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Brown Ready for Challenge from Tolbert

By Tony Farina

Mayor Byron Brown

Bernie Tolbert

“I am looking forward to sharing my record of accomplishments with the voters,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown on Saturday in a telephone interview shortly after Bernie Tolbert made it official that he is in the mayoral race and will challenge Brown in the Democratic primary in September.

Tolbert, 65, was joined by his wife, Malinda, his mother, three adult children and other family members as he announced his candidacy inside the Rev. Bennett W. Smith Sr. Family Life Center, the same place where Brown and his supporters gathered in March to kick off the mayor’s bid for a third term.

“We face many challenges and the need for strong, effective leadership has never been greater,” Tolbert, former head of the Buffalo FBI office, told the crowd of close to 200 people who turned out for his long-expected entrance into the mayoral race.

Among the challenges Tolbert will face is taking on a well-funded incumbent with more than $1 million in his war chest and a record of reducing taxes, holding the line on fees, and boosting the city’s credit rating to the highest in its history.

Tolbert will begin his campaign tonight (Tuesday, May 14) by appealing to the Erie County Conservative Party’s Executive Committee for their endorsement which in the past has gone to Brown.  The Conservatives will also hear from the incumbent and from Republican Sergio Rodriguez at tonight’s session with the party’s endorsements for all the upcoming elections expected May 28.

Tolbert said in an interview shortly after his announcement Saturday morning that he planned to make a strong presentation to the Conservative Party, saying he would tell them “it’s time for a change” and that he plans to cooperate with all factions in his effort to make the city better.

While Erie County Conservative Party Chairman Ralph Lorigo praised Tolbert’s law enforcement background in an interview last week, he said Brown has a strong fiscal record and has proven to be a good administrator, comments that suggest Tolbert will have a tough time denying Brown a third endorsement from the Conservative Party.

But Tolbert, a Buffalo native who attended Schools 31, 6 and 76, and graduated from Lafayette High School before earning his bachelor’s degree in social work at the University of Buffalo in 1971 and a master’s degree (social work) in 1973, is clearly focusing his campaign on the September primary in the heavily Democratic city where he grew up.

Tolbert, who says his first job was as a teacher at Bennett High School, says education is among the challenges that need strong, effective leadership from the mayor’s office.

According to Tolbert, “our educational system simply does not work.  Forty-four of Buffalo’s 57 schools have been designated as failing.  As mayor, I will work with all stakeholders to put an end to the shame of our public schools.”

Tolbert called education a “city-wide problem that affects our entire community and it requires a community response at all levels.”

In response, Mayor Brown says under his watch the city raised the commitment to the schools by about $2 million to $70 million a year, an increase of $14 million since he took office, which he called “pretty significant.”

Brown also points to his role as chairman of the city’s $1.4 billion school reconstruction project which he said is providing school children with facilities, resources, and technology that gives them the tools compete in today’s competitive educational environment.

Tolbert says he also intends to focus on job growth which he called a “must” for the city, saying “I will lead this great city with my national and international management experience in my tool chest.”

That experience includes his 21 years with the FBI from 1980 to 2001, the last four as special agent in charge of the Buffalo office.  After leaving the bureau, Tolbert worked for Coca-Cola in Atlanta as corporate security manager.  He later worked as a senior security official with HSBC Bank in Buffalo and in 2002 he became senior vice president for the National Basketball Association (NBA).  Tolbert also has been active in many community organizations including the United Way and Cradle Beach Camp.

Brown says he welcomes the challenge from Tolbert as an opportunity to talk about what his administration has accomplished since he took office in 2006 as Buffalo’s 62ndmayor.

The mayor says those accomplishments include: restoring the city’s fiscal health with the highest credit rating ever; cutting residential taxes by a total of 15 percent and commercial taxes by 28 percent (since taking office) if his proposed budget is adopted this year; and holding the line on all fees.

“Our garbage user fee has not gone up in eight years,” said Brown, “and our building permit fees are some of the lowest within a 500-mile radius.  We have one of the lowest tax rates in the region and among upstate municipalities, and we have also managed to have the city’s control board transition into dormancy.”  Brown said reform of the building permit process has also helped stimulate development by making it quicker and easier for projects to get started.

Another of the issues that Tolbert will take on is crime.  Citing his long history in law enforcement, Tolbert said in his announcement that it is important to work to counter the view that Buffalo is a dangerous city--10th most dangerous, according to Forbes Magazine----and show the nation that “we will be a safe metropolis where anyone would love to call home.

“With my more than two decades of experience as an FBI agent, I know that crime and safety are nuanced, but there are smart best practices that we can deploy to improve our image and the crime and safety realities inside the city.”

Tolbert proposes better training for police and fire fighters as part of his anti-crime strategy to make streets safer and improve the city’s image.

The challenger says demolishing buildings is not a viable strategy for neighborhood development, saying “we must have something to build upon.  Many of the homes in the city can be brought back to life and our historic buildings should be rehabilitated.”  Tolbert said his strategy for neighborhood development would focus on the people who live in those neighborhoods, saying the city will only be as strong as its weakest neighborhood.

“My principles are simple,” Tolbert told the crowd at this campaign kick-off.  “Integrity, honesty, transparency and collaboration with the people of Buffalo; and I believe that adherence to these principles will change Buffalo’s negative political image.”

For his part, Mayor Brown says the city has made significant gains across the board since he took office, including a 20 percent reduction in the overall crime rate with violent crime down 14 percent.

Under Brown, the city has spent $100 million to demolish 4,600 vacant and dilapidated properties and has made a record investment of $31 million since 2006 in parks and playgrounds.

The mayor says his strong fiscal record has helped make the city more affordable as a place to live and more attractive to investors.  Brown says there is currently more than $1.7 billion in development going on in the city, thanks in large part to the reforms his administration has put in place over the last seven-and-a-half years.

Mayor Brown has shown in the past he has a very good political organization led by Steve Casey who currently serves as the mayor’s top City Hall deputy.  But Casey’s sometimes take-no-prisoner style has created some political enemies, as often happens with incumbents, and it is likely that Tolbert’s camp will attempt to discredit Brown by attacking Casey, especially on the East Side.

Brown is not likely to take the bait; he never has in the past and he sounds ready to run on his record, not on the people who like or dislike his deputy who has helped him establish that record.

Among those in attendance at Tolbert’s announcement were businessman Kevin Brinkworth, engineer Hormoz Mansouri, a well-known political fundraiser and contributor, and Warren Galloway, a political figure and former top aide to former County Executive Joel Giambra.

Another political figure at the Tolbert announcement was Roger Blackwell, the former chairman of the Erie County Legislature, who said he was there to promote unity and who praised Tolbert for taking the time to work the community to build support before his announcement.

On his bid to unseat the mayor, Tolbert says “I am motivated and committed to winning this office.”

It was clear from his remarks after Tolbert declared his candidacy that Mayor Brown is just as committed to keeping his office and will be a very formidable incumbent given his resources and his strong fiscal record.



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

May 14, 2013