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Brown's win should be his wake-up call

Once the celebration dies down, I hope that Byron Brown sees a surprisingly tough primary campaign as a wake-up call.

Brown had enough money, crossover appeal and pull in the city's largely African-American East Side to win Tuesday's Democratic primary -- which assures him of a second term since there is no Republican opponent in November.

The mayor brought to the race big advantages as an incumbent with a $1 million campaign stash, a slick political machine and a sizable ethnic base. He led with 63 percent of the vote against the relatively unknown Mickey Kearns, a first-term Councilman from South Buffalo. Yet Brown's recent string of missteps injected drama into the race. Lowlights ranged from the politically motivated scuttling of a $12 million housing project, to the bad-loan scandal of One Sunset restaurant, to squandering millions of dollars of Washington aid, to last spring's idea-barren anti-poverty plan.

I have no idea how long Brown will hang around, given talk that he will join Andrew Cuomo's expected gubernatorial run next year. But I hope he sees the battering of the past six months as a reason to broaden his vision. I hope he uses another term as an opportunity to connect with a platoon of housing and community activists who are fighting on the front lines, instead of distrusting anyone he cannot control. I hope he starts to weigh any plan, proposal or project more on whether it will help this city than whether it will help him politically.

Brown has plenty of political operatives around him, from deputy mayor Steve Casey to longtime ally Steve Pigeon. He is short of deep thinkers and policy wonks. Brown's recent reach-out to UB professor and urban expert Henry Taylor is a start. There are savvy folks inside of City Hall, from streets commissioner Steve Stepniak to housing/planning expert Carla Kosmerl. He needs to let their instincts be his guide.

Community activists privately groan (few will speak on the record, fearing funding cuts or other blowback) about Brown weighing each move mainly on its political payback -- from jobs it puts under his control to credit that comes his way.

"It seems like there has to be a quid pro quo -- a job, a ribbon-cutting -- or it doesn't get done," said housing activist Harvey Garrett, who has butted heads with City Hall. "It would be nice to see more collaboration with progressive organizations, who have resources [the city] doesn't have."

Brown, a career politician, never claimed to be a reformer. But as mayor of America's third-poorest city, he might want to expand his horizons.

Buffalo had a chance last year to become a national model for the vacant-housing crisis. Instead of sending invitations to national experts, Brown, noting no money would come with the brainpower, slammed the door in their faces.

Neighborhood job training centers are springing up, a grass-roots antidote to drug-fueled violence. Instead of ignoring them, Brown ought to replicate the model across the inner city.

"We know what needs to be done, but [City Hall] has to support it," said activist Darnell Jackson, an ex-gang member. "The city has this [$30 million] rainy day fund. Well, it's raining bullets on the East Side."

There are glimmers of change. City officials say they will expand the homesteading program, which lets homeowners in battered neighborhoods buy adjacent lots for $1. Brown promises to help housing groups salvage 100 abandoned houses a year for first-time homeowners, as is done in other cities. If he makes good on the deal, it is a start.

Brown the past few months got a run for his money. Now he needs to give us our money's worth.


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