An overflow crowd turned out Thursday evening for a raucous, contentious mayoral debate, held in the Burchfield Penney Arts Center on the SUNY Buffalo State campus.
Mayor Byron W. Brown, a three-term incumbent, defended his record against a barrage of criticism leveled by City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder and Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, both of whom are challenging Brown in a Democratic primary.
That election will be held on Sept. 12.
The 90-minute mayoral debate, sponsored by the Buffalo Association of Black Journalists, addressed a variety of concerns – particularly those issues important to residents in the city's more economically challenged neighborhoods.
Among the topics covered during the debate:
- Concerns about high rates of joblessness and incidents of gun violence;
- Fears about gentrification that could price some residents out of neighborhoods in which they've long lived;
- Unequal policing and traffic checkpoints that some said are more prominent in East Side neighborhoods than in other parts of the city.
Brown points to record
Brown, the city's first African-American mayor, touted his record.
"If you think back to when I started as mayor, Buffalo was a much different place. The city was in fiscal crisis. The state had imposed a financial control board. The wages of all city employees had been frozen and neighborhoods throughout the City of Buffalo were blighted with vacant and abandoned structures," Brown said during the debate.
"I put a strategic plan in place that enabled us to stabilize the city's finances and improve our economy. We were able to demolish over 6,400 of these vacant, unsalvageable structures that were blighting our neighborhoods and destroying quality of life," Brown said.
He boasted about having "passed 12 balanced budgets with millions in surpluses."
The mayor said his record included having turned around a city that was in fiscal crisis when he took office in 2005, and has since seen multiple millions of dollars in new economic development, more city funds dedicated to neighborhoods than in previous administrations – along with the removal of 6,400 blighted structures and a crime rate that Brown said has been reduced by 35 percent.
"I have been able to do all of this and still cut taxes for residents and businesses in the city of Buffalo," Brown said.
Schroeder vows new vision
But Schroeder, the comptroller, insisted that the mayor has not done nearly enough and vowed to represent the city with a new vision.
"Mr. Mayor, you have had 12 years to fix these problems. The results are not good at all," Schroeder said.
Schroeder's vision for city neighborhoods -- which he said have taken a back seat to downtown development interests -- will be to give them more support.
"No neighborhood will be left behind," he said. "It's time that we focus in on our neighborhoods by helping small businesses and not just big developers."
Schroeder, who served from 2002 to 2004 in the Erie County Legislature and four terms in the state Assembly from 2004 to 2012, said he planned to provide more training for police and "hire employees based on what they know, not who they know."
"The police officers in the city of Buffalo are saying they are starving for training. They will get comprehensive training when I am the mayor of this city. I will double every single community police officer in every district in the city of Buffalo," he said.
Grant pledges inclusiveness
As mayor, Grant promised to create a more inclusive government to better serve the city's residents.
Grant was first elected to the Common Council, representing the University District, in 1999. She served two terms and served on the Buffalo School Board from 2004 to 2007, when she was elected to the County Legislature.
"I will have a City Hall that's very inclusive and not leave anybody out, especially the constituents. We will not engage in pay-for-play politics and City Hall will not be for sale," Grant said.
She criticized the mayor, accusing him of being too cozy with powerful interests in the city. At one point, Grant accused the mayor of taking campaign contribution money from developer and former Buffalo School Board member Carl P. Paladino.
Grant said she would work with the police department to reduce the city's homicide rate by hiring a commissioner reminiscent of former Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske who, she said, "did so much for Buffalo in the 1990s."
To improve neighborhoods, particularly those like the Broadway-Fillmore area, Grant said, "I will make sure that the Central Terminal will be the home of the new (Amtrak) train station."
She vowed to improve long-neglected commercial strips in the city, such as those on Jefferson Avenue and Broadway.
Grant narrowly lost the 2012 Democratic primary for the 63rd District state Senate seat to Tim Kennedy.
Hundreds of people showed up for the debate, including some who were turned away at the front door after being informed that the auditorium in the art center was already at capacity.