Purely as a lover of a fair fight, my sympathies are with Bernie Tolbert.
Mayor Byron Brown has a treasure chest of campaign dollars, which is stuffed by law firms, contractors and everyone else who does business with the city. He boasts a huge ethnic base and a formidable political machine. He reaps the photo-op and favor-dispensing perks of incumbency. He enjoys the fruits of downtown repopulation and waterfront revival, even if neither is the result of his labors.
He is a tough guy to take on.
Even so, Tolbert has only himself to blame for a looming disaster.
A Buffalo News/WGRZ-TV-commissioned mayoral poll was released today, and Tolbert is getting toasted.
It is no surprise. He has run the sort of stealth campaign that makes me wonder why he bothered. The ex-FBI man’s visibility is so low, you’d think he was in the witness protection program. The race is all but over, and Tolbert’s campaign has barely begun.
I don’t want to pound a guy who is getting pounded. But even given his dollar disadvantage, his campaign is underwhelming. He has had Brown in his sights for more than a year, yet his website remains a work in progress. His “Education Plan” is a collection of generalities. The “Jobs” and “Neighborhood” pages are, said a spokesperson, “still coming.” Still coming? The Democratic primary is barely three weeks away. Wait much longer, and the polls will be closed.
What seemed like a promising candidacy has gone nowhere. It’s not hard to figure out why. Although he held executive positions with the FBI and the NBA, Tolbert is – at 65 – a political novice. He wasn’t ready to run, and it shows.
When we spoke Friday at his campaign headquarters, before poll results were known, Tolbert admitted his inexperience hurt.
“There have been a number of ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that’ moments,” he told me. “If I were to run again, there are things I’d know a lot sooner and do a lot better.”
Tolbert didn’t just miss on some fat pitches. He didn’t even swing.
Buffalo was cited in a June FBI report as the nation’s 11th-worst city for violent crime. It begged for a day-after news conference from the ex-FBI guy. We’re still waiting.
People were ticked off when Brown said the splash pad at MLK Park – which took forever to get done – would close at 7 o’clock each night. Tolbert could have said that, as mayor, he’d keep the fun going until 9. Instead, silence.
It is easy to understand why a Tolbert run seemed like a good idea. As an African-American, he presumably could undercut the ethnic support that lifted Brown to landslide victories four and eight years ago. With his crime-fighting background and straight-shooter vibe, Tolbert potentially could match the high-gloss mayor’s crossover appeal.
Nobody figured on an under-the-radar campaign. Forty-three percent of Democrats polled still don’t know much about him. Despite the East Side’s rampant joblessness and abundance of battered streets, Tolbert isn’t siphoning the ethnic vote. A whopping 82 percent of African-Americans polled favor Brown.
Given the scope of the city’s problems, the mayor to my mind should face a spirited challenge. Brown has been all but silent on Buffalo’s troubled schools and has no anti-poverty plan for the nation’s third-poorest city. Buffalo has lost 20,000 people on his watch. Albany and Washington dollars, not City Hall money or vision, drive the waterfront. Brown shows little passion and lacks larger ideas. He specializes in ground-breakings and ribbon-cuttings. All of which should leave him ripe for a frontal assault.
We’re still waiting for Tolbert to mount a charge. Unless something changes, his campaign will go down as an mammoth whiff.
I am not saying that, even had Tolbert been ready for action, he could beat a fat-walleted incumbent riding a tide of downtown and waterfront revival. The mayoral race was never a fair fight. But at least Tolbert could have come out swinging.