To call Bob Anderson an American success story would be something of an understatement. The-73-year-old city Councilman has become a venerable institution in Niagara Falls, where his wry sense of humor and level headed approach to thorny issues and sometimes even thornier personalities have served him well during his 12 year tenure as a city Councilman.
A longtime friend of the Niagara Falls Reporter, Anderson surprised more than a few associates and political insiders last week by quietly announcing he would be running for reelection to a fourth term on the Council come November.
"I thought about it," he said. "But the phone kept ringing. And each and every one of those calls was a person in this city who had a problem and was looking for help. After awhile, I didn't have to think about it anymore."
Easily the most visible member of city government – and not just because he stands six foot four and favors well cut suits in shades of canary yellow and fire engine red – Anderson rarely misses any public event, and has quite likely attended more weddings and funerals than anyone living in the Falls today.
"It's just not possible to get a feeling for what people are thinking and feeling, what their problems are, without getting out with them," Anderson told the Reporter. "I think here in Niagara Falls, it's getting more and more to where the people at City Hall are becoming detached from the people they're supposed to be serving. It's almost like a ruling class and an underclass."
Anderson said the biggest problem facing the city today is what he characterizes as the gross mishandling of the money coming in from the Seneca Niagara Casino.
"From the beginning, I felt that a good portion of that money should be directed towards two things, tax relief for the homeowners and businesses here and increased law enforcement, more cops on the street. I was told it couldn't be used for those things."
And now that revenue from the casino is dwindling, the opportunity it once presented may be lost, he added.
"We could have been the lowest taxed city in America, with the safest streets," he said. "Instead we're the highest taxed, and study after study shows Niagara Falls to be the most dangerous city in New York and one of the most dangerous in the country.
Even more galling, Anderson said, is the fact that the Dyster administration has spent the casino cash on frivolities.
"The mayor has blown through more than $100 million and hasn't created one decent, permanent, full time job in the city," Anderson said. "The money's gone now, and we've got nothing to show for it."
Anderson cites the poor condition of city streets, the vacant and vandalized abandoned houses that mar nearly every city block, the continuing high crime rate and the continuing exodus on the part of the "best and brightest" Niagara Falls residents as evidence of failed leadership here.
"I'll be supporting Glenn Choolokian in the mayor's race here, though it looks like we're going to get for more years of the same as we have," he said.
Asked why people would continue, to vote for Dyster despite his record, Anderson was less cynical than truthful.
"All that money bought him a lot of votes. In that respect he spent it wisely. It didn't do the average person in the city any good, but there are a lot of influential people who are beholding to him, and he's got enough money in his (campaign) war chest to buy the election.
Bob Anderson was born in the South Bronx, NY, in 1942 and grew up on those famously mean streets. Graduating South Bronx High School in 1949, just five years after Gen. Colin Powell, Anderson joined the United States Air Force. Over the next 22 years, Anderson served his country through some of the most turbulent times it had ever experienced.
"Martin Luther King's march on Washington, the Kennedy assassinations, the war in Vietnam. ... I thought, wow, what did I get myself into?" he said.
Following his retirement, Anderson was offered several civilian jobs with the federal government, but his beautiful wife Marie was tired of travel and didn't like the prospect of living in Washington, D.C. The couple eventually settled in Niagara Falls, and Anderson took a job with the school district here.
His rise was as swift as it had been in the Air Force, where he retired as a chief master sergeant, the highest rank an enlisted man can attain. Soon, Anderson was the superintendent of maintenance for the school district, and was elected the first African American president of the Civil Servant Employees (CSEA) local here.
After retiring from the school district, Anderson became involved in city politics. In 2003 he threw his hat in the ring as a longshot candidate and surprised everyone by winning handily and soon he was named Council chairman He has been reelected since, and in 2011, outpolled incumbent Mayor Paul Dyster by around 3,000 votes, leading many here to lament his running for Council rather than for the mayor's office.
"I have, through my mailings and phones calls, tried to stay positive and not use negative campaigning," he said. "I try to speak to as many people as I can in a positive manner and try to assist them if they are having any problems with our city government."
His campaign methods have been simple but effective. Common sense and a down to earth approach have brought Anderson repeated success even as many challengers have fallen, slick campaign mailers and political connections notwithstanding, by the wayside.
The city pays Anderson and the other Council members a bit over $8,000 a year for their services. Anderson has donated all of what he's made to charity over the years.
"I didn't get into this for anything other than an opportunity to fight for the people," he told the Reporter. "That's what Bob Anderson's always been about, and always will be about."