Where’s Byron? That was the call last week in the midst of the blizzard.
It started as a joke on Twitter, where a #WhereisByron hashtag emerged as snow fell and winds blew. It spilled over onto Facebook, where commenters on Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s carefully cultivated Facebook page called him “M.I.A.”
Some wondered why Brown hadn’t instituted a driving ban. By the end of the storm, TV crews were peppering him with questions about why he wasn’t more visible during the storm.
Two terms have shown us this is not a mayor who’s going to let rip with folksy quotes about six packs. In fact, on some issues, he can be just plain aloof.
Mayoral challenger Bernie Tolbert last summer pounded him on his near-public silence on the city’s schools. Republican contender Sergio Rodriguez accused him of lacking a sense of urgency when it came to the city’s poverty.
Brown has, at times, frustrated reporters by ignoring interview requests for negative stories and relying heavily on a communications staff to field questions.
But last week’s storm was not one of those times. Brown was, in fact, in City Hall. He pushed back a planned drive to Albany for the governor’s State of the State and answered questions from news outlets about the impact of the storm. In an interview with The News’ Jill Terreri, Brown explained his decision to keep City Hall open.
“We believe that our roads were passable, that we weren’t experiencing the same rate and amount of snowfall, and that we could operate city government,” Brown said.
South Buffalo got hit hard, but for the rest of the city, the roads remained drivable. The public had plenty of information about conditions. The governor declared a state of emergency. Erie County issued a travel advisory. The Thruway was shut down.
You can second-guess whether the city needed a driving ban, but the fact that there were no widespread gridlocks, accidents or abandoned cars scores points for the mayor’s decision.
More than a driving ban, it seemed what some wanted was the type of plain-spoken storm assessment that made former Mayor Jimmy Griffin famous in ’85. After eight years, we’ve seen that’s just not this mayor’s thing.
Where Griffin cultivated a populist persona, a rough-and-tumble sort who liked a good beer, Brown has built an image that can be downright dull. He chooses his words carefully. He’s a buttoned-up mayor whose political career is defined by a measured tone.
A look through The News’ archives turns up hundreds of photographs of the mayor – almost all in suit and tie.
There’s Brown, in suit and tie, mulching a cherry tree. There’s Brown, in a tie, filling potholes. There’s Brown, in a suit, handing out recycling totes.
But these were photo ops. The real work gets done by the public works guys, and it was no different in the midst of the storm, when, for the record, Brown was dressed in a pullover vest with no tie.
There is a role for top elected officials to communicate efficiently in an emergency. County Executive Mark Poloncarz seemed to handle storm updates deftly, keeping the public up-to-date with news conferences and a flurry of updates on Twitter.
What more did the public need? Personally, I did just fine without the theatrics.
He’s a buttoned-up mayor whose political career is defined by a measured tone.