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Targeting Delaware

Mike LoCurto

The primary campaign currently underway in Buffalo’s Delaware district for the seat held by Michael LoCurto would appear to be between LoCurto and political newcomer Jessica Maglietto. But in politics things are often not what they seem. Maglietto’s name is on the ballot and her picture is on a huge and very expensive billboard near Gates Circle, but LoCurto’s real opponent is Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

Who is Jessica?

The candidate Jessica Maglietto is entirely a creation of Byron Brown. She has no political experience whatsoever, save as an employee of Byron Brown. She has worked for Byron Brown in the mayor’s office and the State Senate, and she interned for him. City Hall employees circulated her nomination petitions. Brown’s people put up the money for her billboard and campaign mailings.

Her campaign literature says she attended UB’s master’s program in planning, but it doesn’t say how much attending she did, or, in fact, whether she ever finished any courses. She never received a degree from the program. It’s difficult discovering details about her career: She has no Web site and, unlike LoCurto, she didn’t submit a CV with her response to the Stonewall Democrats’ questionnaire. All we have is what they’ve given: the big, expensive billboard and the vague, well-printed mailers.

Jessica rising

In her 20-minute interview with Buffalo Rising, her only appearance on the Web, Maglietto never utters the two words “Byron Brown.” She talks a lot about CitiStat, without ever once mentioning that CitiStat was introduced to Buffalo by North District Councilmember Joe Golombek. Byron Brown has lately been taking credit for bringing it to Buffalo, but it was Golombek who found it, pushed it and explained it.

She says there is “tons to do in the Delaware District.” She says the district “is an asset, especially for the residents.” She says “The Delaware District has a plethora of things to do: “You can get your meat on Hertel…The North Park Theater is on Hertel Avenue if you want to catch a movie. So there really is a ton to do in the Delaware District…The district is pretty unique…I see it as an asset, frankly.”

“Education,” she says, “is so important just now.” She’s in favor of block clubs, safe streets, police access, graffiti reduction and police presence on the streets. She is in favor of residents having their garbage picked up. “Police presence is huge…That’s big.” She seems to want a curfew for students on Hertel Avenue.

She may not be a complete ditz, but you wouldn’t know it from that interview, which is largely platitudes and gibberish. She frequently uses the word “frankly.” In my experience, any politician, candidate or lawyer who frequently says “frankly” is anything but. If they’re being frank, why would they have to tell you they’re being frank? And if they’re not, when should we believe them, when they’re introducing a sentence with “frankly” or when they’re not?

Why is Brown

targeting LoCurto?

Michael LoCurto has been involved in public issues and government for years. It’s what he studied in school (he has an MA in Urban and Regional Planning from UB) and it’s what he apprenticed when he was an intern for Congressman John LaFalce. He was then a special assistant for State Assembly member Sam Hoyt, an adjunct assistant professor at UB’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning, a research fellow at UB’s Institute for Local Governance and an assistant community planner in Buffalo’s Department of Community Development. He helped establish Buffalo’s Anti-flipping Task Force. He was appointed to the Delaware District Common Council seat in March 2006 and elected to it later that year. According to people who know him well, he works hard and takes his job seriously.

Why would Byron Brown and his consigliore, Steve Casey, put so much effort and resources into unseating someone so obviously well qualified? Why would they try to give his job to someone who can’t utter a sentence about public policy without saying “huge,” “tons” and “frankly”?

For one thing, LoCurto is one of only three councilmembers who voted against Brown’s deal to sell Fulton Street to the Seneca gambling operators last year; the other two were Golombek and South District Councilmember Mickey Kearns. That is typical of LoCurto: He is not a rubber stamp for the mayor’s office. This mayor’s office, more than any other in years, seeks and expects a Common Council that asks no troublesome questions and provides no significant obstacles.

This is a direct consequence of the fierce and expensive 2002 campaign to shrink Buffalo’s Common Council underwritten by developer Carl Paladino and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. I’ll come back to this later.

Brown also wants to torpedo LoCurto because LoCurto previously worked for Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, and Hoyt is presently the politician Brown and Casey dislike and fear more than any other. Some people think that’s because they think Hoyt may challenge Brown for the mayorship next time around. But that’s unlikely, which Brown and Casey know.

What they really fear is that Hoyt will challenge Brown for Louise Slaughter’s congressional seat if and when she ever decides to call it quits.

Brown, I’ve been told, wants that seat more than anything. It drives him. It undergirds the toothless deal he cut with the Senecas for the sale of Fulton Street. It was behind his relentless pressure on the waterfront commission to give Bass Pro anything it wanted, anything, so long as they cut a deal that stuck and broke ground on Brown’s watch. Brown wants anything that will let him be there for the handshaking photograph, the ribbon-cutting photograph, the door-opening photograph. He wants to be able to say, when he runs for Slaughter’s congressional seat, “Things have happened in Buffalo while I’ve been mayor and here are the photographs to prove it.” He wants the people who made money from those photo-ops—the Seneca gambling operators, for example—to remember what a good friend he has been to them and to reach into their deep pockets to underwrite that congressional campaign.

LoCurto and the few other councilmembers who stand up for their own ideas about what deals are good or bad for the city do not fit that design. They get in the way of that design. And that is why Brown is fighting very hard to replace LoCurto with a candidate who basically has had only one job since she entered public service: servicing Byron Brown.

Carl Paladino

Can Buffalo government work?

Until the 2002 election, the Buffalo Common Council had 13 members. Nine of them represented districts; four were at-large—voted on in citywide elections. One of those four was the council president.

That structure came about as the result of a study by the Kenefick Commission in the late 1920s that concluded Buffalo’s government—a mayor and a district-based council—was too corrupt to function with any semblance of efficiency or decency. The mayor and developers cut deals and the council rubberstamped those deals. The Kenefick Commission introduced the four at-large representatives who, in theory, couldn’t be leaned on the way a district representative could. The mayor could say to a district representative, “If you want that playground, you vote my way on things,” and the district representative would in most cases do exactly that. But the at-large representatives had no playgrounds, no territory at all, so they, the commission reasoned, could represent the entire city.

They also recommended the establishment of a comptroller who would be, like the at-large representatives, elected independently, in a citywide vote. That meant there would be two strong voices to keep the mayor’s office from owning the city: the comptroller, who would ensure that the books weren’t being cooked, and the council president, who could broker disputes within the council and between the council and the mayor.

Sometimes it worked well, sometimes it didn’t. Buffalo’s last Common Council President was James Pitts, who was never in any mayor’s or developer’s pockets. That caused deep resentments, particularly among some developers who thought that with a more docile council they’d have a much easier time.

Shrinking the Common Council

In 2002, developer Carl Paladino and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership (the former Chamber of Commerce) spent nearly $100,000 in a successful campaign to get rid of the four at-large representatives on the Common Council.

Paladino particularly wanted to get rid of Council President James Pitts. Paladino had underwritten an earlier attempt to alter the structure of the council. He, banker Robert Wilmers and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership had underwritten the 1999 campaign of David Franczyk against Pitts for the council presidency.

Not only did Pitts sometimes put road bumps in Paladino’s way but he was the only politician in city hall who called the Adelphia development deal a stinker and who said it needed far closer inspection than anyone was giving it. For that, the Buffalo News, the mayor’s office and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership called him “obstructionist.” As it turned out, he was prophetic.

The Adelphia deal was indeed full of holes. Adelphia itself went belly-up, its bosses went to jail and much of the public money allocated for the deal has been rolled into the BassPro project, which many people think is likewise lacking in scrutiny or forethought, this time by Byron Brown’s office.

Many observers in 2002, myself among them, thought the campaign to shrink the council was at least in part racially motivated. Three of the four councilmembers whose seats were targeted for destruction were black. All seven white members of the council voted for and all six nonwhite members of the council voted against the resolution that put the referendum on the November ballot. The advertising campaign funded by Paladino and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership targeted almost entirely white voters.

But the war waged against Pitts and the other at-large members of the council wasn’t about race. It was about power. It was about who would control spending and development in the city. It was about whether the mayor could cut deals and easily force the council to go along, or whether there would be enough independent seats on that council to force the mayor to at least go through the motions of submitting major decisions to public scrutiny.

The old structure worked often enough for preferred developers like Paladino (who, more than any other individual, is responsible for the Seneca gambling presence in downtown Buffalo) to work for years to get rid of those independent voices and votes.

I’ve heard that there is an ancient Chinese proverb that goes “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it.” It’s probably from a self-help book, but no matter. Whatever the source, it’s not a bad proverb.

Carl Paladino and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, for example, got what they wanted five years ago, which was a nine-person, district-based Common Council that would be far more manageable than the 13-person Common Council it replaced, and more manageable than the 11-person Common Council the city’s own planning commission had suggested a short time earlier. When Tony Masiello was mayor that was sweet stuff, because Masiello gave Carl Paladino astonishing access. There was no city project, it seemed, that Paladino didn’t have first dibs at, and no Paladino project that the mayor’s office didn’t approve.

But Byron Brown and Steve Casey have their own friends and they don’t give Carl Paladino the time of day. Paladino, I heard recently, now thinks his 2002 knife may have slashed too deeply, and that he wishes there were more members of the Common Council who didn’t see themselves as under the mayor’s thumb.

Service and servicing

In her response to the Stonewall Democrats’ questionnaire, Jessica Maglietto twice wrote “principals” when she should have been writing “principles.” Either she doesn’t know how to spell the word or she doesn’t know the difference in two words that have the same sound but vastly different meanings.

Either way, that’s a major fault for someone wanting to go into public service. Servicing “principals” means you do what the big guys tell you to do; servicing “principles” means you have ideas of your own, and you respect them. That is, perhaps, the primary difference between Maglietto and LoCurto, and it is the primary reason why Byron Brown so desperately wants to give her Mike LoCurto’s job.

Bruce Jackson edits the Web journal His book The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories was published last month by Temple University Press.