Everyone knows the huge odds Bernard Tolbert faces in unseating Byron W. Brown as mayor.
The incumbent has a $1.1 million campaign chest. He has all the advantages of incumbency and the inside track on getting the backing of Democratic Party leaders. And he can point to the construction along the waterfront and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus in a city with a long history of economic stagnation.
But Tolbert brought his own pluses to the podium Saturday morning when he announced his candidacy for mayor.
He’s a homegrown talent, born, raised and educated in Buffalo. He comes from, and has raised, a large family of well-regarded professionals, many of whom still call Buffalo home. He has strong business connections, and he boasts top management skills, from executive positions with the FBI, Coca-Cola and the National Basketball Association. Plus, he makes an easy, natural connection with people.
The announcement sets up a Democratic Party primary between two well-known public figures.
Tolbert knows all about the long odds he faces.
“Without question, it’s an uphill battle, but I’ve faced uphill battles my whole life,” he told reporters, shortly after announcing his candidacy to about 150 cheering supporters inside the Rev. Dr. Bennett W. Smith Sr. Family Life Center on Michigan Avenue.
Tolbert painted himself as a homegrown Buffalonian with only one goal: to give back to his hometown and make Buffalo a better place to live.
“If you can see the future the way that I do, and if you also believe in a better Buffalo for all, please join me, and I will fight and push forward until we all realize the results together,” Tolbert said.
Later, in a scrum with reporters, Tolbert said he thinks voters are looking for a choice in the heavily Democratic city and that he believes they’re ready for a change.
“I plan to let people know that I have one agenda, and one agenda only – to make our city better,” Tolbert said.
Tolbert’s announcement offered an interesting parallel to Brown, who launched his bid for a third term March 23 at the same facility on the St. John Baptist Church campus.
Both are members of the congregation. And both will appeal to the same African-American and Democratic constituency in a primary that has formed Brown’s base since 2005.
In addition, Tolbert must make a play for the “crossover” votes among white Democrats whom Brown has attracted through two previous elections. Just as Brown did at his announcement, Tolbert attracted a mixed crowd of black and white faces Saturday.
Among the political and church leaders in attendance from the African-American community, according to Tolbert and others, were Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo; former Legislature Chairman Roger I. Blackwell; Arthur O. Eve Jr., who heads the Unity Coalition; and the Revs. William Gillison and Brian Robinson.
In his 14-minute candidacy speech, Tolbert offered a glimpse into some issues he plans to highlight, with brief comments on the Buffalo schools, job growth, stronger neighborhoods and crime.
A graduate of the Buffalo elementary schools and Lafayette High School, Tolbert said it’s “heart-wrenching” to see the same school system that helped shape him failing.
“We all know that the education system in Buffalo simply does not work,” he said. “As mayor, I will work with all stakeholders, to put an end to the shame of our public schools.”
Referring to the city’s neighborhoods, Tolbert said demolishing buildings is not a viable strategy to solve all those challenges.
“We must have something to build upon,” he said.
Crime also figures to be a big Tolbert issue, as he can emphasize his former role heading the Buffalo FBI office.
Nobody observing the developing race is predicting that Tolbert can compete with the incumbent in raising money, but the challenger does have in his corner experienced campaign financiers such as Hormoz Mansouri, the head of a Tonawanda engineering firm, who is enthusiastically backing his candidacy.
Mansouri can be counted on not only for his own significant donations, but also for soliciting contributions from others.
Tolbert’s contacts in New York City from his days as head of security for the National Basketball Association also are expected to be solicited, as are his friends in Atlanta, where he worked for Coca-Cola.
But how will he battle Brown’s perceived advantage of the current construction in the city?
“I say to people, tell me one initiative that was started by the Brown administration,” Tolbert replied.
During a brief question-and-answer session with reporters, Tolbert also was put on the defensive.
He was asked to explain how Brown attracted about twice as many people to the same venue for the announcement of his re-election bid.
Tolbert said he wasn’t concerned about those numbers. Instead, he’s concerned about getting his message out to the people of Buffalo.
Tolbert’s candidacy turns this year’s mayoral campaign into a three-man race, with Brown and announced Republican candidate Sergio R. Rodriguez.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished and the great progress we have made together in Buffalo,” Brown said in a statement issued Saturday afternoon, “and I look forward to sharing my record with the voters of Buffalo.”
Rodriguez seemed to welcome Tolbert into the race, saying that the announcement ensures “healthy competition” for Buffalo’s highest elected office.
“Unlike the previous election cycle, the current administration will be forced to defend its failed policies – which have led to an increase in crime, unemployment and a poverty-stricken city reeling from failed economic policies,” Rodriguez said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Brown administration spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge was quick to take issue with one of Rodriguez’s assertions. Overall crime is down 20 percent since 2006, DeGeorge said.