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Tolbert Talks

Bernie Tolbert

On Saturday, former FBI Buffalo office chief Bernie Tolbert announced that he would challenge Mayor Byron Brown in this September’s Democratic primary. If you read the interview we published with Tolbert in last week’s Artvoice, then you already much of what he had to say to the crowd of 200 or so people at the Reverend Dr. Bennett W. Smith, Jr. Family Life Center about why he’s running. He’ll advocate for better public education; he’ll push more and better training apportunities for police officers; he’ll be transparent where Brown’s administration has been opaque; he’ll find new ideas and direct resources to improve the East Side’s most derelict and desperate neighborhoods.

Saturday’s crowd was much smaller than the one that greeted Brown’s re-election announcement in the same gymnasium last month. (Both the Brown and the Tolbert families attend St. John Baptist, which owns and operates the center.) But it was a diverse gathering, and the elements of a campaign were evident: Businessmen Homuz Mansouri and Kevin Brinkworth, who along with developer Michael Joseph are Tolbert’s money men, sat on the bleacers against the back wall. Beside them sat veteran Democratic political operative David Pfaff, who said he was considering lending his expertise to Tolbert’s effort. There were a nukber of people representing the Unity Coalition, an East Side political organization led by Champ Eve, Jr. that has scored some wins against the mayor’s organization, Grassroots, in Democratic Party committee races. They’re the ground game, at least at first. Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant was there, too, though she has not yet formally endorsed Tolbert. Three or four fire engines circled the block during the event, indicating that the city’s disgruntled firemen will support Tolbert—or, in any case, anyone other than the incumbent, who has earned the enmity of both the fire and police unions. Tolbert’s campaign co-chairs were introduced to the public as well: his brother Donald, a well respected, recently retired career civil servant; and Donna Berry, an enormously popular and well known retired Buffalo police chief.

How serious a threat is Tolbert to Brown? It depends. The money men say they’ll have raised $100,000 by next week and hope to raise $300,000 by early July, when the Tolbert committee has to file its first campaign finance disclosure form. If they can raise that much by July, they believe they can attract more from donors who are waiting to see if Tolbert gains traction. That’s not even close to Brown’s $1.1 million, but a mayoral candidate doesn’t need $1.1 million; surely Brown ad no intention of depleting his nest egg on this campaign.

As for the ground game, Tolbert will need more than the Unity Coalition to carry his message and his nominating petitions, because he’ll need substantial support apart from the East Side. He’ll need to win in the places Mickey Kearns won in 2009, and where Kevin Gaughan won in 2005, in addition to peeling away the mayor’s substantial African-American support.

And how does he accomplish that? The answer may be embodied in the speaker who introduced Tolbert at Saturday’s event: Tolbert’s mother, who introduced her son. The Tolberts are a generally well regarded family, and the candidate likes to underline that he grew up in Buffalo, in the Willert Park projects; he does not need to add that Brown grew up in Queens and that his deputy mayor and political consigliere, Stve Casey, is from Philadelphia. The Tolbert campaign must hope that his family’s standing and reputation for uprightness will serve as a foil to the smell of corruption that attaches itself to any two-term Buffalo mayor. Add to that a theme that Grassroots has served the careers of the mayor and his political allies better than it has served the African-American community—a theme that Grassroots used to overthrow Arthur Eve’s political machine 20 years ago—and Tolbert has the beginnings of a strategy for winning the East Side.

He still needs something that Brown, due to the advantages of incumbency, does not need: a unique message delivered inspirationally. Tolbert’s announcement speech fell short on that count. He’s got time. Not much, though.

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