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Bernie Tolbert Wants to be Buffalo's Next Mayor

... and we asked him why

If Bernie Tolbert succeeds this November in being elected Buffalo’s next mayor, one of the first things he says he’ll do is purely symbolic: He’ll get rid of the police officer stationed at the desk in front of the mayor’s second-floor office in City Hall.

“I understand the need for security,” says Tolbert, who served as head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Buffalo office and as vice president for security for the National Basketball Association. “But to me that sends a message: ‘Stand back. We’ll grant you an audience of we deem you worthy of it.’ I think that sends the totally wrong message.”

For the past year, the message Tolbert has been sending those who follow local politics has been coy and equivocal: Everyone seemed to know he was running, but he wouldn’t formally announce his candidacy. In the meantime, he was everywhere a candidate wants to be: shaking hands at fundraisers and festivals, lunching with big donors, taking the temperature of the voters and political activists he’ll need to mount a credible challenge to two-term incumbent Byron Brown, who has over $1 million in his campaign war chest and a formidable political organization in Grassroots.

Two weeks ago, Tolbert sat quietly in the back of Common Council chambers, listening to testimony regarding the University at Buffalo’s plan to buy McCarley Gardens from St. John Baptist Church, scattering its residents to proposed new housing in the Fruit Belt and beyond. A person who has retired after a long, successful career doesn’t brief himself on an issue like that unless he’s preparing for public service. And he’ll make it official this Saturday morning at the Family Life Center of St. John Baptist Church.

“I’ve made up my mind,” he said in an interview conducted last month at his house on University Avenue. “In terms of actually declaring, it’s more of a strategy that we’re trying to adhere to. We’re trying to do things in a way that for my purposes will be most advantageous.

“I can tell you some time ago that I was on the ledge, so to speak—you know, saying, ‘I’ve got to go out and declare.’ The people I’m working with talked me off of that ledge, because strategically there are some things you want to take advantage of, things you’d like to see play out, things you’d like to see happen that should hopefully bode well for me. Plus, once you officially declare, you’ve got that big bull’s-eye on your back. You open yourself up to the attacks that are certainly going to come. So why do it now when you can wait and get some other things in place first?”

Tolbert spoke to Artvoice for more than an hour about his reasons for challenging Brown, what he expects of the campaign, and his strategy for winning. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

AV: Why do you want this job?

Tolbert: There are two questions I get at this stage. The first is, “Are you running?” The second is, “Why do you want to do this?” I’ve had people very close to me ask that, starting with my mother.

My feeling is that I’ve had a pretty successful existence. I’ve been able to accomplish some things. And I’m a product of the city; I’m a product of the school system. And I think some of the things I’ve been able to do are attributable to people I’ve met in Buffalo and experiences I’ve had in Buffalo. I would like to see everybody have that same kind of opportunities. It sounds a bit altruistic, but I have three children and I want them to be in Buffalo. They came back here to go to college when we were living in other places, when I was with the FBI; they wanted to go to school here and they’ve stayed. I want them to continue to stay. My oldest son and his wife have a daughter and another child on the way. When my granddaughter and my soon-to-be grandson—we think he’s a boy, we’re not sure—when they turn 18 or 21 and are out of school, I want them to say, ‘This is where I want to put down roots.’ I want them to be able to do that instead of saying, “I’ve got to move somewhere else because the job market here is no good,” or “The city isn’t viable, as a young person you can’t experience much vitality in the city of Buffalo.”

It’s not because I’m a knight in shining armor. People say, “Why don’t you just enjoy life? You’ve been successful in the things you’ve done.” Yeah, I could do that and say, “I’ve got mine.” But with me that doesn’t sit very well. I really think I have something to offer, that I can make a difference. And if you feel that way, I believe you should do your part to make the difference.

When I was with the NBA, one of the things I always told the players was about making a difference, giving back: You’re in a position that is unique, you’re able to take care of your family and make a living in way that others can only dream of. But it’s important for you to make sure that you take care of this so that others behind you will have the same opportunity.

Well, if we don’t work hard to make our city better, it’ll be one of those “Last one to leave, turn out the lights” situations.

AV: That answer certainly speaks to love of the city and a sense of duty, which are both admirable and requisites for a mayoral candidate. But are there specific things you hope to accomplish as mayor?

Tolbert: I think there are some things that could be done differently. I think crime and the safety of our city are not what they could be. There are a lot of people who are afraid to come out of their homes, a lot of people who don’t see the city as a place where they can live and enjoy life. I think we can do more to focus on some crime safety issues. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I think there’s an awful lack of training among our police officers. How can you be good at what you do, and get better at what you do, if you are not getting the training to stay on top of the latest trends in crimefighting? Especially at high-level administrative positions, those who run the department. They need to get out to these trainings. There are a number of them—the International Association of Chiefs of Police has one, the FBI National Academy—where you learn what’s new in crimefighting, what’s new in urban policing. I think we can certainly do better on crime.

Economic development, too. Buffalo certainly is doing well in many ways, but a lot of that I think is despite our city leaders instead of because of them. You have a number of business people who have the wherewithal and the insight to do things, but we could do better as a city in partnering with them—making sure that we make it easier for people to invest and not erect a lot of roadblocks as they are trying to exercise their entrepreneurial visions for our city.

Perhaps the biggest issue, certainly the one that cuts across the others, is education. The issues with our education system are well documented. I recognize that as mayor of the city, you don’t really control education, per se. But to me it’s shameful to hide behind that fact, to say, “I don’t hire the superintendent, I don’t elect the school board.” I think you need to look at yourself as the CEO of this city—all the kids are going to look to me, and their parents are going to look to me, as a person who has their best interests at heart.

I think that even though you don’t get to hire the superintendent of schools, you can still be out there as an advocate for kids, saying that every day we’re going to be doing everything we can. I’m going to be talking with the board of education, the teachers union, the superintendent, everybody involved, to make sure that I am getting my voice out there, saying that anything short of the best for our kids is not good enough. I’m going to be one of the voices, I’m going to be a gadfly if you want, I’m going to let it be known every day that, even though I don’t have the final say, perhaps, that I’m looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re doing what’s right.

The school budget is about $780 million. The city gives $70 million towards that, a small percentage. But that $70 million is half the money the city collects in taxes. If I’m giving you half the money I collect, I’m going to want something for it. I’m going to want to know it’s being used in the very best way. I think we deserve it—I think our kids deserve it, I think our families deserve it.

And maybe you can do things from a statutory perspective to get some more authority. For example, in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg appoints the chancellor. Well, maybe that’s the route you go. It would take some changes to state law, perhaps, but maybe you could advocate for that. Or perhaps you advocate for some mayoral appointees to the board of education, so you know you have a voice, you have someone there making sure that your voice is being heard.

I know that Ellen Grant was just appointed deputy mayor, and she has education under her. But why did it take so long? Why not some time ago? You know, a few months from the election? Does it really take six and half, seven and a half years to figure out that you should have somebody who’s really going to focus on education?

AV: That second deputy mayor position…

Tolbert: It’s a revolving door.

If I were mayor—and I know as mayor you have responsibilities, you can’t do everything, you can’t be all things to all people—I would make sure that I am a visible advocate, a visible supporter of education. Go to the school board meetings, so you know what’s going on, and so people say, “Hey, he’s concerned. He has enough concern to show up at meetings.” I’m not saying any of this is enough to turn things around, be we have to start to turn things around.

Also, neighborhood development, community development—that goes hand in hand with economic development. Look at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. That’s an engine that is driving economic development for the city, certainly, but we also have to make sure that we’re developing the neighboring communities—Allentown and the near East Side, where the medical campus will have a huge impact. We have to make sure we’re doing the right thing for those communities so that the economic development will succeed. They talk about the number of workers in that corridor doubling, but I’m not sure we’ve taken a good look at the infrastructure, how we’re going to handle that doubling of presence. And people live in those communities, so we need to have a clear plan for economic development.

I understand there’s no plan for new traffic patterns on Michigan Avenue, and if you’re going to have double the people there, then you definitely have to do something or Michigan Avenue will become a parking lot from 9am to 5pm.

AV: You’ve just named four important parts of the job—crime, education, economic development, community development. On all those things, the mayor and his other challenger, Republican Sergio Rodriguez, will have positions. What’s different about you? What will be unique to your platform?

Tolbert: One of the things I hear from people is that the East Side of Buffalo has been ignored. Is that a taking for granted, perhaps, that the African-American community is always going to support an African American? As I said before, you’re mayor to everyone, but there are some real challenges on the East Side. Someone needs to be a shepherd to help address some of those problems. Again, every part of the city needs to be taken care of, but we’re not going to survive if we [give up on] one huge segment of our population, one huge section of our city. My perception is there hasn’t been a whole lot done.

AV: So what do you do about the parts of the East Side plagued with intractable problems?

Tolbert: First of all, you make a commitment that we’re going to focus on this area. Everything we do, we’re going to focus on this part of the city to make sure that we’re bringing it along, that we’re developing it, that it gets its due. That would involve getting people around me who share in my vision and my desire to do that.

Take McCarley Gardens. To me, you don’t do that. You get people involved who are stakeholders and you ask them: From your perspective, what would you like to have done? What’s not working? You make sure that’s part of the process. I don’t have the silver bullet answer for you, but I do know that it’s something I will make sure my energies are focused on. And I won’t take it for granted.

AV: In the past year, you’ve been talking to folks like a candidate for mayor, even if your candidacy has been undeclared. What do you hear in the African-American community about the mayor?

Tolbert: First of all, I think the job of being the mayor is a tough one under the best of circumstances, and I’m not here to denigrate the mayor. He’s been the mayor for almost eight years now, and I think anyone who invests that kind of time …you have to look at it like they were willing to take their time in the breach. For that I respect him. I’m not looking to say that he’s been a slug as mayor.

But as I talk to people on the East Side, I get an awful lot of comments about “He’s done nothing for us. He lives here and he’s done nothing for us.” They see the waterfront being developed and they say, “What about us?”

One difference between me and the mayor is I’m from here. This is my home. Granted, he’s been here a long time. But I was born here and probably never would have left but for the fact that I went into the FBI. I’d probably have been like my brother and been here my whole life. I see this as the place to be. I see this is my home.

When I first talked about doing this, my mother said, “Why would you want to do that? We have a mayor, he’s an African American.” She said, “Politics are so dirty. People are going to talk about you, they’re going to lie on you, they’re going to do all sorts of things.” And of course my mother doesn’t want to see me get hurt. But I said to her, “What have you taught us? Growing up there were some things you pounded into us.” One of those was, whatever you do, be the very best at it. I’m trying to do the best I can. If politics are bad, perhaps even dirty, then to say for that reason I won’t be a part of it, that means I accept that’s the way it has to be, and that’s as good as it gets for us.

AV: There will certainly be attacks leveled against you, some invented and some with substance. You have been party to two sexual harassment suits related to your tenure as vice president for security for the NBA. One named you specifically and was settled out of court. Another, in which you are named peripherally, is still pending. How will you answer questions about those?

Tolbert: I’d rather talk about the issues. Unfortunately, those lawsuits will become distractions, and we’ll have to waste time answering those question. I can only be truthful and honest about what I’ve done. I’ve not lived an absolutely perfect life, not at all, but I’ve never done anything that would bring shame on me or my family or my friends.

I suppose I will answer things truthfully, and those who know me, who have known me my whole life, will know the kind of person I am. And hopefully I can get others who don’t know me to see the kind of person I am, to understand how I’ve lived my life and the things I’ve done. Would I do some things over again? Sure. I guess that’s why God put erasers on pencils.

AV: Do you anticipate other avenues of attack?

Tolbert: We’ve talked about this. My wife and I have talked about it. I’ve talked about it with my family. I told them, “You all are going to be subject to scrutiny. Are there things that you can’t bear?” That’s the one thing that might have stopped me from running—I don’t want my family to be hurt.

I’ve been told that they’re going to make up things about me. What can I do? If I don’t run because of that, then we’re going to be stuck always having this mediocrity.

AV: It’s an ugly political system we have here.

Tolbert: Yeah, it is. When you’re a kid in school, you learn about the political process and how our government works, how our democracy works. But when you get down to becoming a part of it, you learn that what actually happens and what they put in the books are not even close.

But it’s not a lark, it’s something I’ve committed to because I love this city. I really think I have something to give. At the end of the day, I don’t want to look at myself in the mirror and say, “Should I have…” or “If only I had…” Ten years from now, I don’t want to say, “If only I had made more of an effort.”

AV: In addition to the advantages of incumbency, Byron Brown has a lot of money to spend on his re-election. Are you confident you can raise enough money to run a good race?

Tolbert: I am. Obviously the mayor has a boatload of money. I don’t see that as marching orders that I have to have the same amount of money that he has. But obviously money is a very important factor. But I do think I will have the financial commitments, the financial backing to make me a viable candidate.

I’m not trying to spend a million dollars. Certainly I’ll have to spend some money, but I see my work as wearing out some shoes, wearing out some shoe leather, getting out talking to people, giving people a chance to talk to me and judge me based on what I say. Is my message consistent with what they want? If not, they’ll put their support and their vote somewhere else. Hopefully many of them will say, “I like what you say, I believe in what you say, and I believe in you.”

AV: Money’s not the only advantage the mayor enjoys. He also has a strong political machine, Grassroots, that is terrific at getting out the vote for its candidates. How do you match that?

Tolbert: You’re right about the political machine part, but the other part of it is recruiting a lot of folks, much like Obama did when he first ran. There is a lot of excitement out there. I have a list of people who say they want to help out, they want to volunteeer…whether it’s carrying petitions, putting out lawn signs, whatever. Also there are groups that I’ve talked to that say they’re interested, and they have a lot of boots to put on the street. Some of them may not be experienced at it, but we’re gong to teach them. We’re going to train them.

There’s also a large group of politically active folks. It’s not Grassroots, but it’s others who have done this before, who want to come together behind this, who want to be a part of it.

AV: Everyone who knew we were meeting wanted us to ask this question. You’re the former head of the Buffalo FBI office. The current administration, like all mayoral administrations before it, has been accused of corruption. Do you know something about the Brown administration that the rest of us don’t know?

Tolbert: That’s interesting…obviously, as an FBI agent, people think I know something. But I’ll tell you, when you leave the FBI, the next day it’s “Bernie who?” I have some thoughts, but I think people just have to wait and see what comes of all that. And if I knew something, I wouldn’t tell you.

AV: There is a widely held perception of our local politics and our government that it is transactional and corrupt. Let’s assume you are elected. How do you break that culture, and the perception of that culture, in City Hall. How do you get elected without entering into that transactional culture?

Tolbert: How do you get elected without entering that culture? We’ll find out, because I won’t enter that culture.

How do you change it once you’re in? I think I will do what I have always done, and be who I always have been. If you talk to people who knew me when I was at the FBI, I think they will tell you I was always fair, always open, always honest, and I don’t believe in doing anything but what’s right. The people who work in City Hall will have to understand that. Obviously it’s not going to flip on Monday when I get there. But public trust means a lot. If you have the public trust, you’re held to a higher standard. If you can’t understand that, then maybe you’re in the wrong business. I’ll make sure everyone knows, starting with my commissioners, that we do everything above-board, the way it’s supposed to be done. No back-door deals, none of that. I just don’t believe in it. It’s gone on for many administrations, and I think it’s helped get us in this position where we really shouldn’t be. I’m not interested in doing things just because that’s the way they’ve always been done.

Look, I only know one way to do things, and that’s doing it right. This job isn’t mine, I don’t own it. This isn’t my own personal play toy, piggy bank, or any of that. We’re just here to serve the public. Integrity, honesty—you’ll never have to question where I stand on those issues.

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