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, D, acknowledged on Monday no community is immune to the type of white nationalist demonstration that led to violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Brown noted demonstrators in Virginia came from all over the country to protest at the end of last week and this weekend.

“Unfortunately, these kinds of acts could happen in different places,” Brown said. “It was a despicable act in Charlottesville, Virginia and it is why it is so important for us to repudiate the white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan members, and the neo-Nazis that came into this community and created that havoc, brought that evil, and perpetrated those despicable acts.”

The mayor also pointed out the Alt-Right groups had obtained a permit to protest. He said in Buffalo, the city monitors its permits very closely but did not rule out the possibility groups could go to court if they believed their right to free speech was being infringed upon. In that case, Brown said law enforcement would have a plan and be prepared.

“We certainly would work to prevent those kinds of groups from coming into this community but if they did, our police department, law enforcement agencies in our region, public safety agencies in our region, have a lot of experience in dealing with large scale, mass gatherings of people and we would be able to address it effectively here in the city of Buffalo,” he said.

Brown, who is also the chairman of the New York State Democratic Party, said despite the violence, he does not believe race relations are worse in the United States than they have been in the past. He said he’s been heartened to see people in communities across the country, including Buffalo, organize peaceful demonstrations this weekend.

“I think it’s critically important, all over the country, for people to speak out against this kind of intolerance, this kind of hatred, and this kind of racism,” Brown said.

The mayor said he does believe the president’s rhetoric has often been divisive and “there are many that feel” it has created a platform for racism. President Trump specifically condemned white supremacists and neo-Nazis on Monday.


Challenger For ECDC Chairmanship Emerges

From the Morning Memo:

More than a year out from the next election for a new Erie County Democratic Committee chairman, Jeremy Zellner already has a challenger. Buffalo attorney Peter Reese said he plans to run following next September’s primary.

“The Democratic party has gotten so off-base and so corrupted that people are essentially leaving it in droves and it’s time for real Democrats to come back time to the party and it’s time for us to retake control,” Reese said.

The attorney, who’s been involved in area politics for decades, acknowledged it seems a bit early to be declaring his candidacy, but he said this year it’s merited. Reese said many people have left the party and he is hoping they come back in the next few months, with someone new to rally around.

“If they’re looking for something better, I think they should contact me and we’ll talk to them about how we can retake the Democratic Party,” he said.

Reese said he is unhappy with Zellner’s record in countywide elections. While Democrats hold the County Executive’s seat, Republicans have the Sheriff and Comptroller’s office and a majority in the legislature. The GOP also held the County Clerk’s seat until Chris Jacobs was elected to the state Senate last year.

“It’s pretty clear the Democratic party in Erie County hasn’t taken a position on any issues in about 50 years,” Reese said.

The attorney often takes on election law cases. He said he doesn’t believe the chairman should also be the Democratic commissioner of the Erie County Board of Elections. Reese said Zellner shouldn’t be judging the validity of petitions of candidates who are running against the candidates the committee is endorsing.

“There’s no other way to describe it other than criminal,” he said. “It takes your breath away and I’m sorry, it leaves you speechless.”

Reese did acknowledge his connection to a number of Democrats recently charged with violating election law, including operative Steve Pigeon, who he called an “acquaintance.” In fact, he noted their loss of influence is part of the reason he’s running but he doesn’t believe the state has strong case against any of them.

This isn’t the attorney’s first campaign either. He said he ran for the seat three decades ago and only received 38 votes.

He’s hoping to do better this time. Zellner had no comment on the candidacy.

Siena Poll: Buffalo Primary Voters Like Brown

From the Morning Memo:

Incumbent Byron Brown is the prohibitive favorite in a three-way Democratic primary for Buffalo Mayor.

That’s the primary takeaway from an exclusive Spectrum News/Siena poll released this morning.

The three-term incumbent Brown has a more than a 2-1 lead over his closest competitor in September’s Democratic primary for Buffalo mayor.

Siena College Research Institute Director Don Levy said he is polling favorably across all demographics of likely primary voters.

“Right now, two-thirds, 67 percent of voters think that the mayor’s doing either an excellent or good job. In fact that’s up a little bit from four years ago in 2013 when he ran for re-election,” Levy said.

According to poll results, 24 percent expect to vote for current city comptroller Mark Schroeder and 13 percent plan to pick Betty Jean Grant, a long-time Erie County legislator. Both candidates have strong favorability ratings themselves.

“It’s not as if these two challengers are seen negatively. They’re not as well-known as Byron Brown,” Levy said.
The mayor’s strong numbers coincide with that of the governor’s who received a 73 percent favorability rating. Two-thirds of the voters said the state’s Buffalo Billion investment – which both men have championed – has resulted in positive change for the city.

“You can certainly put all those together and draw a conclusion that in the mind of voters, those are linked,” Levy said.

While a majority of those polled believed Buffalo is on the right track, Levy said there are areas that show room for improvement, like responsiveness of local government, the condition of roads and the quality of schools. The poll indicated voters also don’t believe all neighborhoods are getting the same amount of attention in the city, something both Schroeder and Grant are campaigning on.

One individual fared particularly poorly: President Donald Trump, who had an 84 percent unfavorable rating. Levy said that wasn’t surprising.

“Not only are these Democrats but these are Democrats that tend to vote and tend to vote even in a primary election but still it’s a striking number,” he said.

According to the poll, the vast majority of likely primary voters believe a new Buffalo train station should be located in the historic Central Terminal as opposed to downtown. The poll has a 3.9 percent margin of error.

BuffaloMayor0817 Crosstabs by Nick Reisman on Scribd

ECDC Chair Questions Kearns Connection to Assembly Dem Fundraiser

From the Morning Memo:

The chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee has questioned why Assemblyman Mickey Kearns’s name appeared on the invitation to a Thursday night fundraiser for the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Democratic Majority Leader Joe Morelle were the guests of honor for the event at Buffalo’s Curtiss Hotel.Assembly_fundraiser

Democratic members of the Western New York delegation co-hosted the event – including Kearns. ECDC Chairman Jeremy Zellner said that raises a conflict, because Kearns is currently running on the Republican ticket for Erie County Clerk, and is also in a primary for the Conservative line.

“Whose side is Mickey on?” Zellner asked. “The Assembly Democrats are champions of the DREAM Act, the Women’s Equality Act and the SAFE Act, which are all laudable pieces of legislation. But I hardly think Republicans and Conservatives feel that way. Where does Mickey truly stand on these issues?”

The chairman said Kearns’ decision to take part in the fundraiser is consistent with the way he has approached his political career. He called Kearns a “serial opportunist” who tries to be all things to all people.

Zellner said the assemblyman has voted against the Democratic majority on a number of issues, including the Women’s Equality Act and a proposed ban on so-called gay conversion therapy.

“Tricky Mickey will say anything and do anything necessary to get elected,” he said. “Once in office, he disregards the promises he’s made to constituents along the way and works on crafting new alliances to get him to his next political office.”

Kearns did not immediately respond to Zellner’s criticisms, but in the past has said he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong in accepting the Republican endorsement for a largely non-partisan clerk’s office.


Geva Art Director Issues Apology To Rochester Mayor

The artistic director for Rochester’s Geva Theatre Company has issued an apology to the city’s mayor for using the term “naive” in any context pertaining to her. In a letter to Lovely Warren, Geva’s Mark Cuddy said he did not mean to demean the mayor in any way.

“That would be – and has been – a distraction from the content of my remarks,” Cuddy said. “It was a choice of words that I felt at the time best described my view of the City’s approach, but I can see how it can be construed in an offensive manner.”

Warren called for the apology after Cuddy, in a press conference earlier this week, said the mayor was in favor of a $130 million performing arts center because she was intent on branding Rochester as a “City of the Arts.” Geva wanted further studies before the project moved forward.

“She is quoted as saying, ‘Syracuse is a college sports town, Buffalo has pro teams, we are the City of the Arts and we have to have a venue that gives us that title.’ We find that thinking to be naive at best,” Cudd said during the Monday conference.

He said Thursday, he hoped his apology would be accepted and that Geva looks forward to continuing working with the city to build a strong arts and cultural community.

Jacobs Criticizes Trump Decision Not To Declare Opioid Crisis A National Emergency

From the Morning Memo:

A Republican state Senator from western New York is criticizing the Trump administration for not declaring the heroin and opioid crisis a national emergency. A commission he had organized had recommended doing just that.

The commission said a state of emergency would give the Executive Branch more tools to deal with the problem and put pressure Congress to approve more funding.

“You, Mr. President, are the only person who can bring this type of intensity to the emergency and we believe you have the will to do so and to do so immediately,” the commission members wrote.

Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, believes the administration made a mistake in not following the recommendation. He said if this is not a national crisis, he doesn’t know what is.

“Currently 142 Americans are dying every day due to overdoses and two-thirds of those are due to heroin/opioids,” he said.  “That number of deaths is equivalent to a Sept. 11 tragedy every three weeks.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has promised to treat the opioid issue as an emergency but told reporters earlier this week the declaration is typically reserved for time-limited problems like the Zika outbreak or Hurricane Sandy. He said Trump is not permanently ruling out the option though.

“When you have the capacity of Yankee stadium or Dodger stadium dying every single year in this nation, that’s a crisis that has to be given incredible attention, and the president is giving it that attention,” Price said.

Jacobs is the co-chair of the state Senate Heroin Task Force.