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It's now mid-February of a mayoral election year, and we've got to conclude this is just not the same old Buffalo.

There is no major political figure out there raising $1 million to counter Mayor Tony Masiello's re-election stash.

There is no potential challenger nipping at the mayor's heels over problems in Hickory Woods, the vacant downtown storefronts or the incessant poverty that ranks this town as one of the nation's poorest.

Maybe the politicians are taking the city's publicity seriously. Following last week's USA Today article extolling Buffalo as a "city with heart," it appears even the pugilistic pols are passing on their normal hardball antics.

Of course, it's still early. Maybe a major political or business community figure will surface to challenge Masiello. Things were quiet at this point in 1997, too, only to see Council President Jim Pitts and former Mayor Jim Griffin surface to wage a three-way donnybrook.

But at this point, it appears only Council Member at Large Beverly Gray is even making noise, and she concedes that any effort she does mount will prove woefully underfinanced compared to Masiello's.

So all of this begs key questions. Where are the city's leaders? From where will they surface? Are we so bereft of major political figures that mayors now go unchallenged?

Henry Louis Taylor, the University at Buffalo professor who possesses a keen understanding of Buffalo's political psyche, says it appears the city's leadership class is not yet ready to challenge a powerful and well-liked mayor like Masiello. Even among African-Americans, a community eagerly anticipating its inevitable shot at City Hall, the time and the person have not yet arrived.

"(State Sen.) Byron Brown is a rising star, and if I had to bet, he'd be a mayoral candidate of the future," Taylor said a few days ago. "And Jim Pitts is a big-time star and may contemplate another run in the future.

"But given the fact that there is no widespread sentiment against Masiello at this time, all the talented people I know are looking to solidify themselves and looking to someday make their move."

Taylor is sure the day will come when a black candidate like Brown or Pitts or maybe Council Member at Large Charley Fisher will surface to pose a serious mayoral candidacy. It could happen now, he argues, but not against a Masiello backed by party headquarters and a million-dollar campaign fund.

"Anybody who does it now and expects to unseat Tony Masiello has to be someone with high name recognition, a track record and the ability to attract a significant number of white cross-over votes," Taylor said. "And if the candidate were white, they would have to get significant support from the African-American community.

"But from where I sit, I don't see anything seriously moving. Masiello seems to be moving things in the right direction."

There is one other element that is so far lacking in the mayoral election of 2001 -- anger. Taylor says it must be present to unseat a powerful incumbent. About the strongest sentiment he feels out there is "dissatisfaction."

Still, this long-time student of Buffalo's political trends -- especially in its black community -- calls 2001 an "exciting" time. There are people laying their groundwork, looking to the future, and preparing for the day when conditions again cry out for change. They are a new generation, he says, of worthy people.

"It's exciting because I see a lot of ambitious people preparing for their (eventual) runs," he said. "If they could all work together, we might have a shot at some synergy."

Just in case the 2001 mayoral contest indeed becomes a yawner, there's always the 2002 contest for governor of New York State. That's right, the one that's already begun -- 21 months before the election. To that end, former Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo will be in town Wednesday night for the Buffalo version of his "welcome home party." Similar versions have already taken place in New York and Albany.

Cuomo's event is slated for the Troop I post on Franklin Street, and is being arranged by John Maggiore, top aide to Assemblyman Sam Hoyt. Hoyt has not endorsed Cuomo or his chief Democratic rival -- Comptroller Carl McCall -- but is being "helpful" to the former secretary.

Erie County Democratic Chairman Steve Pigeon says he will assemble a group of local party leaders to meet with Cuomo on Wednesday, and will do the same for McCall at some point, too.

But Pigeon acknowledges his strict neutrality on the McCall-Cuomo contest may end much sooner than anticipated. While he originally had planned a gubernatorial endorsement in late fall, he now is eyeing late spring.

"This race has taken off faster than I anticipated," Pigeon said last week. "I don't want Erie County's role to be irrelevant."

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