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Politics simmers just below the surface of St. Patrick's Day luncheon

Not all of the St. Patrick’s Day revelers at the Buffalo Irish Center noticed the subtle signs of a mayoral campaign Friday during the 46th annual luncheon celebration.

But to the seasoned politicos who descend upon the Irish Center every year for a Buffalo rite of spring, it was clear that incumbent Byron W. Brown and challenger Mark J.F. Schroeder — vying for the Democratic nomination in the September primary — were summoning every ounce of their natural advantages on St. Patrick’s Day.

Even before the ceremonies kicked off in the Irish Center’s packed main hall, Brown displayed all the powers of incumbency. A driver took him to the event in his official SUV, while a police spokesman, Lt. Jeff Rinaldo, outlined to waiting reporters the successes of the NCAA basketball tournament and the city’s hopes for the St. Patrick’s parade on Sunday.

The mayor then touted a list of positive developments for Buffalo, even emphasizing the success of city crews in removing snow for events like the tournament, a St. Joseph’s Day celebration on the West Side, the parade, and the Irish Center luncheon.

“For every special event in the City of Buffalo, we have city workers going out to make sure that the area around the event is well maintained so that people can have an enjoyable time,” the mayor said.

He then noted the thousands of visitors in Buffalo over the weekend for basketball and the parade.

“It’s an opportunity to show the growth, development and progress made in the City of Buffalo since the tournament was last in,” he added.

Inside, Schroeder – the city comptroller – occupied center stage, as he has for years on St. Patrick’s weekend. To a packed house of state and local pols, potential candidates and judicial hopefuls bedecked in their official badges, Schroeder dominated the room.

He introduced Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, Rep. Brian Higgins, State Sen. Timothy P. Kennedy and Bishop Richard J. Malone. Schroeder’s wife, Kate, performed her annual singing of the U.S. and Irish national anthems (the latter in both English and Irish).

This was his turf, his show, his display of stature in his South Buffalo base.

But it’s also tough to compete against a sitting mayor. As the Irish Center ceremonies started, the late-arriving mayor finally met reporters and photographers outside. As a result, no television cameras were capturing Schroeder’s moment.

And as the comptroller was still speaking, Brown made his grand entrance, stopping to shake hundreds of outstretched hands as if en route to a State of the Union address.

Earlier he dismissed any notion that politics would enter into the Irish Center celebrations.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “I have come to the Irish Center every year since I was a Buffalo City Council member representing the Masten District. It’s one of the great things about our city; that we are a diverse city.”

Just a few weeks ago Brown said he looked forward to the opportunity to “trounce” Schroeder in the September primary, signaling the possibility of a long and bitter campaign.

On Friday, Schroeder would only call the mayor’s taunt “disappointing.” Then he said St. Patrick’s Day was not a time for politics and that he was concerned only with a successful luncheon to benefit the Irish Center.

“That’s why you don’t see anybody around here with a Schroeder sign,” he said.

He called the mayor’s timing with reporters “uncharacteristic of him” and that he would not be running a personal campaign aimed at Brown.

“It’s not personal, it’s about the neighborhoods,” he said, underscoring his contention that neighborhood development has been sacrificed in favor of downtown and the waterfront.

Still, Schroeder acknowledged that the Irish Center celebration has evolved over more than four decades into an unofficial kickoff of the political season. And that was fine with him.

“It’s one of the reasons everyone is here. They want to be seen and present themselves in a special way,” he said. “It works.”

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