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AFTER 12 YEARS, MASIELLO LEAVES MIXED LEGACY
CITY'S DECLINE OFTEN OVERSHADOWS MAYOR'S ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND DEVOTION TO WIDESPREAD INCLUSION.

On a typically cold, windy day in January 1994, Tony Masiello stood on the steps of City Hall and, sounding a lot like his idol John F. Kennedy, promised a new day.

He talked about unity, compromise and new beginnings, and the crowd of 2,000, a coalition of minority, labor and business leaders, cheered his every promise of an urban renaissance.

Eleven years later, the cheers have turned to disappointment -- his popularity is at its lowest level -- and many of his political allies have abandoned him.

He will leave office with a mixed legacy, a reputation for caring passionately about his lifelong home and a record of some success in reforming city government while holding the line on taxes.

Yet, in many people's eyes, his Achilles heel remains his inability to hire the right people and make tough political decisions.

"Of all the mayors I've dealt with, I believe he's the one who really cared the most about Buffalo," said Philip Rumore, Buffalo Teachers Federation president. "I think he was a good mayor, but he wasn't always served well by the people around him."

Buffalo's 57th mayor arrived as a fresh face, a warm, engaging, consensus-building politician -- the antithesis of James D. Griffin, the four-term mayor he succeeded.

After 16 years of Griffin, a feisty, combative politician, Masiello was seen as a unifying force, a healer and the best chance for everyone to have a seat at the table.

"Criticize him or praise him, but he's a decent, honest and passionate man," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a fellow Buffalo Democrat who recently dropped his own bid for mayor.

The first chairman of the state control board set up two years ago to oversee city finances called Masiello "good person with a great desire to do the right thing."

"He got up every morning and never ducked an issue," said Thomas E. Baker, whose 18-month stint on the board ended with his resignation in January. "He may not have had solutions to every issue, but he never ducked them."

Masiello indicates he thinks history will treat him kindly. He notes the $1 billion program to renovate city schools and of reforms in the Police and Fire departments.

After three terms, he can boast about new downtown housing, expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the promise of a Bass Pro Shops outdoor store in a newly developed Erie Canal Harbor.

He also highlights changes that modernized the Police Department. Precincts were consolidated, more civilian report technicians were hired, and more officers were put on the streets even as the department shrank. One-officer patrol cars and more flexible scheduling have also improved operations, Masiello said.

"I believe I'm leaving the city in a better place than it was 12 years ago," he said last week.

Masiello said his administration's tight-fisted policies cut Buffalo's payroll from nearly 3,300 employees in 1994 to 2,534 as of July 1. The property tax levy -- the amount of money the city raises from taxes -- dropped from nearly $148 million 11 years ago, to $146.3 million.

Down deep, what really matters most, Masiello said, is his record of inclusion.

"I've opened up this city to everybody, regardless of who you are and where you live," he said. "We never pitted one neighborhood against another. The city feels much better about itself in that regard."

The president of the Buffalo Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Masiello's inclusiveness was evident from the start.

"There was so much hostility and racial antagonism during Jimmy Griffin's terms," Frank B. Mesiah said. "You just didn't see that with Tony."

Dependence on state grows

Of course, Masiello's watch wasn't all good news. The city's population slid to its lowest level in a century, and the state took the unprecedented step of putting Buffalo under a financial control board.

Buffalo remains highly dependent on state aid, which has nearly doubled since 1993. In the new fiscal year, the city will receive $115.9 million from the state. City officials blame costly state mandates for some of Buffalo's fiscal strain, arguing that the city could survive on less money from Albany if the state changed labor laws and made other reforms.

The assessed value of city properties also has declined, from nearly $9.6 billion in 1994 to about $8.8 billion this year.

More disturbing, many neighborhoods remain mired in poverty, victims of disinvestment and failed public policy.

"It hurts me," Masiello said of the poverty. "I wish I had a magic wand and could change it. But the economic basis of this city is a direct result of foreign trade policy and the fact that there are no anti-sprawl policies -- not only in this city, but throughout the Northeast."

Over time, Masiello came under fire for his patronage hires, some of them at the highest levels of city government, and his close ties to the Democratic Party machine.

Unlike the new wave of big-city mayors who came from business, Masiello's roots were in the ethnic West Side, home to the Masiello family for five decades.

While Griffin hired the Irish from South Buffalo, Masiello leaned toward Italian-Americans from his old neighborhood.

In a storied basketball career at Canisius College, he gained a reputation as a gutsy warrior, or "Big Red" with the mighty heart as one sportswriter called him.

In his final game, Masiello put up 35 points, outscored future National Basketball Association great Calvin Murphy and hit four free throws in the final seconds to edge arch-rival Niagara University.

As a 24-year-old Democrat, he entered politics and quickly won a seat on the Common Council, the first of 23 straight election victories.

Even as mayor, he seemed unbeatable, winning re-election twice, both times by wide margins and with the support of the opposition, the Republican Party.

That run came to an end last week, when Masiello acknowledged the polls and public opinion are now against him. He called it an end to his "shelf life."

"I recognize the public needs a fresh face," he said last week.

"Anyone who gets into public office and thinks it's for life is clearly mistaken," said Kate Masiello, the mayor's wife. "Twelve years is a long time."

"I think history will treat him better," she said. "Right now, there are some people who are angry. He's made some tough, tough decisions."

But others fault Masiello for too often bowing to pressure from outside forces. Robert P. Meegan Jr., president of the Police Benevolent Association, claims that shortly after taking office, Masiello bent to the will of business leaders, especially the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

In his first campaign for mayor, Masiello had support from many labor groups, including the police union. But Meegan said relations soured even before Masiello celebrated his first year in office.

"He blamed the unions for the city's ills. When we heard that, it was like 'you've got to be kidding me.' "

Even Masiello's relations with the business community weren't always conciliatory. Partnership President Andrew J. Rudnick acknowledged that his group sometimes disagreed with the mayor "very loudly and publicly" on issues. But he credited the mayor for having an open door for the business community.

"I've always respected Mayor Masiello's unwavering optimism for this city, even as his government faced some very challenging times," he said in a written statement.

Pace of change applauded

Others praise Masiello's strategy to shrink city government gradually, unnoticed, they say, by the average resident. Michael Attardo, a business owner and founder of a coalition of merchants and homeowners called Forever Elmwood, said he has seen the same pattern of step-by-step progress in his neighborhood.

"The changes have been made incrementally; therefore, a lot of citizens didn't think the city was moving forward," he said.

Jan Peters, a former Board of Education member, says she is convinced Masiello's tenure will be viewed favorably.

"I think we are on the cusp of dramatic change for the betterment of Buffalo," she said. "When people look back historically, they will say he did an awful lot to lay the foundation for that to happen."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com and bmeyer@buffnews.com

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