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Tolbert’s campaign heats up with attack on Brown

The Buffalo mayoral primary is just six weeks away, and Bernie Tolbert’s somewhat sluggish campaign is getting off the ground.

Tolbert held one of his first issue-based news conferences Tuesday, attacking the Brown administration on its response to quality-of-life issues. He is using social media and his campaign website to solicit stories about residents’ problems and is making an issue of them on the campaign trail. He plans to visit every Common Council district to talk about crime and blight as part of his “Takin’ It to the Streets” tour.

While Tolbert is ramping up his campaign efforts, he has limited time to make the case to voters before the Sept. 10 primary, where he will face Mayor Byron W. Brown.

Tuesday’s news conference on Johnson Park attracted just three media outlets and none of the broadcast television affiliates.

After months of Tolbert appearing at public meetings and events but generally not speaking at them, he has been slowly raising his profile. He spoke out on violence at a community meeting two weeks ago hosted by a political ally, Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant. He also talked about crime during an earlier news conference.

Brown, who is running for a third term, has a $1.3 million war chest at his disposal, compared with Tolbert’s $200,000, according to campaign finance reports from July 15.

Brown also has the considerable benefits that come with incumbency, including more opportunities for media coverage, appearances on the city’s government public access TV channel, which broadcasts mayoral news conferences and CitiStat meetings, and greater name recognition among voters. The city’s momentum also appears to be helping Brown, with 65 percent of respondents in a poll by Siena College in late June saying the city is on the right track. He also had a 66 percent favorable rating.

The mayor also can stay above the fray.

Brown has so far held limited “campaign events” but regularly attends Clean Sweeps in neighborhoods, which allows him to meet voters while city workers clean up their streets. Tuesday, he hosted a top federal Department of Veterans Affairs official in City Hall to talk about employment issues for young veterans.

He also can rely on surrogates to make attacks on his behalf: University Council Member Bonnie Russell held a news conference recently on the day The Buffalo News ran a story about lawsuits involving Tolbert.

Tolbert is working hard, but he needs to run an exciting campaign, one that has clear themes and is not afraid to attack the Brown administration, said Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk.

“You’ve got to get people talking, it can’t be boring,” said Franczyk, a longtime city lawmaker who is critical of Brown.

Franczyk met with Tolbert earlier this month, but he has not endorsed him.

“He’s kind of low-key and dull,” Franczyk said. “He’s not that charismatic.”

He said Tolbert is “a man of few words.”

“I want to see he has the fire in his belly,” he said.

Winning will be “very tough,” but not impossible, he added. “He’s got to have a clear, tough, optimistic vision.”

Tolbert has stepped up his attacks on the administration, labeling problems that residents have described as “Byron Brown’s Buffalo.”

Brown’s implementation of 311, a number that residents can call and complain about any city issue, and his use of data at CitiStat meetings to question his department heads about service delivery are considered accomplishments by the administration, but Tolbert said the city could do better.

“It appears that the mayor is unaware” of residents’ problems, Tolbert said. “I’ve been astonished by the stories that I’ve heard.”

He described his interactions with residents frustrated with problem properties near their homes, ranging from a pastor in Lovejoy to a woman on Tracy Street who lives next to an abandoned building.

He said issues that are brought to his attention would be addressed within 100 days of his administration. “If people aren’t happy, we have to redouble our efforts,” he said.

The Brown campaign did not immediately return a request to comment.