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By David Hens

Carnell Burch wants to be the city's first black mayor, and has singlehandedly collected more than 1,000 signatures on petitions he hopes will carry him into the September primary to face incumbent Mayor Paul Dyster and challenger John Accardo.

His candidacy is likely to strip Dyster of a major constituency, black voters in the city's North End, just as Accardo's will hurt the mayor on Pine Avenue and other areas of the city that were crucial to his primary election victory in 2007. The winner of the race will likely pull less than 40 percent of his own party's vote.

In a city still trying to eliminate the sour taste left by former mayor and current federal convict Vince Anello, and questioning the honesty of Dyster, the promise of Burch's campaign is an intriguing one. His mantra of "One Voice One Vote" exudes a degree of Obama-esque idealism that Burch can only hope will deliver a similar result come election night.

"Our political leaders have gravely failed us," said Burch. "Dyster isn't going to move the city forward. Niagara Falls has a track record of poor leadership, and it's unacceptable that our citizens can't provide the basic needs to raise their families. The record of individuals in office speaks for itself. If you're elected to do a job and you don't do it, where's the success in that?"

Born and raised on the 600 block of Ashland Avenue, the 37-year-old graduate of LaSalle Sr. High School knows first-hand the disappointment people feel about the failure of past leaders to be the voice the city needs, and he's adamant about changing the tide.

"I talk to people all the time who express frustration about the lack of paved roads and sidewalks," he said. "I'm in tune with citizen apathy, and it's almost become an air of hopelessness, given the state of poverty and unemployment. The government is operating for its own interests. I'm not making this up. This is what people are saying."

With constituents who have been subjected to every trite political spiel in the book, why should they support someone who is yet to prove himself on the big stage?

The fact that Burch started out as a 16-year-old dishwasher at the Como Restaurant and has propelled himself to the spotlight of a local election is evidence in itself that things don't have to remain bleak forever. He's living proof that an individual can overcome the negativity of his environment and achieve the type of upward social mobility that every generation dreams of. His story is one that he hopes resonates with everyday people and serves as an inspiration to young black males with the same dejected outlook he once had.

"I questioned education when I was younger," he said. "I just didn't see where it fit in with my life. I was extracted from my neighborhood when the schools were desegregated, and I struggled for a while. I disliked math and science, and didn't think school was for me."

After bouncing around from job to job without satisfaction, Burch finally decided that education was indeed the right way to go.

"I was doing secretarial work in the financial aid office, and a woman named Virginia Taylor overheard a childish conversation I was having with someone about the importance of education. I spoke with her about it afterward, and she completely changed my outlook after that," he said.

"I ended up earning an associate's degree in criminal justice from Niagara County Community College in 1999, and graduated from Daemen College in 2005 with both a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in executive leadership and change. I believe that a good educational structure is the backbone of our country and essential for success in today's society."

That conversation appears to have been a springboard for his creative fire, and not even the daunting task of securing campaign funds has him questioning his political aspirations. When asked about his opponents' deep pockets, he responded as any confident contender would.

"They can spend a million dollars," he said. "I'm dedicated to addressing the core issues and ensuring an environment that is conducive to economic development. That's what people really care about."

Burch hopes that his passion for the community will compensate for whatever financial limits he may have, and that people will be able to see past the money that other candidates hide behind. He's seen how big-budget campaigns seldom translate into results, so worrying about it isn't on his agenda.

What is on his schedule, however, is getting the city of Niagara Falls back on track and free from the dog-and-pony show that is the Dyster administration. For example, Dyster recently proposed a museum to celebrate the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman's supposed connection with Niagara Falls. Despite having a great-grandfather who was a slave, Burch isn't drinking the Kool-Aid.

"I don't know if Dyster even likes Niagara Falls," he said of the project. "Dyster doesn't know the needs of black people in this city. This city has bigger issues than Harriet Tubman. How many jobs for blacks will that museum create? Even if Tubman's affiliation with Niagara Falls is questionable, Dyster's decision to give this museum as a gift is nuts. Since he's been in office, unemployment has increased and median household income has decreased. He's a little confused."

In addition to the museum, Burch also derides Dyster's decision-making when it comes to the top local positions.

"Dyster's decisions for picking the best and brightest has failed miserably," Burch said. "He's picked people who have no ties to Niagara Falls and are out of touch with the harsh realities citizens are experiencing. It's time to get younger. What would happen if we replaced everyone?"

Perhaps an all-out personnel overhaul is just what the city needs to break the spell of inertia, and perhaps Burch is the man for the job.

Recalling an event when a tourist asked him where a specific location was, he notes that most of the questions he receives are aimed at attractions positioned on the Canadian side.

"A lot of people come here and don't even realize they're in Niagara Falls, USA," he said. "There's nothing for people to do here, and that's something I want to change."

In his timeless anthem "The Times They Are A-Changin'," Bob Dylan sang about a battle raging that would soon "shake your windows and rattle your walls." In Carnell Burch's case, only time will tell whether or not he's able to shake enough City Hall windows to make a difference.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com July 12, 2011