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A question of leadership Brown has edge on inexperienced Kearns as Democrats decide mayoral election

Tuesday, Buffalo's Democrats go to the polls to choose their party's candidate for mayor. In a city that has been abandoned to one-party rule, they also will chart City Hall's course for the next four years.

The choice is harder than it should be.

The central question in this contest is one of leadership. Mayor Byron W. Brown has a first-term record of accomplishment -- and of nasty surprises within the management of departments under his control. Challenger Michael "Mickey" Kearns, an earnest young Council member who chairs the Finance Committee, is proud of learning the city while hefting garbage cans -- but he has yet to prove he can drive the truck.

The Buffalo News cannot make an unqualified endorsement in this race. While the mayor clearly has a sound fiscal record on his side and has helped keep economic redevelopment on track under difficult circumstances, there are serious questions in ongoing issues ranging from problem-driven agency reforms to investigations of the One Sunset restaurant debacle. While individual voters can weigh those factors for themselves, the unanswered questions necessarily prevent The News' full institutional support.

Brown's leadership has been tested by a series of City Hall missteps including findings of flaws in the federal Housing and Urban Development grant program, bad loans that unmasked bad practices at the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. and allegations of political pressure on city employees. As well, his administration has sought to limit media access to public information on crimes and records that citizens have a right to know; that's a real problem, and a telling one.

Some of those problems were inherited (a succession of mayors, for example, has failed to get a handle on HUD grant problems, and the Brown administration at least is making progress), while others still demand resolution. The mayor also needs to own up to problems instead of denying or sidestepping them. But that should not obscure this administration's real accomplishments. Brown has moved aggressively to send assistance teams into more impoverished and blighted city neighborhoods, has pushed his signature demolition program, continues to expand public posting of city payroll and other information on the Web, has cut property taxes and has put more police on the street. He has proven especially adept at the kind of unglamorous infrastructure work that nonetheless makes a real difference -- work such as instituting performance-based budgeting and systems to track complaints and measure governmental activity, and fiscal management that, with help from state aid and a control board-imposed wage freeze, has put Buffalo on a much better financial footing.

Kearns, a first-term Council member who has embraced the difficult task of challenging an incumbent mayor of his own party, brings an unsullied reputation to the fights but lacks experience and a track record. He is a candidate with potential for future races, but still seems in the stage of his career when he is more likely to absorb others' urban theories and philosophies than to forge strong paths of his own.

And in a city that still needs stringent fiscal management, Kearns -- who chairs the Council's finance committee -- oddly promotes fixing potholes by tapping a rainy day fund important to the bond agencies that control the cost of city borrowing.

The choice, then, is between reviewable performance and a newcomer's approach -- and the challenge is one of balancing knowns and unknowns in performance and potential for both candidates. Errors have made that choice more difficult. Brown has the advantage, but on Tuesday voters must choose.

Campaign sites on the Web: kearnsformayor.com, mayorbyronbrown.com

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