Mayor Byron W. Brown and his aides are shifting into damage control mode today as skeptical voters wonder why he so vehemently denied his son's involvement in a series of motor vehicle accidents in the face of a mountain of incriminating evidence.
Coupled with questions about how his administration handled inspection issues at the Webb Building on Pearl Street last month linked to the death of a young construction worker, Brown faces the first political crisis of his still-young administration.
Now he must explain his about-face to voters who may link his family performance to his mayoral judgment, while hoping those same voters will identify with a fellow parent who struggles just like they do in raising children.
"You try to be a good father and a good public servant and sometimes those things get crossed," said Maurice L. Garner, a political consultant and longtime mayoral friend. "But I think people will sympathize. This could happen to all of us."
Brown acknowledged during a City Hall news conference Friday that his 16-year-old son, Byron III, took the family SUV on Feb. 24 for a neighborhood spin before hitting three parked cars. The son then denied his involvement.
Most political observers believe Brown could have avoided the turmoil he suddenly faced Friday had he confronted the problem early on. But because he so strongly maintained his son's innocence for so long, communications experts say his performance as father and mayor can be linked.
"The public has the right to question character, judgment and decision-making in lots of areas," said Lee Coppola, dean of the Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University. "If an appointee lied to him in the face of evidence, would he laugh it off? You can compare it to how he governs."
In addition, Coppola and others point out that owners of damaged cars are involved, and they deserve compensation. The incident also became a police matter, as well as part of an insurance investigation after the Brown family reported their SUV as stolen.
During his Friday appearance before a phalanx of reporters, Brown retained his usual unflappable demeanor and conveyed the kind of concern any parent would experience in a similar situation. He relayed over and over again how he and his wife, Michelle, confronted their son about questions surrounding the early morning incident. He also continually referred to Byron III as a "good boy" but now recognizes his son found himself digging himself deeper into a hole he felt he could not escape.
"It became very difficult for him to then tell us the truth," the mayor said. "We certainly feel bad about what he has done."
Brown explained how his son finally confessed that he feared alienating his parents over the incident even more than causing his father political problems.
"We love our son dearly and will stand by him," he said. "I would just ask the media to allow us to treat this as a family matter, because it is a family matter."
Indeed, attorney Arnold B. Gardner, who headed Brown's transition team and often acts as a mayoral counselor, attempted to curtail media questioning during the Friday session. He complained about hypothetical questions being asked that did not require an answer from the mayor and that a media "feeding frenzy" was in progress.
"It's unfortunate that we now have to belabor this issue at the pleasure of the press," Gardner said.
But Coppola said how the issue is conveyed to voters will prove hugely important for Brown, and that this family matter must be openly addressed -- even if Brown may have been days late.
"It certainly is a legitimate story," Coppola said, adding the aggressive media reaction could also make Brown appear more "human" in such a difficult situation.
Indeed, Canisius College political science professor Michael V. Haselswerdt believes the ultimate reaction is one of sympathy, especially from parents. He said most people will not link the family matter to anything taking place in City Hall, and that the mayor's account of how he attempted to deal with the situation early on will be accepted by most people.
"There was no history of trouble before, the kid said he didn't do it, and it was one of those things," Haselswerdt said. "If he handles it in a way that suggests he's not being defensive -- we won't be talking about this in a couple of weeks."