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Much cheer at pastor's oath-taking ; History made in Council as Pridgen brings religious profile to city's political epicenter

The pastor of one of the area's largest congregations was sworn in Thursday as Ellicott District representative, becoming the first religious leader in recent history to serve on the Common Council.

The Rev. Darius G. Pridgen's inauguration as a Council member was as elaborate and lively as any swearing-in for a city lawmaker in decades. About 400 people -- many of them donning bright red -- converged on Council Chambers, cheering wildly as Pridgen made his entrance.

A choir made up of people from 30 churches belted out gospel music.

Members of the clergy, a judge and even the mayor offered testimonials to Pridgen. One minister said Pridgen exudes the "boldness" of Moses and the "wisdom" of Solomon.

Given all the pomp and circumstance, one might wonder whether the high-profile pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church has his sights on higher political office. Perhaps mayor, if his good friend Byron W. Brown was to move on to another job or opt not to run for re-election in 2013?

Pridgen acknowledged that he has heard the same rumors but denied that he's laying the groundwork for a political power play.

"The first time I heard it, I just laughed uncontrollably, because that's not the reason I came [to the Council]," Pridgen said.

"People voted me in not to climb a ladder -- a political ladder," the pastor continued. "That's not my purpose."

Pridgen said he plans to run for a full four-year term for the Ellicott seat next November. He is fulfilling the unexpired term of Brian C. Davis, who resigned last year shortly before he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor violations of election law.

Brown was among the speakers at the spirited swearing-in. Political veterans said they did not recall the last time a mayor gave a speech at a lawmaker's City Hall inaugural. Brown praised the pastor for his work in the community, calling him a creative thinker who will always remember those in need.

"He will be an engine of opportunity. He will be a voice for the voiceless," Brown said. "As you've heard mentioned, he will provide hope for so many in the City of Buffalo."

Pridgen delivered a passionate 18-minute speech, talking about the need to usher in an era of fresh thinking that creates a "new Buffalo." More must be done to create jobs, improve services and make neighborhoods safer, Pridgen said. Buffalo must become a place where "decisions are made not because of politics, but because of the needs of the people."

"A place where the sun shines on both sides of Main Street," Pridgen said to applause. "Where Jefferson Avenue and Michigan are just as important as Elmwood, and Elmwood is just as important as Jefferson."

Pridgen easily defeated incumbent Curtis Haynes Jr. in the Democratic primary in September, then won by a landslide in the November election against Republican Sandra D. Waugaman-Beck.

Haynes attended Thursday's ceremony, as did most city lawmakers. Two days earlier, Haynes delivered a farewell address that embraced some of the themes Pridgen touched on at the inauguration. Haynes, who was appointed by the Council to the vacant seat in January, said leaders should not let "petty politics" get in the way of good government.

Pridgen's presence on the nine-member Council could have a major impact on some key policy issues that require a two-thirds vote. While Pridgen has pledged to be an independent thinker, some have expressed the belief that he will be allied with the mayor on many issues. But just as he did in the campaign, Pridgen insisted he can't be controlled.

"Nobody really tells Darius Pridgen what to do," he said.

After the hourlong ceremony, Pridgen told reporters that people shouldn't try to guess how he will vote on issues, saying he has built a reputation that demonstrates that "I kind of move to my own drumbeat."

Pridgen also addressed some people's concerns about his dual roles as the pastor of a growing congregation and a city lawmaker. He said he has already been taking steps to make sure there is a distinct "separation" between the two.

"I know my role as a pastor, and I know my role as a Council member. And I have people around me to make sure that that line remains," he said.

Could Thursday's splashy inauguration be interpreted by some as an effort by the pastor to flaunt his clout?

"Oh, no," Pridgen replied. "This was an effort to say, 'Look at the unity we have.' "

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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