After a yearlong “listening tour,” Bernard Tolbert’s challenge to two-term incumbent Mayor Byron W. Brown in the September Democratic mayoral primary is proving low key.
Even some of his ardent supporters describe Tolbert’s effort as “invisible,” absent a single press release or ad on the airwaves.
But in recent days, the former head of the FBI’s Buffalo office has revved up the pace. He had made media rounds, shook hands with voters and attended community events, all the while articulating a case for his candidacy.
“I recognize and my campaign recognizes we’ve got work to do for my name recognition,” he said. “We know we’ve got more to do.”
He promised his campaign soon will become much more visible, and that he is “out there every day.”
Political observers agree Tolbert has run an active campaign on the street level. For months, he has attended virtually every community event in the city and staged small gatherings in which he discussed issues with voters.
Still, others are waiting for him to begin advertising or adopt a more aggressive posture toward current events and the race.
With his campaign yet to hit full stride, Tolbert at least has begun to outline a platform of reducing crime, improving education, supporting neighborhoods and creating jobs.
He said his effort stems from a desire to “make things better” in his native city. He harbors no political ambitions beyond City Hall, he said. In fact, the candidate emphasized he identifies with no political club, faction or clique – and owes nobody.
“The current mayor grew up in a political machine; he has never had a job outside of politics,” Tolbert said during a recent meeting with editors and reporters of The Buffalo News. “I would appoint people to positions in City Hall based on their ability to help me get the job done and with no regard for political affiliation.”
Tolbert, 65, understands that he faces a tough assignment against an entrenched mayor who holds the advantages of incumbency and can tap more than $1 million in campaign money. Tolbert expects Brown to air campaign ads featuring the fleet of construction cranes working on new development at the foot of Main Street, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and other downtown locations.
Tolbert said no such development is occurring elsewhere.
“I would not develop a city by leaving certain areas behind and ignore the East Side, Riverside and Black Rock,” Tolbert said “We’re only as strong as our weakest neighborhood.”
Tolbert questioned the city’s emphasis on tearing down vacant housing “without a strategic plan.” He said old tires and broken glass litter vacant lots when city officials should plan for mini-parks or something that improves the properties.
Given new statistics showing the graduation rate of Buffalo Public Schools falling to 47 percent, Tolbert said the mayor needs to play a larger role in one of the city’s most pressing problems: education. While acknowledging limitations on the chief executive despite the city’s annual contribution of approximately $70 million, Tolbert said he would adopt a different approach.
“We’ve had a lack of strong leadership; there has been a silence,” he said. “The mayor of a city should have a bully pulpit to be a strong advocate for our children.
“It’s a priority for me,” he added. “Until I see changes, you’ll be hearing from me all the time.”
Tolbert said he would lobby Albany for powers similar to those of the mayor of New York, who appoints some School Board members. Tolbert said he would seek quarterly reports on how the school district spends city money.
Tolbert, a 22-year veteran of the FBI and former special agent in charge of the Buffalo office, is expected to emphasize his crime-fighting credentials as well as earlier experience as a social worker. His career taught him how to manage people and how to deal with crime, he said.
He acknowledged some improvement in crime statistics since Brown became mayor, but he called violent crime a “huge issue.”
The FBI’s recent crime report for 2012 showed Buffalo with the 11th worst violent crime record in the nation.
Brown has not embraced some elements of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s new strict gun control law. Tolbert agreed the measure was not fully discussed and debated before its January passage. He said the legislation missed the mark by not concentrating on possession of illegal guns, and he seems to offer only lukewarm support despite strong backing by the state’s other big city mayors.
“I would likely support it,” he said of the Cuomo bill.
The mayor, meanwhile, proudly points to surveillance cameras around the city, more police officers on the streets and a continuing gun buyback program that he said has removed 11,000 weapons from Buffalo streets. Tolbert called the buyback “fine as a PR move.”
“But if you’re telling people you’re now safer, you’re being disingenuous,” he said, adding he fails to understand why police do not ask questions about guns they receive in the program.
Sources inside the Brown campaign indicate significant fundraising success recently, with an average of one event per week. The mayor is expected to file more than his current $1.1 million balance when campaign submits finance reports next month. Tolbert has staged only one major event.
He has lined up several well-heeled donors, however, who are expected to solicit many other potential contributors.
Despite concerted efforts, Tolbert has failed to gain the backing of any minor party.
Brown won the backing of Democratic Party leaders and has been nominated by the Conservative, Independence and Working Families parties, too.
That means Tolbert must win the Sept. 10 Democratic primary to advance to the Nov. 5 general election in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Tolbert has promised to wage an aggressive and serious campaign backed by significant resources.
He also deflected criticism that he waited too long to enter the race.
He said his first shipment of lawn signs has arrived and will soon be seen around the city. He has assembled a campaign staff.
He has opened two headquarters, one on Hertel Avenue and another on Delaware Avenue, and will soon open an East Side facility, too.
He says his motivation is simple.
“I do this because Buffalo is my home, and I want to do my part to make it better,” he said.