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For What It's Worth: Observations on Tuesday's Mayoral Debate

Tuesday’s debate between Mayor Byron Brown, his Democratic primary challenger Bernie Tolbert, and Republican Sergio Rodriguez was lively, contentious, and unlikely to change anyone’s mind about who to support. It followed the pattern of the two previous debates: Brown was slightly more animated perhaps, occasionally defensive, and sometimes obfuscating; Tolbert was a bit more polished-sounding than he had been before, but stumbled here and there, and was short on specific proposals; Rodriguez was funny and quick on his feet, which almost covered the fact that he, too, offered few specific ideas. Tolbert and Rodriguez left each other alone but dug into Brown relentlessly; in this debate, Brown went on the attack, too.

Some notes:

• Whenever the discussion turned to job creation or poverty, Brown said he’d created job training opportunities for 17,000 young people. He was talking about the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which provides summer jobs, paid for with city dollars, at community centers and other nonprofits organizations around the city. It’s a good program, but it hardly counts as “job creation,” or even job training, except inasmuch as it teaches its employees to show up each day, do a job, and cash a paycheck. The program does not train young people for jobs in advanced manufacturing or healthcare, for example.

When Brown said he was glad Rodriguez was not a math teacher in Buffalo Public Schools, he seemed to be responding to a dumb mistake Rodriguez made: At least twice, Rodriguez said a city statute required that one percent of the entire city budget be spent on public art, and that he thought that was a good idea. In fact, the statute requires that, on any project funded with city dollars, one percent of the project’s budget must be spent on public art. The statute has never been enforced by the Brown administration, nor was it enforced by the Masiello administration.

• Both Tolbert and Rodriguez piled on Brown for his failure to find, or even look for, a way to engage the crisis that is Buffalo Public Schools. Tolbert said he’d appoint a deputy mayor whose only job would be education issues. Brown countered that in fact he had one that, and gestured to Deputy Mayor Ellen Grant; he then pointed out that he’d committed $400,000 to restore some endangered music programs in the schools. A quibble: Grant’s portfolio is not exclusively education; she covers healthcare issues as well. A criticism: The $400,000 commitment does not refute the arguments made by Rodriguez and Tolbert; in fact, it reinforces them. Throwing $400,000 at a problem in response to public outcry in an election year—the eighth year in which Brown has held the office of mayor—does not suggest a long-term, focused effort to engage the problems of city schools. For that matter, Grant was only hired at the end of last year, and seemingly in response to criticism that Brown had kept his distance from the problems of Buffalo Public Schools.

• When Brown said he has hired 200 police officers over his two terms, and Tolbert countered that there are fewer officers on the force than there were when Brown took office, both were correct—but Tolbert was more correct, because Brown was purposefully ignoring the depletion of officers through death and retirement. There has been a net loss of officers, according the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, which keeps track of its members.

• Brown’s best attack on Tolbert was his response to the challenger’s remark that his wife accuses him of being “married to the city,” to which Brown replied that Tolbert had been “an absentee husband.” (Tolbert’s career has required him to live in other cities.) Brown’s dumbest attack was to chide Tolbert for not walking the city’s neighborhoods like beat cop when he was an FBI agent. Who thinks that’s what FBI agents do?

As I sat in the back of the studio at WNED, watching the three men prepare themselves for the debate, I reflected on a conversation I’d had earlier that afternoon about former Ellicott District Common Councilman Brian C. Davis.

It was about a year ago that Davis was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for stealing federal funds meant for anti-poverty programs. His thievery was uncovered as a result of an FBI investigation into the fiasco of One Sunset, a restaurant opened by basketball player Leonard Stokes with the help of money from the now defunct Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation. Stokes was a friend to Davis, the mayor, and others in the Grassroots political club, which is how he got the help from BERC. The restaurant was a disaster, creditors went unpaid, and great piles of taxpayer money simply disappeared. Davis took over the operation of the place for a while, where he played fast and loose with…well, with a lot of things. So did Michelle Barron, the BERC employee who helped to arrange the club’s financing. When the FBI went looking for the public money that had disappeared into One Sunset, they found Davis and his habit of diverting money from Community Action Organization of Erie County and Back to Basics for his personal use.

Barron lost her job. Davis was caught and sent to jail, but his crime was unrelated to the One Sunset scandal. Four years after the story broke, no one has been prosecuted for what happened there.

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