The normally placid Byron Brown lashed out at a reporter Tuesday, disproving the notion that we have a Stepford Mayor. More than revealing the flesh-and-blood man behind the monotone, the flash of temper showed that Brown -- with the Democratic primary six days away -- is straining under the weight of a list of screw-ups.
He got testy when asked whether he got friend Leonard Stokes off after the ex-restaurateur was arrested for illegally having a handicapped parking sticker. Brown is unhappy that the two-year-old incident just surfaced in the final weeks of the campaign. But a master politician like the mayor should never be surprised when the political tables are turned.
Brown has bigger problems than whether his mayoral wand made a friend's arrest disappear. A critical mass of blunders and nonperformance is denting his public image -- a terrifying prospect for any politician. Various chickens have come home to roost the past six months:
* Bad loans made by a city agency to float the Titanic of One Sunset, mayoral pal Stokes' mismanaged restaurant that tanked despite the over-involvement of since-fired City Hall official Michelle Barron.
* A HUD report blasting the city for squandering -- on everything from bad loans to patronage hires -- tens of millions of dollars sent by Washington to fight inner-city blight.
* City Hall's blocking of a $12 million housing project after a minister friendly with Brown did not get a piece of the action.
* Complaints that the city demolishes houses that are savable for first-time homeowners.
* The city's role in the stagnation of the Johnnie B. Wiley sports complex.
* Brown's befuddling "clean sweep" response to the Hirschbeck Street double homicide.
* An anti-poverty plan so absent of ideas that community groups are creating their own job-training programs.
Add a dismal preservation record and a reluctance to release public records, and there is plenty to complain about.
There is more to being mayor of America's third-poorest city than getting the garbage picked up. Brown changed the cast of characters but kept the same tired plot we saw with predecessor Tony Masiello. Brown has One Sunset; Masiello had Breckenridge Brew Pub, where vats of beer were infamously dumped into the street after wrongheaded city loans failed to keep the place afloat. Different mayor, same story.
The city does not run on autopilot. If you do not come into the job with plans, ideas and passion, you -- as Brown is finding out -- get exposed.
Buffalonians saw the election four years ago of a black mayor as sign of change, and -- in a racially positive way -- it was. But the black mayor they elected is no change agent. Brown was the least reform-minded of the 2005 candidates. He is yet another product of a political machine who is, in my view, better at winning an office than he is at doing the job. A city badly in need of a progressive leader keeps getting stuck with between-the-lines bureaucrats.
Despite his woes, Brown still is the odds-on favorite in Tuesday's primary against South Council Member Mickey Kearns. The mayor has upwards of $1 million in his campaign stash, a heavy ethnic base of support and a prime get-out-the-vote machine. But I think his image of bland likability and basic decency has been permanently dented by months of incoming fire. For the better part of three terms, Masiello's nice-guy appeal put a smoke screen over his rudderless performance. Brown's now-cracking veneer of competence may not buy him nearly as much shelf life. The mayor got testy Tuesday under questioning. After decades of uninspired leadership, we are the ones who ought to be ticked off.