Incumbent Mayor Byron W. Brown was on the defensive during a debate Wednesday — as his two opponents attacked his 12-year record as insubstantial and one that's focused on big developments downtown and on the waterfront, instead of residential neighborhoods.
The forum — sponsored by WNED-TV, days before Tuesday's Democratic primary in the mayoral race — was, at times, a tense affair.
City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder and Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant faced off on important issues against a mayor who has several terms in office.
Topics covered in the hour-long event included neighborhood and downtown development, crime and community policing, arts and cultural funding, the city's funding of the Buffalo Public Schools and the city's Green Code.
Among other critiques, Grant accused the mayor of funding the Tesla Solar City project -- to the tune of nearly $1 billion -- when, she said, that building has been vacant for over two years.
"That's a bad use of money," she said.
Brown retorted: "And just so Ms. Grant knows, Tesla Solar City is open. People are working there now (with) more hiring to come."
Schroeder announced a plan to introduce more police officers in city neighborhoods -- who would be dedicated to community policing, an effort that he said would see police officers and residents more engaged with each other, to make neighborhoods safer.
"Community police officers is the best thing that could do and we need to have more of them in all of the districts in the City of Buffalo," Schroeder said.
"Every police officer in the City of Buffalo is trained as a community police officer," Brown said, in return.
Environmental health issues
Schroeder said that Buffalo has "a lead problem that rivals Flint, Michigan."
"The mayor has been absent on this issue," the city comptroller charged.
Brown said that was not true.
"The city has put together a plan… (and) does have a task force. We have been working with the county… and the Board of Education to provide services," the mayor said.
"The other thing that the comptroller should know is that Flint is water. Flint is not lead paint," Brown added.
Grant said the lead crisis applied both to lead paint in houses and lead pipes, particularly those affecting drinking fountains in public schools.
Brown then accused both Grant and Schroeder of being absent on the issue, as current and former Erie County legislators.
"Both of them have been absent on lead for many, many years when in they were in the position in the (branch of) government that is mandated to address lead," Brown said.
Mayoral track record
Both Grant and Schroeder suggested Brown's length of time in office has already led to scandal that will only grow if Brown wins a fourth term in office.
Brown dismissed those charges — and boasted that his main accomplishment has been bringing the city back from the brink.
Buffalo was in fiscal crisis and under the reins of a control board when he first took office, Brown said Wednesday night, but has since seen its finances stabilized and economy greatly improved.
"When I travel around the City of Buffalo, I see people who are optimistic. I see people who are hopeful. I see people who are positive about the future of our city," Brown said at the debate.
But Schroeder countered that view.
"As Buffalonians, we're all grateful for downtown development and waterfront development, but the fact is the neighborhoods are suffering greatly," Schroeder said. He said he has a plan to improve Buffalo's neighborhoods and make city streets safer.
Schroeder said he would introduce what he called one-stop shops into neighborhoods.
"We have to have opportunities for our people in Buffalo in their neighborhoods," Schroeder said. "If you need a GED, come on in. If you want to open up business on Seneca Street or on Jefferson, come right in. If you want to know if there are opportunities for matching grants, come right in ... Jobs are very, very important and it would also reduce the terrible, awful crime that we have here in the City of Buffalo."
Brown said Schroeder's plan would take the city back 25 years.
"It would be a plan that would take us back in history," the mayor said. "As mayor of the City of Buffalo, I came in at a time of fiscal crisis. I was able to manage the city out of that fiscal crisis, stabilize our finances, grow our economy, cut the tax rate by almost 68 percent, residentially, cut the tax rate by almost 32 percent, commercially. We are now seeing record economic development in the City of Buffalo, over $6.1 billion dollars of development. I expect it to produce more than 12,000 new jobs over the next few years in this city."
Poverty and schools
Grant criticized Brown for ignoring the condition of neighborhoods — particularly on the East Side.
"When the mayor took office, the city was spending $68 million for the Buffalo Board of Education. Now they're giving $70 million," Grant said. "That's $2 million. In 12 years, he has barely expanded the city's allocation (to the Buffalo schools) by $700,000. That's inexcusable. What I would do is increase the funding by $2 million by 2020 ... to provide job opportunities."
"I would make sure the community centers have job training programs ... so that we can we can get ourselves out of poverty," Grant said.
Brown, a Queens native, became Buffalo's first African-American mayor in 2005.
He seeks a fourth term as mayor -- a feat previously accomplished only by former Mayor James D. Griffin.
A 1983 graduate of Buffalo State, Brown was director of the Erie County Equal Employment Opportunity office from 1985 to 1993, when he launched a career in politics as Masten District Council Member. He served two terms as a state senator.
Schroeder, a South Buffalo native, earned an associate's degree from Erie Community College and a bachelor's degree from Empire State College.
He served as vice president of two food companies and ran for elected office in 2001, winning a seat on the County Legislature. Schroeder was elected to the state assembly in 2004, and re-elected three times. In 2011, Schroeder won election to a first term as city comptroller, and is in his second term in that office.
Grant, a native of Tennessee, has lived in Buffalo for more than 40 years. She's a 1993 Medaille College graduate, with a bachelor's degree in elementary education. She has a master's degree in special education from Buffalo State.
Grant was first elected to the Common Council in 1999 and represented the University District. She served two terms. She served on the Buffalo School Board from 2004 to 2007, when she was elected to the county Legislature. She is currently serving a fourth term and, in 2012, was elected chair.
Brown has spent $634,644 so far this election season, while Schroeder spent $327,119 and Grant spent $11,232, according to campaign reports filed with the state Board of Elections.
Brown does not face a GOP challenger this year, but has minor party opposition on the November ballot.
WBFO News Director Brian Meyer moderated the debate. Two panelists included Buffalo News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy and Claudine Ewing, a journalist at WGRZ-TV.