East Side residents know exactly where to find Betty Jean Grant on the first and third Wednesday of every month.
That’s when the county legislator from District 2 presides over neighborhood meetings at the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library on Jefferson Avenue. The legislator might delve into the county budget, or services offered by county government.
But on a recent Wednesday evening, Grant held court with about 20 neighborhood residents to talk police issues: red light cameras, body cameras, checkpoints to interdict the flow of guns and drugs into Buffalo.
“I believe in giving the community the opportunity to voice concerns and have input,” Grant tells her almost all-black audience.
Grant has been part of government for years as a member of the Common Council, the Buffalo Board of Education, and for the last decade, the Erie County Legislature. Now she wants to occupy the mayor's office and is one of two Democratic primary challengers to incumbent Mayor Byron W. Brown.
She talks accomplishments like helping to bring two Tim Hortons shops and an Aldi’s Supermarket to the University District while serving on the Council. She talks about helping redevelop McCarthy Park.
But Grant may be best known for exactly what she was doing at the Merriweather Library a few nights ago – keeping in touch with her constituents. For years, East Side residents have relied on her bi-weekly appearances in the library auditorium to gather, discuss and debate. Few other officials offer such a regular schedule of community discussions. Residents have come to recognize her Wednesday sessions as part of life at Merriweather.
“People come and give input and their views,” said the Rev. Gloria Caver Robinson, a long-time Grant supporter attending the meeting. “She gives everyone a free voice, so she can gather her own information.
“She works tirelessly in the neighborhood and doesn’t hide once they get our votes – like certain people,” the pastor added in a subtle dig at the incumbent mayor.
As a member of the Legislature’s Democratic minority, Grant says it is difficult to notch solid accomplishments. But she notes that she pushed a fair housing law to ban discrimination. She sought a public hearing on her proposal, only to recognize the disappointment of membership in the minority caucus.
“It’s frustrating to have these good laws that just sit there,” she said.
But when her party held the majority and she served as chairwoman, she believes she helped lead resistance to the policies of then-County Executive Chris Collins, a Republican. She points out Collins sought to cut aid for various cultural groups concentrated in minority neighborhoods.
She also resisted his efforts to curtail services at some libraries, she said, and feels good about her part in ending the Collins era.
“I helped to elect Mark Poloncarz and overturn the negative things of County Executive Chris Collins,” she said.
Not all of those in her Merriweather audience see her as mayoral material. Grady Lewis Jr., who has posting warnings about dealing with police on Facebook via his laptop, said he is also concerned about police issues. In addition, he thinks Grant has been around for a long time and done little to thwart gentrification in neighborhoods like the Fruit Belt.
He likes that she addresses police topics, but thinks Brown is effective in keeping tabs on law enforcement.
“I’m pretty sure he talks to the chief,” Lewis said of Brown. "I’ll stick with the guy I know.”
But the guy in charge remains the reason why Grant is running. She hears discontent about the police at her Merriweather meeting, and the sense of wariness and even fear expressed by Lewis on Facebook is echoed at the meeting.
The gatherings tell her things can be better, she says.
“I have meetings about homicides and I expect the commissioner to show up,” she said. “But it’s not happening.”
One of her first acts if elected mayor, she tells her audience, will be to replace Daniel Derenda as police commissioner.