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AT LONG LAST, A POLITICIAN STEPS UP

The sky might explode, grown men may weep, and women will faint from the shock. But I'll say it, anyway: A local politician took responsibility for something.

Brian Higgins said it at a public forum Sunday, and again this week: The waterfront buck stops with me.

He stood up and grabbed the wheel. Which is exactly what politicians get paid to do, although you'd never know it.

Higgins separated himself from the docile political herd and stepped into the leadership vacuum that sucks life out of this community.

"I'm taking personal responsibility to get this done," said the congressman from South Buffalo. "This is a new day."

Martha, quick -- my heart pills!

Higgins in recent years ended a history of waterfront inertia with small but key steps. He did it by asking a question rare for local politicians: How can I get this done?

Now he'll ride herd on a proposed waterfront panel, a close-to-home committee with a five-year limit and a job to do. He vows to make sure it gets done.

By carving his initials on the waterfront, Higgins broke the unwritten law of our duck-and-cover political culture: Don't jump in.

"You've got to take ownership to get something moving," Higgins said. "(Politicians) don't want to do that because they feel they'll be blamed if it doesn't work. But this community desperately needs vision, and at least theoretically that's why we have elected officials. If nobody takes responsibility, nothing happens."

You're telling us.

We've had a lifetime of project inertia -- on the waterfront, with the Peace Bridge, at the historic Erie Canal Harbor and with slow-as-erosion brownfields cleanup and downtown housing.

It got so bad that two years ago then-Congressman Jack Quinn said $50 million for various projects might go down the tubes. Instead of taking that ball and running with it, Quinn -- for reasons unfathomable -- handed it to Mayor Tony Masiello.

Fumble!

Higgins staking a claim is a landmark. Politicians knock each other over to grab the scissors at a ribbon-cutting. But hardly any stake a claim to a project and use the power of their office to drive it home.

One of the few like Higgins is Hank Nowak Jr. The judge didn't see Housing Court as penance, but as a chance to change the city. He used the hammer of huge fines to buckle slumlords strangling West Side neighborhoods. Nowak doesn't care what politicians it ticks off or which snoozing bureaucrat it bothers. He just asks: How can I get this done?

Public servants like Nowak and Higgins are hard to find. It's why our list of interminable, "nobody home" projects is long. A case in point is the Erie Canal Harbor -- begging for years for a political patron.

There are plenty of politicians on the project sign -- Bill Stachowski in the State Senate, Sam Hoyt in the Assembly, Masiello in City Hall -- and plenty of others who should care. Paul Tokasz, the majority leader, heads the Assembly's tourism committee. I've never heard a peep from him about it. None of them stepped up. That's why it looks like an abandoned construction site.

The closest it got to a savior was County Executive Joel Giambra, who -- backed by a public outcry -- convinced the governor to resurrect our history. But it was preservationists who pushed the cause and private citizens Scot Fisher and Kevin Gaughan who stepped up. Fisher led a petition drive and Gaughan raised 50 grand for a historic experts conference that sealed the deal.

But citizens can do only so much -- there and on a dozen other project sites. We elect and pay politicians to step up and show the way. Not to hide in plain sight.

Higgins says he'll cover the waterfront. The sad part is that, in taking a stand, he all but stands alone.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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