There is an invisible city within the city. A honeycomb of election districts and zones, their boundaries known to a relative few.
Understanding that city is the key to power and influence. It's the way the so-called average citizen grabs a larger slice of democracy -- becomes, in effect, an above-average citizen.
There are simple ways to access power: voting, protesting, joining a block club.
The next step: decoding the maze of 437 election districts and 27 Democratic Party-drawn zones that make up the political map of Buffalo.
Seven years ago, a handful of Masten Block Club Coalition leaders decided that politics meant power. A way to ensure that streets were repaired, garbage collected and parks cleaned.
Appropriately, they called themselves Grassroots Inc.: a couple of community-activist grandmothers, Nettie Anderson and Zettie Young; a couple of college-educated twenty-somethings, Robert Wilson and Jamir Floyd; and Maurice Garner, a Democratic district committee person.
What happened next is a primer in how ordinary people earn extraordinary influence.
They got a map from City Hall of the city's 437 election districts, each encompassing a few blocks. They recruited 29 people to run for district committee slots. Each one gathered the couple dozen petition signatures needed to qualify on the Democratic line. Sixteen won. Mrs. Anderson in Masten 35, Mrs. Young in Masten 24, Wilson in Masten 25, Garner in Masten 43.
They went from neighborhood residents to neighborhood
representatives. They beat political appointees -- most of whom, as Garner put it, were hacks who "never had a race before and were there in name only. Winning was easy. The problem was getting past the Board of Elections."
The status quo prevails partly because the system is a maze, a Chinese box. There are arcane rules that invalidate petition signatures, little tricks of the trade. Only an experienced campaigner knows the precise moment petitioning is allowed -- and stymies an opponent by immediately signing up voters on the foe's block.
The patronage-heavy, Party machine-protective Board of Elections is stingy with information. But with help from the reformist Frontier Democratic Club, Grassroots Inc. got by.
Without realizing it, Grassroots Inc. won enough district committee races that first year, 1986, to elect the leader in Zone 13, the largest in the city.
"We didn't even know the zones existed, or what districts they encompassed," said Garner, now Erie County's community relations director. "Eventually, zone leaders helped us out with that."
In 1988, Garner was elected Zone 13 leader. Grassroots Inc. had arrived.
It's about influence and power.
If a citizen calls a politician to complain about a
garbage-strewn lot, it's one voice. When a district committee person calls, a politician understands there are hundreds of people behind that voice. People who'll know whether the complaint was addressed.
When a zone leader calls, the hundreds are multiplied -- and include a small army of district committee people under the zone leader. It's a platoon who will work for a preferred candidate, doing literature drops, carrying petitions and influencing the votes of family and neighbors.
It's a language any politician understands.
In last month's Democratic primary, Grassroots Inc. upped its hold to 120 district committee people (about one-seventh the city's total) and three of 10 East Side zone leaders.
It means more influence with politicians. It means summer jobs for neighborhood youth, through City Hall or the county.
It means Grassroots Inc. candidates running for local office can secure the party's endorsement, because of a local support base.
County legislator Crystal Peoples had slight connection to the Democratic Party hierarchy. Yet she was appointed to a vacant county legislative seat last year, and later endorsed, because of her support among local committee people.
Party endorsement brings voter and media credibility, access to regular party workers and endorsements from other politicians.
Many people, especially those who do business with the city or county, are reluctant to help a non-endorsed candidate. As are regular party workers, who would hurt their chances for jobs or favors.
"They may support you privately," said Grassroots Inc. officer Byron Brown, who lost a close County Legislature race last year, "but they won't go door to door for you."
One doesn't plow the status quo's field without repercussions. In 1988, someone replaced Garner's name on ballot-qualifying petitions with his opponent's. This year, a district committee candidate was put on the ballot -- unbeknown to him -- in another election district, negating his win in his own race. Last year, an unusual alliance thwarted Brown's chance of getting the Party's endorsement.
Despite that, Grassroots Inc. has done what it intended.
"The idea," said Garner, "was to get politics out of the back room and into the dining room."
When running for mayor last year, Tony Masiello came to Girard Place. To sit at Nettie Anderson's dining room table.
It was evidence of Mrs. Anderson's elevation from average citizen to above-average citizen. An indication of Grassroots Inc.'s understanding of the invisible city.