Bernie Tolbert doesn’t need or want my sympathy. But I can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. Taking on Byron Brown is like trying to grab a puff of smoke or lasso a shadow. Nothing sticks to the Teflon Mayor.
On Brown’s two-term watch, Buffalo lost another 20,000 people. Schools went deeper into the dumpster, while he watched the charter school revolution from the sidelines. His anti-poverty “plan” for America’s third-poorest city was a lame, idea-absent rehash. Buffalo is basically a ward of the state, which covers a third of its budget and the bulk of its school costs.
Brown backed a proposed Bass Pro store that would have smothered the downtown waterfront, and a Seneca casino that experts say does us more harm than good. But mostly, he is mum – even on obvious causes such as expanding ECC’s downtown campus. Nearly two-thirds of respondents rated him no better than average in a Buffalo News leadership survey. He is vision-lite, cliche-heavy and largely uninspiring.
You would think that the man would be fighting for his political life. Instead, the mayor is livin’ easy.
Polls show him far ahead of Tolbert, who is barely known and fights a 6-to-1 dollar disadvantage. The Democratic primary in September decides the race, as city Republicans are an endangered species. My wish to see a progressive, idea-driven mayor in this lifetime may never be granted (in lieu of that, I’d settle for a Super Bowl). Pollster Steven Greenberg can’t explain Brown’s cushy lead, given abysmal marks on schools and job creation.
Which brings us to Brown’s political genius – he has mastered the art of low expectations. By keeping his head in the foxhole, by not championing big ideas and sweeping reforms, he has conditioned people not to expect much. So he can take credit for anything good that happens – even when, like the waterfront or downtown revival, it doesn’t have much to do with him – while avoiding blame for problems. It helps that Brown was preceded by three-term Mayor Tony Masiello, who, if possible, set an even lower bar.
At least Jimmy Griffin had an executive temperament, along with a temper.
A bolder, tougher, more visionary mayor would lobby for a regional planning board, to slow sprawl and funnel new business into the city. He would protect one of the city’s few resources – its stock of great old buildings – by data-basing historic properties and hammering negligent owners. He would push for mixed-income housing in the suburbs, to lighten the city’s heavy poverty load. He would embrace the choice of charter schools, while demanding accountability from traditional ones. And on and on.
His city is on life support, yet Brown shows little passion and champions few causes. What, me worry?
Granted, the mayor has strengths. He is likable, projects concern and looks good – all political pluses. The streets get plowed, and the garbage is picked up. And his timing is good. He is in office while the waterfront is shaping up and downtown is repopulating. Albany and Washington dollars, not city money, stoke the waterfront, and downtown revival is traceable mainly to market forces and momentum. Still, the rising tide lifts his boat. As numerous insiders have told me, Brown stays out of the way and shows up for the ribbon-cuttings.
In Buffalo, the city of low expectations, it goes a long way. A lot further, I think, than it should.