Egriu gives Higgins first primary since 2004 in Democratic race

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Three times over the past dozen years, Buffalo contractor Emin “Eddie” Egriu tried, but failed, to get on the ballot for a Democratic congressional primary.

This year, Egriu fended off the latest court challenge to his petition signatures and now presents longtime Rep. Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo, his first primary challenge since 2004.

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While primary candidates are challenging all three of the incumbent House members running in those three yet-to-be-finalized districts, the Board of Elections will have to decide if those candidates actually qualify for the ballot.

Egriu paints the race as a contest between a businessperson with an outsider’s fresh perspective against an entrenched incumbent who, he claims, favors his donors at the expense of most of his district.

Egriu is largely self-financing his campaign, but has just $14,700 on hand compared to Higgins’ nearly $1.3 million war chest.

“I am sacrificing everything I have to represent my community,” Egriu said.

Higgins points to his track record of bringing federal funding to the district, money that he said has spurred private sector investment and transformational redevelopment.

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“I mean, good government is the best political strategy,” said Higgins, whose supporters highlight Egriu’s previous conservative statements, a workplace safety violation at his company and late payments of property taxes.

They’re running in the Democratic primary for the new-look 26th congressional district. The redrawn district covers much of the existing 26th – Buffalo, its most populous suburbs and Niagara Falls – but swaps out several towns in southern Erie County for more of western Niagara County.

The 26th district remains heavily Democratic, and Tuesday’s winner will be favored in November against Republican Steven Sams II.

Here’s more on the candidates, their campaigns and the issues at play:

Eddie Egriu Photo

Emin “Eddie” Egriu, a Buffalo contractor challenging Rep. Brian Higgins in the Democratic primary for the 26th congressional district. (Photo courtesy Eddie Egriu)

Egriu, 60, an Albanian born in what is now North Macedonia, moved to America with his family when he was 8 years old, settling in Brooklyn, initially.

He moved to Buffalo in 1983, helping other immigrants launch a number of pizzerias and other businesses. He owns a contracting business that, among other projects, has worked on churches in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Egriu has unsuccessfully run for office numerous times, dating back to a Buffalo Common Council race in 1999 and later State Senate campaigns. By 2008, The Buffalo News labeled Egriu a “perennial candidate.”

The staff of the state Board of Elections has invalidated the designating petitions of Emin “Eddie” Egriu in his bid to challenge Rep. Brian Higgins in the June Democratic primary. Board spokesman John W. Conklin said the bipartisan board “typically” approves staff recommendations, adding that an official vote on the matter is slated for Wednesday. He said Egriu submitted

In 2010, against then-Rep. Louise Slaughter, and in 2014 and 2020, against Higgins, petition challenges knocked Egriu off the ballot. Higgins said Egriu committed “pervasive fraud,” but Egriu slammed attempts by the “machine” to limit voter choice. 

Egriu said his late wife, Alicia, who died from cancer in 2020, had urged him to continue his political efforts.

This year, following another challenge, a state judge ruled Egriu had collected enough valid signatures to make the primary ballot. 

“What makes me think I can beat him? I think I’m the only one that can beat him. Because of who I am – the kinds of things I’ve done. My history speaks for itself,” Egriu said.

Egriu has raised just $9,253 in contributions, he reported, but has loaned his campaign $104,350.

Brian Higgins Photo

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who is facing a primary challenge from local contractor Emin “Eddie” Egriu. (Photo courtesy Office of Rep. Brian Higgins)

Higgins’ vast financial advantage is not surprising, considering he’s a 17-year incumbent backed by the Democratic establishment. He last faced a primary challenger when the seat opened up in 2004, and he’s easily bested Republicans in general elections.

The native of South Buffalo taught at SUNY Buffalo State College and served on the Buffalo Common Council and in the State Assembly before entering Congress.

In an interview, Higgins, 62, rattled off hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding and tax credits directed into projects along the waterfront, downtown Buffalo, the East Side and Niagara Falls – with more on the way. 

On Monday, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced she is accelerating the pace by obtaining the remaining $54 million now rather than waiting seven years for the last of the funds to roll in.

Higgins’ first attention-getting fight in Congress came in 2005, when he helped the region win $279 million in payments from the New York Power Authority.

“Buffalo’s image has changed in the time that I’ve been in office. We were an old, declining, waterfront, industrial city. Now, you see a city of exciting new possibilities,” said Higgins, who appeared Monday with Gov. Kathy Hochul as she announced the latest investments from this authority funding.

Issues, charges and responses

Both sides try to paint their opponent in the worst possible light.

Egriu blasts Higgins as a career politician, who earns a $174,000 congressional salary with a $23,875 state pension, whose efforts to revive Buffalo have not reached the East Side community that needs it most.

“No more waterfront,” Egriu said. “Let’s fix our water pipes. Let’s fix the quality of life in the City of Buffalo in these neighborhoods.”

Higgins said he remains connected to his district and pointed to federal investments in job-training, lead-removal and anti-violence programs throughout Buffalo.

“We work hard. And I’m very aggressive. And I make no apologies about that. And you want to call me a politician, great – I’m a politician,” Higgins said.

Both candidates claim the mantle of progressivism. Higgins’ camp notes Egriu sought Conservative Party backing in 2020, while Egriu points out that Higgins held the Conservative line as an Assembly candidate.

The Erie County Democratic Committee regularly assails Egriu on social media, including for taking positions that indicate support for former President Trump and opposition to gun safety rules. Egriu said the committee is taking his remarks out of context and noted Higgins, in the past, accepted donations from the National Rifle Association.

Egriu said Higgins’ campaign chest is flush with contributions from big developers, law firms and corporations, and he wonders what benefits Higgins provides in return. Erie County Democrats say Egriu is “trying to buy” the election with his personal wealth.

A website, “The Real Eddie Egriu,” paid for by “Brian Higgins for Congress,” levels further charges against Egriu: his company was fined by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for failing to provide basic workplace safety protections; he stiffed a client and a convenience store; and he has frequently paid his property taxes late.

“That’s relevant information as it relates to somebody that’s, you know, asking a community to place their trust in them,” Higgins said.

Egriu said the claims are faulty or incomplete, and he defended his business and financial practices.

“I understand what it’s like to go through a hard time,” Egriu said. “I understand what it’s like to fix mistakes, and I have fixed them.”

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