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Either way, Helfer ad is bad move

There are two ways to look at Kevin Helfer's campaign commercial saying black opponent Byron Brown "runs with a bad crowd."

Unfortunately, neither way inspires a lot of confidence about Helfer's ability to govern a diverse city.

Let's face it: Put up a picture of a black man and say he runs with a bad crowd, and it's predictable what images you'll evoke without having to say anything else.

"I didn't like that," said Utica Street resident Betty Jean Worthy, outside a Jefferson Avenue strip plaza. She said the commercial brought to mind the ghetto, gangs, drugs and violence.

"Bad. Racist," summed up Oxford Avenue resident Vanessa Kirksey as she headed into the North Jefferson Library. "I don't know if [Helfer] intended it. But I think in this day and age and these times, he should have chosen his words a little more carefully."

Cynics will say the commercial's creators did choose their words carefully. This wouldn't be the first time a GOP candidate has used a coded message to make race an issue while being just subtle enough to maintain deniability.

In heavily Democratic Buffalo, it might even be a smart way for an underdog Republican to peel off white Democrats still susceptible to that kind of message.

Still, it would be an abhorrent way of dividing the city, particularly coming just months after city GOP Chairman Dennis Ryan talked about "racial undercurrents" in Brown's candidacy and claimed black voters "just don't come out." To his credit, Helfer called for Ryan to apologize; but the commercial reopens old wounds.

"I hope this [ad] is a wake-up call to our people," said Melissa Brown, a Masten District committeewoman and no relation to the candidate.

Helfer insists there was no intent to insult African-Americans.

"What would I have to gain by doing that?" the former Common Council member said this week. "That would never be our intent, and that never was our intent."

OK, take him at his word and scratch cynicism. Take the benign view that this was just a poor choice of words while trying to tie Brown to special interests. That raises another question: If Helfer and those around him are this racially tone-deaf, how would he govern a city that is 37 percent black?

If he's so out of touch as to not know this would offend, how in touch will he be when it comes to dealing with a Buffalo poverty rate the last census showed was twice as high for blacks as for whites?

How much will he see the need to close an income gap that saw black Buffalo households earning 31 percent less than white households, or to reduce a black unemployment rate that was 60 percent higher?

Those become valid questions, even if you attribute the best of motives.

Helfer says the ad ran for several days with no complaints until Brown raised the issue -- as if that makes it acceptable. Asked about running the ad in light of persistent stereotypes about blacks, Helfer said no one had framed the issue in those terms.

"I can understand it, when you bring it up in that context," he said.

It would have been more reassuring if he had understood beforehand. You have to look no further than the differences in black and white opinions of the government response to Hurricane Katrina to realize how wide the perceptual gulf between the races remains.

Anyone who wants to be mayor of Buffalo -- all of Buffalo -- needs to be attuned to the reality of those perceptions and be capable of bridging that gulf, not exploiting it.

If Kevin Helfer didn't know this ad would be offensive, is he the man for that job?

He has six weeks to answer that question -- if he hasn't already.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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