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HIGGINS-BROWN DUET LOSES RHYTHM
Congressman and mayor aren't seeing eye-to-eye much these days, as their simmering feud is 'starting to spill out more'

When Rep. Brian Higgins publicly contradicted Mayor Byron W. Brown last week over plans to demolish several West Side homes for Peace Bridge plaza expansion, a simmering feud between two of the city's top Democrats finally boiled over.

These days, the congressman from South Buffalo and the mayor from the East Side rarely agree on much.

"It's been going full tilt for quite a while," Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan observed, "but now it's starting to spill out more."

Nobody is calling it a blood feud between Brown and Higgins; the mayor even attended a fundraiser for the congressman earlier this week.

But after a warm personal and political relationship that once featured Higgins' endorsement of Brown's mayoral candidacy from the front porch of his home, the two find themselves sharply divided on key points. Recent developments include:

Brown last week sought a "timeout" on demolition of seven Busti Avenue homes to allow expansion of the Peace Bridge inspection plaza, opposing Higgins and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Higgins champions a plan to transfer 384 acres of outer harbor lands from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., while the mayor seeks city takeover of the property.

Brown remains bitterly opposed to the continued leadership of Lenihan as Democratic chairman, while Higgins has smoothed over past difficulties with headquarters to become a Lenihan supporter.

Political observers note other ramifications.

In what appears as a friendly gesture toward Higgins, City Hall operatives recently carried designating petitions for State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, a key figure in the Higgins wing of local Democratic politics.

While Brown and Kennedy remain allies, some observers say the petition effort stems mostly from City Hall's disdain of Kennedy's opponent in the primary, County Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant, who is considered too close to Lenihan.

And while the mayor's political club -- Grassroots -- circulated petitions for Higgins, one party source labeled the amount of signatures collected "underwhelming." Grassroots sources say the organization conducted a full-blown effort.

>Brown, Paladino cozy

The rift has produced other interesting side effects, such as the sudden coziness between Brown and Carl P. Paladino, the downtown developer and 2010 Republican candidate for governor who ranked as a top mayoral nemesis for years. Paladino last week supported Brown's efforts for city takeover of the outer harbor in a move that some say is aimed squarely at Paladino's new archenemy Higgins.

The situation assumed a more public aura recently when the mayor sided with neighbors over Peace Bridge Authority plans to tear down the Busti Avenue houses for an expanded inspections plaza. He asked Cuomo to intervene and delay the planned demolitions, calling the move "premature."

"The community has raised a number of valid concerns and many unanswered questions remain," Brown said in his letter to Cuomo.

Higgins immediately fired back, publicly backing the authority and appealing -- as he has often in recent months -- to the community's frustration over the long delays associated with Peace Bridge plans.

"The Peace Bridge project has been stalled without good reason for two decades. Inaction and inertia is no longer an option," Higgins said. "The issues surrounding these actions are not new, have been long-discussed and should not encounter any further delay."

>Waterfront at issue

Brown issued his plea to the governor after Cuomo personally expedited the demolitions following a speech at Buffalo State College in April. He told reporters then that he would pursue "very aggressively" ending delays on the expansion project. Later that day, Empire State Development Corp. announced that it would use state powers of eminent domain to speed up the process.

As a result, several government officials with knowledge of the situation said the mayor's letter to Cuomo seeking delay arrived as a surprise.

The two also differ significantly on their approach to the waterfront, beyond ownership questions.

The Brown administration, while not opposing Higgins' idea to upgrade Ohio Street as a connector between downtown and the waterfront, says that it has other priorities for its transportation dollars. City Hall prefers returning cars to Main Street before proceeding on the Higgins plan for Ohio Street.

>'Just a disagreement'

The camps of both men now acknowledge operating on a less than united front. Higgins spokeswoman Theresa Kennedy addressed questions about City Hall relations with a statement that never mentioned Brown but underscored Higgins' efforts to fight "complacency and resistance to change that has been pervasive in Buffalo for 50 years."

"The congressman lives in and loves this city; he understands we can't afford to go backward, and he remains committed to moving this city and the larger community forward," she said.

Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey, Brown's political point man, was more direct.

"I don't see it as a rift, but as a difference of opinion," he said. "We respect the congressman and think he's doing a terrific job. We just don't always agree."

Casey has had no discussions with Higgins' staff over party leadership, he said, and acknowledges that some observers unfamiliar with the situation might perceive a serious split.

"We're not angry or battling," he said. "It's just a disagreement, and elected officials are going to disagree."

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com