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What Lenihan Doesn’t Want You to Know about his Judge Russell Ruling

by Chris Stevenson

I hear the word policy being tossed around a lot nowadays.Is it becoming a Euphemism for “racism?” Somewhere in between trying to figure out if Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard Lenihan decision not to endorse City Court Judge Robert Russell was one of policy or racism, was the fact that a good jurist is not going to Albany. It was my decision to take this discussion to the community shortly after my last column on Lenihan in this site, the Challenger and PoliticsWNY.com. It was needed from what I could see. Buffalo doesn’t seem to be the type of city where these things take place. Buffalo’s powerful decision makers aren’t used to blacks openly questioning them. So with the help of Diana Goodwin; a Community Voice Organization co-Director and block club vice President, I selected the use of a church instead of a government building like the City Hall Council Chamber, or Merriweather Library or one of numerous recreational facilities within the inner city so the people could spoke out without fear of their voices being hindered or blacked out by long speeches from local personalities.

That Lenihan did not show up wasn’t a surprise to me as it may have been to some. I had been talking to him, mostly by phone, trying to convince him to come down and give his side of what he thought was/is my accusations of his being a racist. I’m all for people defending themselves, “prove me wrong” is my motto. It seems the democratic Chair is a man of some insecurity and hangups. He first disclosed to me some fear of a “Town hall” atmosphere that could lead to violence as we are seeing around the country with ignorant opposers of Obama’s health care proposals. According to Lenny, his handlers were advising otherwise. I used to blacks in Buffalo being pegged as violent, heard this since I was a kid. Understand most of the fear historically is unsubstantiated and is the product of what whites really think; that we should be violent towards them. Guilt is the underlining emotion towards such fear. I told Mr. Lenihan that if Buffalo blacks were known to act like those Town hall white republicans, blacks in Buffalo would be in much better shape and he would be quadruple-endorsing Russell.

At any rate we conversed and made appointments and re appointments several time by phone until we finally agreed to his original request; to make his meeting with us the meeting which he chose to defend himself. I was originally was supposed to be accompanied by Dr’ Henry Taylor of the UB African Studies Dept. In fact he was my choice to moderate the forum, but as time went on Taylor gradually faded himself out of the picture. On Monday 8/17 at 2:30pm I went to Lenihan’s Democratic Party Headquarters at 295 Main along with Human Rights Activist and Educator James Payne, a fellow Community Voice member and one of the founding members of the local 100 Black Men. Lenihan summoned the Deputy Commissioner of the Erie County Board of Elections Arthur “Champ” Eve Jr.

Senator Antoine Thompson standing next to a live snake

Of course many of you already know, that Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Len Lenihan was a “no show” for the community forum scheduled just hours later at 5pm. I had two goals for this forum. One was to take Lenihan before the community and have him answer questions regarding this refusal to endorse City Court Judge Robert Russell for State Supreme Court. The second goal, and the most important, to ask him why he refuses to give an African-American MALE the required support needed to advance to a higher court. Judge Sam Green reached mandatory retirement years ago, leaving no black male representation on the State Supreme Court. Lenihan wasn’t around when Green was selected to the State Supreme Court. Since then, Lenihan has cross-endorsed Judge Rose Sconiers (a woman), but once again, no black men. I wanted Lenihan to answer a series of questions from the panel and the audience about the relationship between the local Democratic Party and the black community.

The truly strange part is, the more this plan began to formulate, the more blacks began giving Lenihan the “White Jesus” reaction. It’s like that movie “Passion of the Christ,” and people cried over white Jesus. The film’s makers were focusing on Jesus last 12 hours-his arrest and non-stop beatdown-and knew that only a white Jesus undergoing such treatment would elicit such sorrow and tears from the audience. Within several days I saw myself becoming distinctly Roman in the eyes of some blacks, while Lenihan began looking more Christ-like the more it seemed he was going to be taken to task. This is nothing new in a town like Buffalo having experienced this to a major degree regarding my ongoing coverage of the Cariol Horne situation and to a much smaller extent my little-known support of Dorthea McDonald (who won 2 trials in a row after getting physically abused by a Deputy in the Rath bldg while pregnant and actually charged by the Sheriff’s Dept.). It generally goes something like this; black individual undergoes blatant episode of racism, black personalities seem outraged and promise to back victim in question. Over a period of time same bold black people begin to de-value black victim and find understanding or humanization of white perpetrator(s). Soon talk of departing fellow black victim enters conversation, usually laced with “we can’t win” defeatism. Wanting to win is a big start, just ask Ms. McDonald.

Gradually, some blacks began questioning my accusations of Lenihan being a racist. Had these people suddenly gained more insight over the week and a half or so of planning I put into it? Or had they gained more fear? I don’t know what the answers are to these questions (actually I do but that’s a subject for a future column), but I am convinced on one fact: Follow the money, follow the jobs, follow future political ambitions. Connect all the dots and you will find the center core: Len Lenihan. Some of you may wonder what type of “support” is necessary for a judge to succeed in a rigorous SC race throughout 8 counties? According to Wikipedia “in practice most of the power of selecting [New York State Supreme Court] Judges belongs to local political party organizations who cross-endorse each others’ candidates.”

It is true that white candidates seek out the cross endorsement, but they don’t need it to win. Blacks do. Statistics have shown it for years. Recent history has shown it when Judge Ogden was endorsed twice with no cross-endorsement, she lost both races. Judge McLeod ran with no cross-endorsement, and he lost his race. Judge Russell ran when Judge Green reached mandatory retirement with no cross endorsement and guess what? He lost his race. This pattern is fact, not fictional. In the last two decades: No cross endorsement; no victory. Combine this with Lenihan’s public refusal to back Russell and what do you have?

Lenihan stated at that meeting that he couldn’t guarantee he’d get John O’Donnell cross-endorsed (he admits he’s running O’Donnell. Shirley Troutman and Hank Nowak), among his other litany of excuses was he couldn’t cross-endorse a Judge until September, and he only cross-endorses incumbents. The deal making between both party bosses, democratic and republican chairman, are really not done until September prior to the Judicial Convention. This is actually true. However, if he only crosses incumbents like he said, why isn’t he formally guaranteeing O’Donnell a cross? O’Donnell has been on the Supreme Court bench for 14 years; an incumbent running for re-election. The answer, BLACK JUDICIAL MALE CANDIDATES NEED NOT APPLY FOR A HIGHER COURT.

The truth is Lenihan as I stated in this column in past months really isn’t feeling Russell or any other black males for high positions. His claims of endorsing Russell when he ran back in ’05 was less than token. Lenihan handed me some papers outlining his support of black candidates over the years; Troutman in ’02, Debra Givins for City Court Judge in ’03, Karla Thomas as Director of Human Resources at the Erie County Water Authority in ’05, Jeannette Ogden for City Court Judge in ’05, Leecia Eve for New York Lt. Governor, Arranged cross-endorsement of Rose Sconiers for Supreme Court in ’07. Betty Jean Grant in ’09 for Legislature, Barbara Miller-Williams for re-election to legislature the same year. Do you see a pattern brewing here?

During this period Lenihan only admits to having endorsed four black males during a campaign; Mayor Byron Brown in ’05, George Holt as Chairman of the Erie County Legislature in ’04, endorsed Judge James McLeod for City Court Judge in ’07. Question no. 1 on these are just how strong were these endorsements? Were the candidates fully supported, or were these just plantation endorsements. (i.e. money given just to keep you on the ballot, but not enough to help you win)?

Eve-the only black among a staff of some 2 dozen earning at least $50K a year-feels that not only isn’t Lenihan a racist, he’s actually too soft-hearted toward blacks. Even James Payne doesn’t feel that Lenihan is racist. I told Lenihan and Eve that we can sit around and laugh and joke all evening, but in the end Lenihan has not changed my feelings on him. The meeting ended just after 4pm that day. The forum was attended by a sparse audience of people in the community, activists, political people old and new as well as some of the panel I would have used if Lenihan showed. Your’s truly was intending to be on the panel but wound up moderating due to Dr. Taylor’s absence. Not pretty but a beginning. We intend on meeting together on various issues the 2nd Monday of each month until further notice.

After hearing Lenihan out, I am even more committed to connect the dots. Judge Russell and his wife, Councilmember Bonnie Russell, will not speak to me about this topic. I’m sure both their political careers have something do to with that, but I won’t assume. However, I made a decision to either believe the written statement from Judge Russell which was printed in This paper and the Buffalo News, or the information Lenihan gave me in a private meeting. My vote for the truth goes to Judge Russell’s statement.

In the meantime word is Lenihan is giving token support for selected Judge Shirley Troutman over Judge Robert Russell, and the cross endorsement to O’Donnell. In all honesty, cross endorsing O’Donnell is like announcing a White History Month when white history is already taught during 8 of the 9 school months. Overkill. But that’s me. There’s nothing wrong with having two black women on the Supreme Court, but why can’t our community have ONE black man? I gave my immediate plan. Do not vote for Lenihan’s most important candidate for re-election this fall; Poloncarze. Lenihan doesn’t endorse Russell, he didn’t even show, we simply refuse to endorse his ticket.

I would like to thank Pastor Kenneth Cox and the people of Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church (I know, I know “Don’t put anything on the Communion Table”) for the use of it’s bldg and Channel 7 News for the coverage and the people who did attend.

Stevenson is syndicated and a Columnist for the Buffalo Challenger. Air your response on the link below and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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1 Comment on "What Lenihan Doesn’t Want You to Know about his Judge Russell Ruling"

  1. Chris,

    Thanks for this information. I think this situation polarizes the very essence of the core problems of this city. There are too many people in power who will only do enough to get by, but not enough to affect real change. This is why the thing that Buffalonians are most successful at is talk. There is no real movement, no real growth, and no real power for the African American community. When a State Governor, who is African American, selects and endorses another African American for a political position (and by the way, don’t we have an African American president), and a white party chair rejects the governor's selection and then refuses to personally respond to the African American community's request for an explanation (as though blacks don't deserve one), the message is, we have very little power. It’s a message we should take heed to, a lesson we must learn and respond to immediately.

    Regardless of your opinion of Judge Russell or his endorsement from the governor, the real issue is how is it that a party chair can take it upon himself to decisively reject the governor’s choice and not be accountable for his decision. If you think this is much ado about nothing, then consider the outrage this city would express if a white governor personally selected a white judge for state supreme court and a black party chair (wow, in Buffalo, keep dreaming), unilaterally decided he was not going to support that candidate and then refused to personally give an explanation. Yeah right.

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