Bernie Tolbert was standing outside the Second Cup Coffee Shop on Broadway a few days ago, shaking hands with a long line of well-wishers.
"Good morning, Mr. Tolbert," one man said. "It's Bernie," replied the former special agent-in-charge of the Buffalo FBI.
Easy going. Friendly. Street savvy, with a world of experience apart from politics and outside Buffalo, and a big-time Buffalo guy. It all adds up to a decent place to start running for mayor.
Tolbert, 63, is talking to more than the guys outside the coffee shop these days. He is making the rounds among political types, business people, clergy, neighborhood groups and others. Nothing is definite, but the kid from the Willert Park projects who shot through the ranks of the FBI and then headed security for the National Basketball Association says he wants to give something back.
"I'm kind of like Tommy Lasorda bleeding Dodger blue," he says. "I have a passion for my hometown. My real goal is to do something to make Buffalo better."
Indeed, after Tolbert recently retired from the NBA in Manhattan, he and his wife could have gone anywhere. But he sold his home there and has settled on the Buffalo waterfront. Now he is emerging as the most active figure on the mayoral landscape -- other than current Mayor Byron W. Brown -- as the next election approaches in 2013.
"I'm not looking for a political career," he said. "It's just an area where I think I can make a contribution."
That's why Tolbert emerges as a new and intriguing figure in the same old, same old mix of Buffalo politics. He stems from no political faction, but boasts a background with well-known abbreviations -- FBI and NBA. He doesn't need a job, and if he opts against running, he'll find some other way to get involved in Buffalo. So for now, he's on a Hillaryesque "listening tour."
"I'm exploring and investigating," he said. "And the questions I'm asking are better preparing me for answers that might lie down the road."
Tolbert avoids any specifics about what he would do if elected mayor of Buffalo. He talks about the need for economic development and an emphasis on education -- but then again, so does everybody. Ask again in a year, he says now. But he will tell you that 22 years in the nation's elite law enforcement agency has taught him a few things about discipline, management and leadership.
"I think I was successful at it," he said. "I'm very good at decision-making skills, and at getting the best information and going with it. And I've lived in other cities and seen things that might work for Buffalo."
But like Republican Chris Collins in his 2007 run for county executive, Tolbert keeps returning to the fact that he is not a politician. Yes, he's a Democrat. And yes, he will embrace the process to do what has to be done. But he dips his toe into the fray devoid of any of the grudges and baggage of most Buffalo pols.
"I've always said that one of the things that has held Buffalo back is politics," he said. "We have to get away from 'What is best for me?' to 'What can we do as a community to get out of this?' "
The next mayoral election remains more than two years away, and Brown has yet to even hint at his plans for a potential third term. Tolbert has informed the mayor of his activities as a courtesy. And he knows that after years of globe-trotting with the FBI and NBA, he faces lots of reconnecting.
But he starts with all sorts of contacts, a natural African-American base, credentials galore and -- you'll be hearing this a lot -- he's not a politician.
Tolbert is back in Buffalo. And one way or another, it appears he's determined to make his mark.