A pair of appearances over the past few days by the two candidates competing in Tuesday’s Democratic primary may sum up the low-key campaign for mayor this year.
Standing in the lobby of Lafayette High School on the morning of the first day of school, Bernard A. Tolbert was enthusiastically reminiscing about his time there as a student, playing football and cheering at pep rallies.
Just days before facing Mayor Byron W. Brown in the primary election, Tolbert spent the morning talking to school officials and students about the city’s education system. There may be no topic he has emphasized more in his uphill battle to unseat Brown.
“It’s the first day of school,” he said. “It’s a very important part of my platform.”
But few of those at Lafayette last week can even vote.
Contrast that with the scene Thursday at Templeton Landing, where Brown helped announce a new state park for Buffalo’s outer harbor. The incumbent mayor stood with the governor, lieutenant governor, a congressman, and the city’s political and business elite – perhaps 500 movers and shakers – all praising the city’s role in a plan for the city’s undeveloped waterfront.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo later that day officially endorsed Brown for a third term, but the power of incumbency was evident at Templeton Landing.
“There is solid optimism,” Brown said a few days earlier in an interview. “People feel good about the city and its progress.”
Still, Tolbert and Brown have been charging hard in their own ways for months now, especially over the past few days. Their campaign slogans seem to truly reflect their themes: for Tolbert, “a better choice;” for Brown, “progress.”
Tolbert, former special agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI who later held key security posts with the National Basketball Association and Coca-Cola, has homed in on education and crime as he criticizes Brown’s performance. At Lafayette, he and School Board Member James M. Sampson met with Principal Naomi Cerre to visit classrooms.
A sense of empathy
Tolbert listens more than he speaks, but he isn’t shy about reminding whomever he’s speaking with about his experience as a social worker or with the FBI. His social-work background gives him a sense of empathy, one that helped him develop sources in the FBI.
“It taught me how to treat people, how to treat my staff,” he said.
He also asked how the school handles a student body that speaks 45 languages and asked the principal to identify the school’s greatest need.
“The office of the mayor has to be involved,” Tolbert told Cerre. “We need a seat at the table.”
Tolbert’s challenge in running against Brown, a well-financed incumbent with a formidable political organization, has been to attack the incumbent where he is vulnerable. For example, Tolbert has maintained that the administration has not been involved enough in education.
After an hour at Lafayette, Tolbert moved on to Health Sciences Charter School, north of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where he reinforced his support of charter schools.
“I’d love all the Buffalo Public Schools to be top-performing schools, but they’re not,” he said. “Charters are here to stay.”
And to a student studying to become an athletic trainer, Tolbert told of his work for the NBA and the importance of athletic trainers.
In addition to education, Tolbert’s top issues are crime and neighborhood concerns.
He has been critical of Brown’s aggressive demolition of vacant houses and said more could be renovated, or vacant lots could be sold for neighbors to maintain.
“We tear down buildings and we don’t have a strategic plan,” he said. “There’s no foresight; it’s just knocking them down.”
Tolbert said he has been walking neighborhoods, reminding voters that they have a choice.
“Not for a moment do I regret doing this,” he said, despite disappointing numbers in the polls. “We’re optimistic. This has been a different experience and one I’m glad I undertook.”
His candidacy has created change, and he doesn’t think the city’s firefighters would have a settled contract if he wasn’t running, he said.
Other issues he’s talked about, such as a problem property in Johnson Park, were given quick attention by the city, Tolbert said.
But he faces Brown at a time when construction cranes are appearing against the skyline. Though a range of surveys still rank Buffalo among the poorest cities in the nation, its mayor exudes enough confidence to even predict that more than a half century of population decline is about to end.
“We feel confident from looking at trends that it has slowed significantly,” Brown said of population loss. “And we feel that for the first time since 1950, we will see population growth in the City of Buffalo in 2020.”
Brown digs into more statistics to bolster his case. He constantly cites $1.7 billion in investment in Buffalo. And even if his administration is not responsible for all of it, he said is administration has fostered an environment attractive to investors.
He rejected Tolbert’s claims about crime running rampant in Buffalo, pointing to a 20 percent overall reduction. He cited plans for 2,200 new housing units; took pride in the vacant structure demolition criticized by his opponent; $55 million invested in streets, sidewalks and curbs in the neighborhoods; $31 million in parks, and pointed to the highest credit rating in the city’s history.
“I don’t see that he has stated his case whatsoever,” Brown said of Tolbert. “I haven’t heard or seen an original plan.”
A pressing problem
Still, by his very appearance last week at Lafayette – a troubled high school the state deems underperforming – Tolbert drew attention to a school system that may be the city’s most pressing problem.
Brown rejects his opponent’s call for more mayoral control of the schools, opting instead for more collaboration among stakeholders.
“I understand the need for accountability,” he said, “but putting one person at the helm relieves others of their responsibility.”
Tolbert charged that Brown has stood by silently on city schools, and that he has failed to use his “bully pulpit” to clamor for change.
But the mayor said his role is to foster cooperation and new thinking among the administration, teachers, parents and students. He said his embrace of the Say Yes to Education program, which provides incentives for Buffalo students to achieve a college education, stands as an example of a proper mayoral contribution.
“I plan on being more vocal, as mayor and a member of the control board,” he said. “But there needs to be a plan that parents, teachers and every local and state stakeholder can embrace and support. I will push for a comprehensive plan.”