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VOTERS SKEPTICAL OF 3 RUNNING FOR MAYOR

Thomas Nichols cuts hair for a living. He also trims political egos.

He suggests the three candidates for mayor are "zip" and the city is worse off today than four years ago.

"Political stupidity -- there's a lot of it in Buffalo," said Nichols, co-owner of the Delavan-Humboldt Barber Shop.

Having said that, he might vote for Mayor Masiello -- maybe.

"He took a job that was uphill," Nichols said last week. "His first four years was just cleaning up from the past 16 years. He's still got a lot of work to do."

This lack of confidence heard in every corner of the city can be traced to anger over a lack of jobs and opportunities, and a deep-seated worry about the sharp decline in property values.

Yes, people may lean toward former Mayor James D. Griffin, Mayor Masiello or Common Council President James W. Pitts.

But in the end, none is viewed as Buffalo's great savior.

The public's skepticism was mirrored by a poll earlier this month by The Buffalo News. The result?

About half of all Democratic voters think Buffalo is headed in the wrong direction.

Griffin, Masiello and Pitts. Each has a long record in city government. And they are viewed by many voters as part of the problem, not the solution.

Just ask Donna Guarino, a school secretary and a longtime West Side resident.

Over a cup of coffee in Jenny's on Niagara Street, she explained that four years ago, she voted for Masiello, figuring her neighborhood would prosper with a West Side native as mayor.

She was wrong, she said, and come Election Day in November, she plans to cast her ballot for the ex-mayor, Griffin.

"He's the lesser of the evils," she said of Griffin. "Personally, I don't think any of the candidates are good candidates."

To hear Ms. Guarino talk, crime is up, not down, as the police and FBI statistics show.

The drugs and prostitution in her neighborhood are worse now than when Masiello took office, she said.

"Griffin was a tougher mayor," she said.

Along Tonawanda Street, the stores and restaurants are dotted with campaign signs, many touting Griffin's return to City Hall.

James Holland, a 71-year-old Black Rock-Riverside voter, said, "The city's going to hell. Look at our streets. Things aren't kept up."

Holland voted for Masiello four years ago. This time, he's backing Griffin.

Is the city better off now than four years ago?

A lot of people said no, but not all blame Masiello.

"He walked into a mess," said Donnamarie Russo, 41, of Sycamore Street on the city's East Side.

"He's only one person."

On a warm but overcast morning last week, Ms. Russo and a friend, Cynthia Washington, 44, walked down Kosciusko Street in the shadow of the old Central Terminal.

That is where Griffin announced he would run again -- and where Masiello appeared a few days later to tear down some old, run-down houses.

The two women -- one black, one white -- speak passionately about the city problems, from crime and drugs to racism.

Despite the city's ills, they support Masiello.

"He's in the people's corner," Ms. Washington said.

Just a few blocks away, some men and women were playing cards in the John A. Ulinski Senior Citizens Center.

All but one of the card players were city residents, and each was backing Griffin.

"He's the best man for the job," said Raymond Polanski, 72, of Kosciusko Street.

Polanski voted for Masiello last time. But now Polanski is angry over the new, $143-a-year garbage fee and has returned to the Griffin camp.

Repealing the garbage fee has become the centerpiece of Griffin's campaign, but Polanski said there's more to his support for the former four-term mayor.

He likes Griffin's get-tough approach and his loyalty to old friends, guys like former Parks Commissioner Robert Delano, who went to prison for the city parks scandal.

"When his buddy was in trouble, he stood up and said 'he's still my friend,' " Polanski said.

Travel a few miles north along Jefferson Avenue, and the pro-Griffin mood begins to whither and die.

"Jimmy Griffin, I would never vote for him," said Arthur Barber of Kehr Street.

Barber, a lifelong resident of the East Side, was watching television in the 1490 Jefferson senior center, not exactly a hotbed of Griffin support.

Most of the seniors here claimed to be undecided.

They know Pitts, the only African-American candidate, and think his experience in government prepared him for the city's top job.

But they also like Masiello and his emphasis on bulldozing Buffalo's run-down housing.

"He's doing some of the things he promised to do, such as tearing down bad houses," Barber said.

On Buffalo's East Side, the demolition program struck a chord. People hear of more and more slum and blight being torn down. And they like it.

At the Delavan-Humboldt Barber Shop, the pro-Pitts mood is more evident.

"I get ticked off at Masiello for taking our community for granted," said John O. Mose, a semiretiree from North Buffalo. "I think Pitts has his pulse on the community."

Mose describes Pitts as refreshing and said it's time for a black mayor in Buffalo.

When asked about Masiello's widespread support among black leaders, Mose doesn't mince words on why.

"When you look at the history of slavery in our country, some slaves always sold out the other slaves," he said.

Back in Jenny's, two women talk of the mayor's race as a Pitts-Masiello race. Neither one cares for Griffin.

"I'm open to Mr. Pitts," said Joan Rutecki, a 35-year resident of South Buffalo.

But both voted for Masiello four years ago and, at this point, are inclined to vote for him again.

"I like his attitude that we all have to pitch in and help," said Anne R. Clauss, a teacher and West Side resident. "He makes the man-on-the-street problems his problems."

Back at the barbershop, Nichols is undecided. One out of every four voters is in the same boat, according to the News poll.

And for many of those people, the reasons are rooted in a skepticism that encompasses all of the mayoral candidates.

"I don't see any difference in the city four years later," said Nichols. "I don't like any of the candidates for mayor. I don't like any of them."

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