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Gov. George E. Pataki will meet with more than two dozen of Buffalo's African-American leaders Friday for a luncheon meeting some say is long overdue.

In what is believed to be the first gathering of its kind since Pataki became governor in 1995, African-American leaders were invited by County Executive Joel A. Giambra to discuss their concerns during the Rath Building meeting.

The agenda is expected to include everything from faith-based government services to increasing black employment, and black business and community leaders are welcoming the opportunity.

"This might be a first, and it tacks on to the kinds of meetings President Bush had with African-American leaders," said the Rev. Bennett W. Smith, pastor of St. John Baptist Church and one of those invited. "It's a meeting well worth having."

Giambra was unavailable to comment, but sources close to him say the idea was to establish channels of communication. And Pataki's office said the governor was happy to accept the opportunity to discuss any concerns the leaders may have.

"The governor wants to hear what people have to say in every corner of the state, not just the halls of the Capitol," said Pataki spokeswoman Suzanne Morris. "That's consistent with what the governor has done over the past six years and what he will continue to do over the next two years."

But there are some political aspects to Republican Pataki's new outreach as well, especially as state Comptroller H. Carl McCall launches his effort to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination next year and become the state's first African-American governor.

A McCall candidacy could energize the state's overwhelmingly Democratic African-American voting bloc when he tries to face off against Pataki in 2002. The heavy turnout of that same group was also instrumental in the recent statewide victories of Sens. Charles E. Schumer in 1998 and Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2000.

And Frank B. Mesiah, president of the Buffalo Chapter of the NAACP, said that while he supports the concept of the meeting, it's "overdue." He fears it may be used for Giambra's and Pataki's own political purposes.

"If this is made to look like this is a support for Pataki thing or somebody comes in with a camera, I'm not going to be used in that way," Mesiah said.

He said Pataki, who served as one of the Republican Party's main spokesmen during the Florida vote recount controversy, must work hard to explain the party's relationship with blacks. The Republican defense of voting procedures that allegedly discouraged black participation remains a sore point, Mesiah said.

"This thing in Florida angered and recharged a lot of African-Americans," he said. "Then you see people like Carl McCall running, and you're going to get more and more people to register to vote."

Still, Mesiah said the conference will afford the opportunity to pose important questions to the governor. He pointed to the $1 billion school reconstruction plan, using mostly state funds, for Buffalo, and asked what provisions will be made for minority participation in the project.

"I would want to know, how does he see the African-American community fitting into his plans?" Mesiah said. "What leadership roles will there be, so that we're not just the recipient of programs?

"Is the governor going to take an active role in encouraging that the African-American community benefits by these millions of dollars?" he asked. "Or will he turn it over to the same people who in the past ignored the African-American community?"

State Sen. Byron W. Brown, D-Buffalo, is not invited to the meeting, and it appears other political figures are not, either. Brown called its timing "interesting" in that Pataki has never convened such a meeting before.

But he acknowledged it affords a good opportunity to discuss important topics such as bank redlining, loan programs for inner-city small businesses and affordable housing.

Smith also said the meeting will allow discussion of important concepts, such as the president's promotion of faith-based initiatives. He said he will encourage Pataki to explore the possibility of expanding those programs on the state level, and pointed to his own congregation's experience in administering social programs.

"It's an idea whose time has come," he said. "We've been doing faith-based work for 20 years without government assistance. Maybe we should get some assistance this time."

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