First of a four-part series

By Susan Schulman / News Staff Reporter

If this were the Wild West, instead of Western New York, we might see Brian Higgins and Howard Zemsky in a shootout with Steve Casey and Phil Rumore.

It would be a battle viewed by many as good leaders against bad.

At least in the eyes of many area movers and shakers.

Leadership is undoubtedly a subjective concept, falling into the same category as beauty or perhaps even pornography – it’s difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. And it’s in the eye of the beholder.

That was clearly the case when close to 150 business, political, government and community/civic leaders responded to a survey from The Buffalo News asking them to rank the effectiveness of 25 leaders in Buffalo and Erie County. Politicians generally did not get rave reviews in the survey. Not Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. Not County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. Not the head of the County Legislature or City Council, or any of our state legislators.

The exception – and this was a big exception – is Rep. Brian Higgins, who seems to be the closest thing to a political rock star that we now have.

Higgins was a strong second among the 25 leaders ranked by survey respondents.

“Brian has done wonderful things,” said Sharon L. Hanson, a cable company government relations director who also serves as vice chairwoman of the Erie County Medical Center board of directors. “The whole waterfront thing would not be getting done without Brian.”

The No. 1 pick by far, however – a favorite among all groups surveyed – was Howard A. Zemsky, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority chairman and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Western New York economic development guru, whose renovation of a vacant building on Exchange Street is transforming an entire city neighborhood.

“What Howard has been able to do in the Larkin area is amazing,” said Jeffrey M. Conrad, regional director for the Center for Employment Opportunities.

“He has what many leaders in Buffalo don’t have,” said Eunice Lewin, a SUNY trustee who is also an NFTA commissioner. “He’s not threatened by diversity of thought. He is totally inclusive. He has a total proven record.”

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the list, the leadership equivalent of Blackwell’s worst dressed, are two men that Buffalo – and it turns out much of Erie County – loves to hate.

No. 24, and second from the bottom, was Steven M. Casey, Brown’s deputy mayor, who was derided over and over – even by fellow Democrats working in government or politics – as a political hack.

“The mayor’s hatchet man,” one respondent said.

Rock bottom on the list, No. 25, was Philip B. Rumore, the longtime president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation and perhaps the most reviled man among the area’s leadership elite.

“He’s an obstructionist,” said developer Paul F. Ciminelli, president of Cimineli Real Estate. “It seems whenever there is an initiative to help the schools, he’s against it. He’s polarizing.”

“His job is to protect the teachers, and he’s doing a great job representing teachers,” attorney John V. Elmore said. “But is his role always best for students? Absolutely not. It doesn’t lend him to be the most popular person in the City of Buffalo.”

Rumore says he doesn’t deserve to be viewed so harshly, but he also said he isn’t surprised, given the way he is portrayed in newspaper articles and editorials in The Buffalo News.

“We never get credit for anything positive that we do,” he said. “The only coverage we get is our battles with the district. Most of the time, we are working well together.”

“I’m not an adversarial person,” he added, “but when it comes to certain things, I’m not afraid to take a stand.”

The survey

The News sent three separate surveys to 320 government and political officials, as well as business and community leaders in Buffalo and Erie County.

One survey asked respondents to rate Brown. Another asked for ratings on Poloncarz. The third asked respondents their overall views on the community’s leadership and asked them to rank 25 individuals identified as leaders by The Buffalo News.

Just under 50 percent of those sent surveys – 154 – responded, although all didn’t respond to all three surveys.

There were 149 responses to the leadership survey. The survey responses were anonymous, although respondents were invited to be interviewed if they wished, and 26 did.

In addition to asking respondents to rank individuals, the leadership survey asked respondents to rank the most important issues facing the region.

By far, the most important issue was creating jobs, followed by addressing the public school crisis in Buffalo.

The survey also asked respondents to rank the importance of 12 ongoing brick-and-mortar projects in Western New York.

The waterfront was ranked the most important, followed by the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. The downtown casino was ranked last.

The survey also found that a majority of residents are pleased with progress being made on the waterfront and, even more so, on the Medical Campus.

It was just the opposite when it comes to jobs and schools.

Sixty-five percent rated job creation as unsatisfactory. Seventy percent labeled the progress with the city schools as unsatisfactory, with 39 percent of that group labeling the effort as dismal.

These rankings would seem to explain a lot about why some leaders, such as Rumore, fell to the bottom and others, such as Zemsky, rose to the top of the leadership list.

Howard Zemsky

Meet Howard A. Zemsky, the man dubbed by this survey as the leader of the leaders. A 53-year-old Republican-turned-Democrat, Zemsky not only received the best overall score among the 25 individuals ranked in the survey, but also was listed in first place by 30 percent of respondents. That’s twice as many first-place rankings as the person in the No. 2 spot and almost four times as many as the person in No. 3.

Some anonymous comments about him from survey respondents:

“Helped create a ‘place’ at Larkin Square where previously there was nothing.” – 60-something-year-old white male community leader from Buffalo.

“Dedicated to regional initiatives. We need a regional strategy.” – 50-year-old white businesswoman from the Northtowns.

“No personal agenda, inclusive leader, champion of the city.” – 60-something-year-old African-American woman from Buffalo.

“Converts talk to action.” – white male community leader.

“The ‘chosen one’ of Gov. Cuomo; has done great job with Larkinville.” – Buffalo businessman.

“Vision, follow-through. Gets the job done.” – 50-year-old African-American businessman.

Such accolades represent the growing role Zemsky has taken on as developer, NFTA chairman and as co-chairman, with University at Buffalo President Satish Tripathi, of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.

The latter two posts come virtue of Zemsky’s growing relationship with Cuomo, who considers Zemsky his Western New York development czar. No doubt the MBA-trained business executive picked up some of the skills for that role from years in his family business, his seven years on the NFTA and, more recently, his award-winning Larkinville redevelopment project on Exchange Street – and possibly also because of his generosity.

Zemsky, his wife, Leslie, and his companies have given politicians more than $500,000 since 2000. Cuomo received $55,000 of that, campaign records show.

Zemsky describes himself as a businessman who appreciates the aesthetics as well as economic benefits of historical architecture, with the Larkin building being his prime example.

His larger vision is to help create jobs and a culture that keeps young people in Western New York.

“It is amazing to me to be part of this,” he said. “It’s an honor.”

Brian Higgins

Of the 25 leaders respondents were asked to rank, nine were elected officials. Brown ranked eighth; Poloncarz, ninth.

The only other politician in the top 10 was Higgins, who ranked second, and who could, based on this survey, be dubbed Mr. Waterfront.

The South Buffalo Democrat has been in Congress since 2005, has travelled to Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and is associated with such issues as helping Bethlehem Street retirees obtain compensation, getting additional cancer research funds and keeping Power Authority revenue in Western New York.

The survey found that nothing Higgins has done has resonated more than his work on reviving the Buffalo waterfront. “This is one of those issues that transcends geographic areas,” Higgins said. “People in Amherst are as excited as those in Buffalo about the waterfront. And it transcends generations. People are seeing something they never thought they’d see in their lifetime.”

Higgins, 53, said he saw the potential for Buffalo’s waterfront when fighting for a larger share of New York Power Authority money as part of the Niagara Power Project’s federal relicensing agreement in 2006.

“That was the game-changer for the Buffalo waterfront,” Higgins said. “The settlement gave us $279 million for waterfront development.”

Higgins then called for creation of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., a state agency but one led by local officials – rather than by people from Albany and Washington – to oversee the Buffalo waterfront.

“The combination of money and local control changes everything,” Higgins said. “In five years, we’ve made more progress than in the past 75.”

“I’ve tried to find what is important to Buffalo,” Higgins added. “Find a focus, sustain a focus, produce an outcome. Have a vision, and then work to turn it into something.”

With Zemsky in first place and Higgins in second, the other three filling out the top five are, in order, Sabres owner Terrance M. Pegula, who is developing an ice rink-hotel-retail project on the waterfront; Oishei Foundation president Robert D. Gioia, who also heads up the Erie Canal Harbor Development board; and John R. Koelmel, president and CEO of First Niagara Bank.

Robert G. Wilmers, president of M&T Bank, ranked sixth on the list. Many of his supporters felt strongly about the commitment Wilmers has shown to the community, particularly the Buffalo schools. He received the third highest number of first-place rankings from the survey’s 149 respondents.

Then there is the opposite end of the leadership rankings.

At the bottom

Developer Carl P. Paladino was in 20th place, with rankings that reflected how polarizing he has become in Buffalo.

While 25 percent of respondents gave Paladino dismal rankings of 24 or 25, another 8 percent ranked the onetime gubernatorial candidate now running for the Buffalo Board of Education as being among the area’s top five leaders.

Below Paladino were Buffalo Common Council President Richard A. Fontana at 21st, regionalism advocate Kevin P. Gaughan at 22nd, longtime Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger of the Town of Tonawanda at 23rd and Casey, the deputy mayor who is viewed as Brown’s protector and enforcer, at 24th.

“Casey is brutal. Very blatantly political,” said Hanson, the cable company government relations director who is on the ECMC board. “He has prevented access to the mayor. Early on, when Byron was first running, Casey tried to step in between Byron and myself during a conversation. I told him that wasn’t going to happen. If more people were to treat him that way, he would fall into his rightful place. People give him respect he has not earned. And it’s not a good respect. It’s almost fear.”

Casey, 46, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Survey respondents also had lots of criticisms for Rumore, 70, the BTF president since 1981. He was ranked lowest of the 25 leaders by all three groups of survey respondents – business leaders, government and political officials, and community/civic leaders. Rumore’s refusal to go along with district attempts at insurance reform, to the point, some say, of continuing to work under a 2004 teachers’ contract, has critics calling him an obstructionist.

So does his challenge to the state’s teacher-evaluation program and the district’s plans for dealing with underperforming schools.

Several respondents said they recognize that a union’s allegiance is to its members, but they argued that unions also have a responsibility to their communities.

“He’s stuck in a 1950’s-style approach,” said Robert M. Glaser, former chairman of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Board. “Enlightened unions are helping with their community around the country.”

Rumore responds

But Rumore responds that the union has a history of fighting for students, whether it’s to reduce class size, mandate arts and music in elementary schools or, more recently, insist that the district address its student attendance problem.

Rumore objected to being called an obstructionist. The district, he said, can’t be allowed to run roughshod over the union contract. Issues such as insurance reform must be negotiated, not unilaterally imposed, he said.

He acknowledged that the expired teachers contract allows teachers to retain a fully paid, health-care-for-life plan that the district wants to pull back on. He blames the delayed contract talks on a series of legal disputes with the district as well as the district’s failure to offer teachers an acceptable contract proposal. The Public Employment Relations Board, he said, has been brought in to move contract talks along.

The Buffalo schools, meanwhile, remain a multitiered system, offering a handful of good schools but a larger number of troubled ones.

Student absenteeism is rampant. Fifty percent of students don’t graduate.

“We’ve got a failing school system,” said Peter F. Hunt, president of Hunt Real Estate, who was among the many survey respondents concerned with the state of Buffalo’s public schools.

It’s not fair, Rumore responds, to blame the union for the district’s failures.

“I am not in charge of the Buffalo schools,” he said. “I don’t have the power to do the things people think I can. I wish we did have the power to make changes.”


Coming Monday: Mayor Byron Brown