Donn Esmonde: Mayoral debate reminds us of Brown’s failings
It was about time these guys teed off on Silent Byron.
His challengers blasted the mayor in Thursday’s debate for, among other things, staying on the sidelines as the battle raged over putting ECC’s new science building in the suburbs or downtown.
His mime act on ECC was typical. Brown’s failure to engage and a propensity to duck and cover is, to my mind, the enduring trademark of his administration. Passivity R Us.
The broadsides from Bernie Tolbert and Sergio Rodriguez won’t, judging by a recent poll, slow Brown’s march to a third term. But their call-out revives the burning question of Brown’s uninspiring tenure: What if?
What if he was a leader instead of a placeholder? What if he was a battler instead of a bystander? Proactive instead of passive? Passionate, instead of a passenger?
Brown looks like he stepped out of a Brooks Brothers ad, but he might as well wear an invisibility cloak, given his blue-moon infrequency for weighing in. The ECC fight is typical. The science building is suited for the City Campus, given its central location and proximity to the blossoming medical corridor. Despite that, county officials seem determined to build it on the North Campus.
The figure leading the charge for downtown is not the mayor, but ex-County Executive Joel Giambra. A checkered past makes Giambra a flawed flag-carrier, but at least he stood up and spoke out – unlike the man in the tailored suit.
Brown potentially has plenty of muscle, but – to the frustration of many – lacks the will, interest, vision or desire to flex it. As the African-American mayor of one of the nation’s poorest cities, he has the power to persuade and embarrass. Particularly with a Democratic governor who passed Brown over for the job as his right-hand man (in favor of another upstate mayor), who has presidential ambitions and who’s sensitive about his racial sensitivity.
Brown could do more good for Buffalo if he was as passionate about policy as he is about politics. The sad thing is, he gets away with it.
His consistent failure to take a stand or to lead a cause has conditioned people not to expect anything. Whether by circumstance or design, he has undeservedly been handed a No Accountability pass. Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Ask Byron. Silence may be golden for a CIA operative, but not when you run a poverty-battered, jobs-desperate city. Judging by a recent poll, Brown will coast to re-election.
Yet time and again, he is conspicuous by his absence.
Suburban school district superintendents recently swatted away talk of taking in city students from underperforming schools. It begged for at least a symbolic response from the city’s black mayor. Instead, silence.
State legislators last summer passed a historic tax credit bill. It would have made it easier to resurrect downtown buildings, notably the decades-empty AM&A’s. Andrew Cuomo befuddled many by not signing it into law. Brown was in a perfect position to turn up the heat. He never even ventured into the kitchen.
The historic tax credit issue has not gone away. A handful of mammoth older Buffalo buildings are empty, nearly empty or about to empty: AM&A’s, Statler Towers, Trico, Millard Fillmore – Gates Circle and Women & Children’s Hospital. Those are huge holes to fill. Where’s Waldo, er, Byron?
His bigger-picture myopia goes beyond a stunning failure to craft an anti-poverty plan. Then-legislator Maria Whyte pushed in vain a few years ago for a long-overdue regional planning board, to funnel business into the city. The issue begged for Brown to climb on board. He never saddled up.
I understand Brown’s broad appeal. He projects civility and concern. He crafted public policy out of community activists’ push for a long-overdue, streetscape-enhancing “green code.” He has hired bright, young planners and given them relatively free rein. The streets are plowed and the garbage is collected. Developers tell me it has gotten easier to do business with the city.
But his tenure is marked more by an absence on issues than a presence – and ECC is sadly typical. Brown could have championed the City Campus for the new science building, while blasting the ridiculous law that pits community colleges – which all are part of the same state system – against each other for students. Instead, he admittedly let ECC President Jack Quinn knock him off the scent. If can-do Congressman Brian Higgins had the same “hakuna matata” attitude about the waterfront, we’d still be wandering through weeds.
Judging by the polls, most voters believe that Brown is good enough. I think Buffalo deserves better. With Silent Byron, I can’t help but see the chasm between what is and what could be.