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Mayor Byron W. Brown, who rarely faces a public situation where he is not in control, found himself between two men Wednesday who want his job, forced to defend his record on crime, education and jobs.

Bernard A. Tolbert, a retired FBI special agent in charge in Buffalo, and Republican Sergio R. Rodriguez debated Brown for the first time during this year’s mayoral campaign, and attacked the incumbent, charging that he has not shown leadership on the issue of education and that his police department is not engaged enough in the community.

For Brown, the debate in front of a lively audience in The Buffalo News auditorium was a chance to explain his record on the hottest topics in this election – the performance of city schools, the crime rate and economic development.

But for his challengers, the event provided a bigger opportunity to present their ideas to a rapt audience of voters and to make the case why the city should change course.

Brown mostly held his own, and though his public persona is calm and collected, he showed passion on questions regarding violent crime and job creation for black and Latino workers.

He began his night by highlighting his record on taxes and stabilizing city finances.

Tolbert stressed his law enforcement background and said he would be out in the community and be willing to try new ideas. While waterfront development and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus are good projects, Brown should not take credit for them, Tolbert said. He also credited the control board, and not Brown, with the city’s high credit rating.

He reminded the audience about the city’s failed economic development arm, the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., which was shut down amid scandal.

In a more pointed rebuke of Brown, Rodriguez asked, “What does it matter that we have a medical corridor” if public schools are not adequately preparing students for careers there?

When challenged about job creation for black and Latino workers, Brown named the many boards on which he serves, and said he raises the issue frequently. Sometimes, he said, he is the only one in the room to do so.

He also reminded his challengers that in the contract with the Buffalo Sabres for the Webster Block development, he negotiated high minority hiring goals. When he talked about how many black and Latino employees he has hired in his administration, however, someone in the audience shouted out that he has fired those workers, too.

Brown, with a career spent in politics, is an experienced debater, and responded quickly to attacks against him. Tolbert, who has some name recognition from his years with the FBI, attacked Brown and was applauded at times by the audience, but he was overshadowed many times by Rodriguez, who displayed the most passion, and drew laughter and encouraging shouts from the crowd.

Tolbert criticized the mayor for working out of an office protected by cameras and an “armed guard” and for taking credit for economic development in the city that he said was largely the work of others.

The mayor was on the defensive on education, where he supplied his oft-repeated response that his office has no control over the school district, adding that the State Legislature rarely approves necessary laws that give mayors more power over districts. Tolbert, meanwhile said he would seek the power to appoint three members of the nine-member School Board, and the power to appoint the superintendent, acknowledging those changes would require state legislation.

Rodriguez went further, saying he supports full mayoral control of the district and full-time pay for School Board members, instead of their current salary of $5,000.

“I seek accountability over the education system,” he said, adding that the current system creates a “direct to jail” pipeline, which drew applause from the audience.

When Brown said he sent $500,000 to support the education program Say Yes, which provides college scholarships to city students, Tolbert said as a board member of the Statler Foundation, he directed $1 million to the program.

Both challengers said the mayor’s gun buyback programs are ineffective, and said they would like to see police officers cultivate better relationships with the community.

Tolbert noted that someone could commit a crime with a gun one day, and that the city’s no questions asked policy for guns returned at buybacks means that gun would never be connected with the crime.

Brown said if the buybacks prevented even one death, they are worth it.

Rodriguez asked the audience when the last time they saw an officer walking a beat, and criticized the force for having so many members live in the suburbs.

Rodriguez had the most pointed quips, and said the city has become a “playground” for suburbanites and not enough has been done to create jobs for residents.

“Eight is enough,” Rodriguez said in his closing statement, referring to the number of years Brown has been in office.

Brown is seeking a third term, and will face Tolbert in a Sept. 10 Democratic primary.

Rodriguez, a Marine veteran, will appear on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.

All three were in favor of a downtown football stadium, and opposed using taxpayer funds to bail out the HSBC tower, downtown’s tallest building, which is losing its largest tenants.

The event was sponsored by the Buffalo Association of Black Journalists and was open to the public.

email: jterreri@buffnews.com