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Buffalo Democrats think the city is headed in the right direction and approve of Mayor Byron W. Brown’s job performance, putting him in a strong position as he seeks a third term, according to a poll conducted by Siena College and commissioned by The Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV.

Two-thirds of Democratic voters have a favorable opinion of Brown, and 60 percent said they would vote for him if the primary election were held today, according to a poll conducted June 23 to 27.

Brown benefits from strong support among blacks and also because his challenger in the Democratic primary, former FBI official Bernard A. Tolbert, remains unknown to most voters.

Brown has been mayor for nearly eight years, and heading into the Sept. 10 primary, he has more than $1 million in campaign funds and remains a popular figure.

Despite some dissatisfaction with city services, 54 percent of Democratic voters rate Brown’s job performance as excellent or good.

Voters also appear to be giving him credit, or at least partial credit, for economic development in the city.

“Any contender is going to have to face that positive spirit, and concrete – literally – that we see all around us,” said voter Barbara Mierzwa, who is retired and lives near Canisius High School and plans to vote for Brown. “He’s going to be a hard man to beat.”

Tolbert has been mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate for more than a year, and he declared his candidacy in May. But 58 percent of Democratic voters said they don’t know him or had no opinion of him.

If a competition with Brown were held today, the poll found Tolbert would win the support from 26 percent of Democratic voters, and 13 percent are undecided.

The obvious signs of economic development in the city, from cranes on the waterfront and on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, appear to be helping Brown, even though voters don’t think that local government is particularly responsive to citizens.

“It makes it harder for a challenger to take down an incumbent when two-thirds of voters think that the city is headed on the right track,” said pollster Steven A. Greenberg.

City Democrats have a dimmer view of local government, with 66 percent saying it responds fairly or poorly to citizens. More than 70 percent of Democratic voters said schools were fair or poor, and 77 percent said roads, sidewalks and other public works were fair or poor.

The scientific poll randomly surveyed 696 registered Democrats. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Barry Hassett of South Buffalo is one of those Democratic voters who thinks the city’s infrastructure needs a lot of work but is planning to vote for Brown.

“There are streets in South Buffalo that look like they could have filmed the moon landing,” Hassett said.

“He’s the best of a worse pick I guess. I really wish there was somebody else running for mayor.”

Voters were more satisfied with the Police Department and parks and recreational facilities, which scored favorable ratings above 50 percent.

Frank A. Leli Jr. said he is unhappy with the state of the schools, but he doesn’t blame Brown for that. The streets in Lovejoy, where he lives, are being paved, and he said he thinks Brown is being tough on crime. “For me, all politics is local,” Leli said. “He’s not a bad mayor.”

Brown was encouraged when told of the poll results Saturday.

“It sounds like very good news. It’s a clear indication that residents are happy with the progress we’re making in the city,” Brown said.

“We’re working hard every single day and we’re always looking to improve our performance in every single category that is important to residents. We’ve been pursuing new strategies and best practices that will improve how we provide services in the City of Buffalo,” he added.

Tolbert, meanwhile, said he was undeterred by the poll.

“This is not unexpected,” Tolbert said. “I’m facing an eight-year incumbent, but this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

In the meantime, Tolbert vowed to raise his visibility and to campaign more aggressively in the coming weeks. “We have to be aggressive in getting me out there to people,” he said.

“I look forward to debating Byron Brown on the issues. The poll numbers I want to see is how we’re compared on the issues,” Tolbert added.

Nearly three-quarters of Democratic voters said “the ability to obtain suitable employment” is fair or poor. The city hasn’t been responsive to the Pine Harbor Apartments, which sit in the shadow of City Hall, said Sharon Tell. The complex has 208 units and Tell, 43, said she has been trying to get help from City Hall to establish a playground nearby.

“It’s time for something new,” said Tell, who added she will be voting for Tolbert in the Democratic primary. “I want to see more for the West Side.”

Brown’s overwhelming support among blacks makes up for somewhat milder support among whites.

Three-quarters of Democratic black voters have a favorable opinion of Brown, compared to 57 percent of white voters.

“Black voters are strongly with the mayor and they’ve made a decision,” Greenberg said. “It appears that there’s a larger percentage of white voters who are unsure.”

Elmwood Village resident Barbara Howard, 67, said she will not vote for Brown, and she wishes Tolbert was more visible.

The mayor is “taking credit for things he had nothing to do with,” Howard said.

“I think it’s time for him to go. He’s been there long enough,” she said.

When Democratic voters are asked whether they will re-elect Brown or prefer someone else, 55 percent said they would re-elect him, 38 percent said they prefer someone else and 8 percent said they didn’t know.

“That’s a pretty strong re-elect number for an incumbent these days,” Greenberg said.

“I always thought the mayor was taking care of business,” said Watson, who lives on the East Side near Bailey and Walden avenues.

Nearly half of Democratic white voters, 48 percent, prefer someone other than Brown, and only 43 percent said they would re-elect him.

In a match-up with Tolbert, 75 percent of black Democratic voters said they would vote for Brown, and only 16 percent said they would vote for Tolbert. Tolbert draws support from 34 percent of white Democratic voters in a match-up with Brown, while 49 percent said they would vote for Brown. Nearly one in six white Democratic voters are undecided, compared to about 1 in 10 black voters.

Brown also does slightly better among Democratic men, as 65 percent said they would re-elect him over Tolbert, compared to 57 percent of women.

With 2½ months until the September primary, Tolbert must introduce himself to more Democratic voters if he is going to be competitive.

“He’s obviously facing an uphill climb,” Greenberg said. “He’s got to get known.”

The bright spot in the poll for Tolbert is that of the 41 percent of Democratic voters that do know him, he has a 3-1 favorable rating.

One-quarter of black Democratic voters have a favorable opinion of Tolbert, compared to 34 percent of white Democratic voters.

More than 50 percent of Democratic voters said they prefer Brown to address crime, neighborhood concerns, economic development, job creation and taxes, which is expected given the poll’s other results, Greenberg said.

Twenty-nine percent of Democratic voters thought Tolbert would do a better job handling crime, and 27 percent thought he would do better with neighborhood issues. Only 18 percent thought he would do better keeping taxes under control, 24 percent thought he would be better at creating jobs, and 21 percent said he would do better managing economic development.

Most Democratic voters don’t know Republican Sergio R. Rodriguez, who is seeking the mayor’s office in the Nov. 5 general election, and those who do are split on whether they view him favorably.

Rodriguez is known by just 36 percent of Democratic voters. Nineteen percent have a favorable opinion of him, and 17 percent do not.

email: jterreri@buffnews.com