University Council Member Bonnie E. Russell walked into the Common Council chambers for the last time on Tuesday as a lawmaker and sang, “Here she is...” before joking that she couldn’t bring herself to finish the lyric with “Miss America.”
The blizzard outside could not dampen the pomp and circumstance surrounding her entrance and the 20-minute farewell, though some family members couldn’t make it downtown.
There was a lengthy proclamation read by seven of her colleagues, and at points Russell sang, “I feel good all over.” A recording of Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage” played over a slideshow of photos of Russell at various events throughout her Council career.
Russell was sworn in in 2004 and is leaving to become a confidential secretary to Family Court Judge Mary G. Carney. During her 10-year tenure, she has been the only woman on the Council.
Now, her departure could mean the Council’s nine members all will be men, given that a man appears to be the front-runner in the bid to replace Russell.
She said in her experience, constituents don’t treat women any differently, though she had to establish at the beginning that she wouldn’t be climbing roofs and rolling tires like her colleague in Lovejoy, Richard A. Fontana.
She is surprised there are not more women on the Council, but she said that anyone can run.
“If you want to run, run,” she said. “Show your compassion.”
Russell lost her initial Council bid in 1999 to Betty Jean Grant, now an Erie County legislator. She ran four years later and won.
Coming in, she said, she didn’t realize how much constituent service was involved in the job, which was a pleasant surprise because there was more interaction with people than she expected.
“I definitely didn’t realize the Common Council members were really liaisons between the administration and the neighborhoods,” she said. “I thought we were going to come in here and our primary focus was to write legislation and be legislators. That’s not, to me, what the Buffalo Common Council is.”
A lawmaker’s academic degrees matter less to constituents than the attention paid to their concerns, she said.
Her district has different neighborhoods that require different kinds of help from the city, from controlling parties and drunken behavior from college students in University Heights to solving crimes in Kensington-Bailey, she said.
Accusations that she was too close to Mayor Byron W. Brown don’t bother her, because she needed to get along with his department heads, which is a responsibility of every lawmaker, she said. She calls Brown a friend, someone who helped her husband, City Court Judge Robert T. Russell Jr., with his first campaign long before Brown was elected himself.
She is leaving the Council for a job that will give her a more secure retirement and more time with her family, she said.
“I left on my own terms, and that’s a wonderful thing,” she said.
Mickey Vertino, president of the University Heights Collaborative, said two $15,000 grants from Russell’s office made a “tool library” possible. The library lends tools, such as Rototillers and saws, to its 275 members for community projects and other repairs.
The library has helped to build partnerships with groups outside of the Heights, including one with Grassroots Gardens.
“It’s made all the difference in our community,” Vertino said.
A leading contender for the University District seat is Rasheed Wyatt, who is now Council chief of staff.
Wyatt, who is close with Council President Darius G. Pridgen, has been mentioned as someone who is interested in the seat by other Council members.
He declined to comment last week, noting that Russell had not left yet.
Russell said last week that she has not discussed the position with Wyatt.
Those interested in the seat must submit applications to the City Clerk’s office before 4:30 p.m. Jan. 14. Applicants must have been a resident of the University District for one year and must be a Democrat, as Russell is.
The Council will pick Russell’s replacement, who will serve until an election can be held in November.