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Schroeder touts private-public career in bid to be 'CEO' of Buffalo

Almost anybody who has ever met Mark J.F. Schroeder recognizes the city comptroller’s longtime ambition to lead Buffalo as its mayor.

As he takes on incumbent Byron W. Brown and challenger Betty Jean Grant in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, Schroeder seems to revel in all that the city's top job entails – policy, leadership requirements, and even campaigning.

But politics has not always dominated Schroeder’s life. For 25 years he worked in private sector sales and other positions before first seeking an Erie County Legislature seat in 2001. Though campaigns and elections may now dominate his career, the candidate says his life outside of politics ranks as an advantage he enthusiastically presents to voters.

The long list of early Buffalo mayors who left their jobs only to return when their City Hall stints ended, he says, strengthens his case.

“The early mayors all came from the private sector,” he says, “then this political thing began to happen.”

Schroeder constantly refers to his varied background as he enters the final stretch of an underdog campaign he insists he can win. He tells voters on the trail that his election would result in a “two-fer,” a combination of public and private sector experience claimed by neither of his opponents.

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That leads him to Brown. He says the three-term incumbent has landed on public payrolls virtually all of his adult life – from county executive assistant to Common Council member to State Senate member and back to City Hall as mayor. Schroeder claims he brings a private sector discipline to elected office that the mayor cannot, charging that Brown has ignored requirements to submit a four-year strategic plan for the city.

That’s not the way it works in business, Schroeder says.

“If I did not submit a four-year plan and did not show progress, I would be fired,” he said. “So I take this seriously.”

Schroeder’s business experience includes stints with various social service agencies, with Revlon pharmaceutical company, and with the food firms Red Wing and Cliffstar. Now he appears equally proud of government accomplishments he says also have prepared him for leading the city.

As a county legislator, Schroeder believes, he transcended the usual role of simply casting votes at meetings. He founded the South Buffalo Education Center, which helps provide area residents with the educational tools to obtain general equivalency degrees and offers other programs. He also started the South Buffalo Chamber of Commerce (now defunct) to help revitalize former commercial thoroughfares like Seneca Street.

Now he wants to encourage similar organizations for commercial areas like Jefferson and Hertel avenues.

Ironically, Schroeder highlights an Assembly career that critics say recorded few accomplishments (though he emphasizes mental health and veterans efforts). His 2005 opposition to disgraced former Speaker Sheldon Silver banished him to the Assembly version of Siberia, and that was just fine with him.

Schroeder emerged as the lone Democrat to oppose Silver’s re-election because the speaker would not guarantee adoption of an on-time budget. The assemblyman from South Buffalo was subsequently ignored by the powerful Manhattanite and allowed little in the way of bill passage.

Three Democratic candidates for mayor will face off in televised debate Sept. 6

Schroeder wore the situation as a badge of honor during almost his entire Albany tenure from 2005 to 2012.

Heading his own comptroller operation on City Hall’s 12th floor, Schroeder still shows no taste for kow-towing. Indeed, the independent watchdog nature of the office provides a bully pulpit to criticize and cajole since his election in 2011.

The city’s credit rating has improved under his watch, he says, citing the Fitch agency’s AA- score (though the Brown administration touts its own efforts for the upgrade).

“We’re the ones who showed them the opportunities,” said Schroeder’s executive assistant, Patrick J. Curry.

For the first time, Schroeder said his office audited Buffalo’s electrical assets and discovered 3,554 street lights that did not exist. A $1 million refund from National Grid resulted.

In 2013, a Schroeder audit revealed the private manager of the city-owned Hatch restaurant at Erie Basin Marina underpaid the city by more than $340,000 over five years.

“We exposed him, and revenue to the city tripled,” he said of new arrangements at the restaurant.

The comptroller also instituted his Open Book Buffalo program, listing every vendor, employee and expense on an interactive transparency website. Its goal was to make available any information subject to the Freedom of Information Law, including overtime spending, outside legal fees, revenue sources, vendor payments and more.

Other highlights include a decrease in city debt of 25 percent, he says, reducing Buffalo's need for more borrowing.

And he constantly cites his efforts to upgrade the quality of his Department of Audit and Control staff. When he arrived, he says, his staff included one certified public accountant – now he has 10.

“I have more CPAs than most CPA firms in Buffalo,” he said.

Schroeder notes his opponents cannot echo his claim of “I am not a career politician.”

Then he sums up what he thinks his private-public experience offers: “I have the management experience to be the CEO of the City of Buffalo.”

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