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A moral tone will be heard primary day

The Democratic primary will be on a Tuesday, but for state legislators representing Buffalo’s East Side, the outcome could hinge on what happens on Mondays – Moral Mondays, that is.

That’s what a group of activists call their protests outside City Hall, followed by visits to nearby construction sites to count the numbers of minority workers. They say the tally doesn’t take long despite state and city hiring goals.

“Why is it that we don’t see any minority involvement? And who will have the courage to do something about that?” wonders the Rev. Kinzer Pointer, part of a coalition that drew about three dozen people to a meeting last weekend to address issues ranging from education and health care to criminal justice – and, of course, economic development.

It came after visits to four waterfront and Medical Campus construction sites in search of diversity came up empty.

“We didn’t see people of color, and hardly any women,” said Charley Fisher III, president of BUILD of Buffalo.

It’s a criticism echoed by Democratic primary contestants Betty Jean Grant, the County Legislature minority leader running against Sen. Timothy Kennedy, and former Sen. Antoine Thompson, one of two challenging Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes. During debates last week, Grant complained that “you don’t see people of color” on job sites, while Thompson said that “the reality is that people are not working.”

Yet Empire State Development Corp. statistics tell a different story, one that Kennedy repeatedly cited in saying the state has exceeded its 20 percent goal for hiring minority- and women-owned business enterprises, with MBE participation alone at nearly 10 percent.

After their site visits, coalition members scoff at such numbers.

“In a statistical analysis class I once had, a professor said there are lies, there are damned lies, and then there are statistics,” said attorney and coalition member Anthony Pendergrass.

The issue extends beyond the construction phase of Buffalo’s multibillion-dollar rebirth to also include who gets jobs once new facilities open. In both cases, Peoples-Stokes has a tough-love message: Opportunity “is out there, and it is available” for those who take the initiative, but “it’s not going to come to you, you’re gonna to have to come to it.”

That can’t be emphasized enough, regardless of the disputed stats.

Explanations for why the state’s numbers don’t jibe with neighborhood perceptions range from the possibility that minorities on job sites are working inside, out of public view, to the fact that many may be providing professional services like legal or public relations work off-site.

But you can only stretch those rationales so far.

Granted, challengers can always hurl accusations. But when the gripes echo long-standing resident complaints, and activists have gone as far as sending a certified letter to the governor asking for a probe, it’s an issue with resonance.

Voters ultimately will pick between the two versions of reality, deciding how much weight to give the matter and how much responsibility to assign legislators, as opposed to other economic-development players.

But if I were on the ballot on the second Tuesday of next month, I’d be worried about what’s happening on Mondays between now and then.