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Alleged inequity takes center stage in Buffalo mayoral debate

The Democratic primary election for Buffalo Mayor is Tuesday and the tension in the race seemed to make Wednesday night's debate in the WNED|WBFO studio a little angrier.


Incumbent Mayor Byron Brown and challengers City Comptroller Mark Schroeder and Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant did not agree on a lot, although the Mayor's record was the issue. Brown said his record is good, while the challengers said it is not. They argued about everything from the poverty rate to whether the city does enough to promote arts and culture.

Asked why the public should elect them as Mayor, each candidate took a different perspective. Grant said she is not taking money from big developers.

Credit Eileen Elibol
Incumbent Mayor Byron Brown

"I should be mayor because I am bold, courageous, determined, independent, and I don't subscribe to pay-to-play politics that is happening in City Hall," Grant said. "I don't receive donations from the ousted Carl Paladino or the criminally indicted LP Ciminelli. I will be a people's candidate for mayor."

Schroeder said he should be elected because he would stress the city's mesh of neighborhoods, not downtown.

"The time has come," Schroeder said. "It's very apparent to Buffalonians, who are all grateful for downtown development and waterfront development. But the fact is the neighborhoods are suffering greatly and the reason why I am running is that I have a plan for safe streets and for our neighborhoods."

Brown said he has spent millions of dollars in those neighborhoods and blasted Schroeder's plan for neighborhood offices.

Credit Eileen Elibol
Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant

"The one-stop-shop plan that the Comptroller talks about would take us back 25 years," Brown said. "It wouldn't be a plan that would help people in the City of Buffalo. It would be a plan that would take us back in history. As Mayor of the City of Buffalo, I came in at a time of fiscal crisis. I was able to manage the city out of that fiscal crisis."

The mayor never explained why those neighborhood centers were a throwback.

Schroeder challenged the way the Mayor has dealt with the city's endemic poverty, while Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz was dealing with the same issue.

"Can somebody please explain to me how an executive in one building and another executive two blocks away, why they can't work together in using resources and using the state and the Governor and the Congress to do better with poverty and when we are the fourth most impoverished city in America?" Schroeder asked.

Brown said the Comptroller's attacks on him are inaccurate.

Credit Eileen Elibol
Buffalo City Comptroller Mark Schroeder

"Poverty exists all over the country and we also know that entities, many entities must work together to address poverty," Brown said. "We have focused on the education of our children, supporting youth programs and education programs since I have been Mayor, with investments of over $61 million."

Grant agreed that education is important, but she would spend more and spend it differently.

"What I would do is increase the funding by $2 million by 2020," Grant said. "That's $500,000 a year to provide job opportunities. I would open community centers to 9 p.m., have job training programs in those community centers so that we can provide jobs, to get us out of poverty. Also, the poverty level was 29% when Mayor Brown took office. It's 37%."

Buffalo's Green Code also took center stage. Brown said getting the code into place was a real achievement, within state controls.

"One of the things that we notified the residents about when we were developing the Green Code is that variances are allowed by state law," Brown said. "So state law allows for variances and a developer within certain parameters can request variances. Not every variance is granted."

Grant pounded away at the issue and the Mayor's handling of it, citing large campaign contributions from developers.

"Absolutely, I would enforce the Green Code because I think that it's community driven and I'm so happy," Grant said. "I'm not happy, I'm not taking big money from big developers like my opponents are, because when you take the money, you have to do what your big developer friends want you to do and sometimes it might be in the best interest of the community and it might not be in the best interest."

Credit Eileen Elibol
The three Democratic candidates for Buffalo Mayor.

Crowds at city meetings and ubiquitous signs attacking developers suggest community anger over the Green Code. Schroeder said his door-to-door campaigning found anger and signs.

"That means that the residents, Mr. Mayor, are very nervous about your Green Code," Schroeder said, "and also, let's make it clear: I went to a Council meeting and I watched the developers, your developers, come in, and I saw them offer nine variances to the Green Code and the Green Code wasn't even dried yet. That means developers have their way. That's what happens when you have a 12-year mayor."

Some of the development projects are the subject of court cases over the variances and the way they were granted.

The debate may be over, but you can still join in the discussion: use the hashtag #bfomayordebate and share your thoughts on social media.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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