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Tolbert runs for sheriff citing 'time for a change' in controversial office

A marquee election of 2017 will kick off Tuesday when former FBI Special Agent Bernard A. Tolbert announces his Democratic challenge to Republican incumbent Sheriff Timothy B. Howard.

Tolbert, who once supervised the Buffalo FBI and unsuccessfully ran against Mayor Byron W. Brown in 2013, has been quietly making the political rounds for several months in preparation for his candidacy. But he will make it official during a 7 p.m. appearance in Buffalo’s Templeton Park, accompanied by former Buffalo Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson.

Tolbert said Monday he will primarily emphasize his 35-year career in law enforcement and security. But he added he will not shy away from challenging Howard or the controversies surrounding the incumbent’s three terms.

“We will certainly look at some of Tim’s record, but I don’t want to be the default candidate,” Tolbert said. “I want to talk about me, my experience, my background, my thoughts and my plans.”

At 68, Tolbert is making his third run for public office following his unsuccessful effort against Brown in 2013 and another failed bid for the Buffalo Board of Education in 2014. Though he lost the Democratic mayoral primary by a more than 2 to 1 tally, he says he learned much from his initial foray into politics and will be well prepared in 2017.

“Four years later, people come up to me and say ‘You’re the FBI guy,'  or 'You’re the guy who ran for mayor,’” he said. “I certainly gained name recognition.”

Now he said he will be backed by top level supporters in his bid for sheriff, including on the financial side with a “prestigious” fund-raising team he will announce in a few days.

“I’m a professional law enforcement officer and not a professional politician,” he said. “Last time I was a novice. I don’t like losing, but I recognize I can gain from that.”

A supervising investigator for Erie County Child Protective Services for the last two years, Tolbert acknowledged he was approached about running for sheriff in 2013, but opted instead for the mayoral run.

Now he appears a lock for the endorsement of Erie County Democratic leaders on Thursday.

“No one else has requested it, so we’ll be moving forward,” said Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner.

Howard, 67, is expected to run again this fall. He was appointed sheriff in 2005, won election to a full term later in 2005, and was re-elected in 2009 and 2013. Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo said Howard stands to gain his party’s backing in addition to the GOP line.

Howard has proven a formidable political force as a Republican in overwhelmingly Democratic Erie County, gaining a majority of the general election votes in 2013 against two opponents. Many observers credited his strong opposition to New York’s SAFE Act gun-control measure as attracting votes outside the City of Buffalo, but his office has also been embroiled in recent controversies ‑ including deaths in the Erie County Holding Center – that could serve as campaign fodder.

Tolbert said he will also emphasize that he runs during a “time for a change.”

“There’s a story every day about something that’s going wrong [in the Sheriff’s Office],” he said, “and voters think we can do better.”

Tolbert worked two decades for the FBI in Buffalo, Washington, and Philadelphia, retiring as special agent in charge of the Buffalo Division. Following security management roles for the Coca-Cola Company and HSBC Bank, in 2002 he was appointed vice president in charge of security of the National Basketball Association and later became senior vice president of NBA Security until his retirement in 2010.

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