Interview: Watchdog researcher Kevin Connor

Kevin Connor is a research provocateur and one of the leading intellects in Buffalo’s burgeoning activist community. 

The Boston native and 2005 graduate of Harvard University moved to Buffalo five years ago. Since then, he has launched two watchdog research organizations, the Public Accountability Initiative and LittleSis.

His work has garnered press attention, both locally and nationally, connecting dots among the powerful and authoring studies that have called out the false claims of developers and supposedly independent researchers.

Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney interviewed Connor Sept. 12. A 4 minute 43 second feature with interview highlights appears above. The full 21-minute interview is posted deeper in the transcript below, which has been edited lightly for clarity.

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Heaney: Talk to me a little bit about what the Public Accountability Initiative is about. You’ve done a couple of things on Bass Pro and the Hydrofracking Institute out at UB that’s garnered some national, as well as local press. If you could talk to me a little about that for starters.

Connor: To give a sense of what we do at the Public Accountability Initiative – it’s a non-profit research organization focused on corporate and government accountability. We do a lot of research on the networks of influence that really shape policy around the country and also here in New York State and locally as well.

Recently we put out a report on the University at Buffalo’s Shale Resources and Society Institute, essentially in response to a report UB had issued from its Shale Institute saying that fracking was getting safer. We took a look at the report and noticed a number of serious errors that undermine the central conclusion of the report.

We also found a number of undisclosed conflicts of interest that the report’s  authors had ties to the gas industry that would really affect the public’s perception of the message of the report but weren’t properly disclosed when the report was released. So we issued a report noting these things that has gotten a lot of attention locally as well as national media for exposing some of the problems with this.

And the gas industry has made a push here and elsewhere to back academic research that says fracking is safe, that it creates jobs, and essentially we’re trying to push back against some of that influence and show that research can be bought and paid for by industry.

Heaney: You also did something on the Bass Pro project a couple years ago that was kind of a catalyst to drive the final nail in the coffin, where you questioned the assumptions of the economic impact of that project.

Connor: A couple years ago when the Bass Pro project looked like it was going through here in Buffalo, we took a look at Bass Pro nationally to identify a pattern where we found that Bass Pro made claims that it would bring tax and job gains to communities around the country in return for economic subsidy dollars that would fund them to create stores. And actually we found that they had won $600 million in subsidies around the country. But the economic development gains that they promised often didn’t materialize. We found places where a Bass Pro had located and the mall that they had located in was essentially a ghost town, several examples of that. Communities that were thrown into financial duress as a result of subsidizing Bass Pro.

So we released this report to show that the big promises Bass Pro had made to Buffalo hadn’t really materialized elsewhere and it kind of turned around the media narrative about Bass Pro locally. It’s actually affected them nationally too in different communities.

There are signs that the power structure is opening itself up to the new pathways for the region, but I think that what the promise of Buffalo is the smaller organizations and individuals trying to create their own path and work toward building opportunities for themselves and others.

Heaney: Explain the genesis of Little Sis and tell us a little bit about what that project is about.

Connor: Little Sis – first the name, it’s the opposite of big brother. So instead of an all-powerful government or an unknown entity watching down, Little Sis is about citizens, activists, journalists watching up, watching the powers that be.

It’s an open database of information on powerful people and organizations. We’re tracking about 100,000 different entities around the country into Wiki so people contribute information on how various individuals and organizations are connected, as long as it’s well-documented and sourced. Essentially Little Sis helps us develop research that really tells the story behind how policies get made in this country, economic trends in the country and locally, and kind of shines a light on the old boys club that really shapes policy.

 Heaney: You’ve been in Buffalo for five years. Tell me what strikes you about Buffalo – the good, the bad, and the ugly – both the present and the future.

Connor: I came to Buffalo five years ago without much background on it but found a tremendously welcoming community, a lot of opportunity and potential here, a great network of activists and artists, cultural institutions, non-profit organizations that is really supportive and is seeking to rebuild Buffalo block by block, which I guess gets to some of the bad and the ugly – the lack of economic opportunity and serious poverty in Buffalo is a challenge and something that the community has been struggling with for years as a result of economic disinvestment. And I think that’s something that the green shoots I mentioned are working to address.

Heaney: Now there’s a push and pull going on between the old guard and the new guard. Explain that a little bit.

 Connor: A lot of what we do at Little Sis and the Public Accountability Initiative is look at the power structure behind stories in the media and policy making and that sort of thing. And I think that the local elite in Buffalo has gone through some of the same trends of disinvestment and a downward path that has left it calcified and unable to imagine an economic future. There are signs that the power structure is opening itself up to the new pathways for the region, but I think that what the promise of Buffalo is the smaller organizations and individuals trying to create their own path and work toward building opportunities for themselves and others. In our society there tends to be a lot of focus on the puppets and not so much the puppet masters when it comes to policy making.

Heaney: When you say calcified, how so? Do you mean old boys network, old thinking?

Connor: I think old boys network and old thinking, it’s an elite that’s sort of unsure of how to move forward given the economic realities here and has been trying to do some of the same old broken things – subsidize big silver bullets projects like Bass Pro rather than create infrastructure and opportunities for small businesses to succeed in the community.

I think to some extent this mirrors a national trend where the power elite in the U.S. cannot imagine a way forward that doesn’t involve profit through destruction – fracking, too big to fail banks being at the center of our economy, foreclosing on millions of homeowners to suck more profits out of communities. And I think that sort of thinking is a problem in Buffalo as well, but there is an opening right now due to the work of grassroots activists and organizations that are trying to imagine a new economic reality for this city and I think that’s something that can teach other cities in the country on how to move forward.

Heaney: You talk about the local power elite. Who are they? Let’s name some names, either individuals or organizations. And to what degree are they acting in the public interest as opposed to self-interest? First, let’s name names. Who rules Buffalo?

Connor: Well one thing we do at Little Sis is follow the money. If you look at who has the money locally, there are a couple of billionaires. There’s Jeremy Jacobs of Delaware North, the Jacobs family, there’s also Bob Rich of Rich Products and that family as well. I can extend out from there to look at the heads of some of the biggest institutions in town. Bob Wilmers at M&T Bank, the board at the University at Buffalo, which might be the most powerful institution in town (when you) see who some of the big names are.

What we do is look at institutions that control a lot of money, jobs and revenue and work out from there to look at individuals who are on their boards who are leading them. From there you can start to see that policy isn’t made because it makes sense all the time. It’s made because of a friendship, a connection, because it’s going to pay off for someone.

Heaney: Use Bass Pro as an example.

Connor: With Bass Pro you had an example of something that didn’t make sense to most people around here and ultimately was a very unpopular policy proposal. You actually look at the merits of it. So why did it happen?

The underlying story there is that Bob Rich was friends with the CEO of Bass Pro, Johnny Morris – Florida neighbors with him, actually. And this was an idea that may or may not have been hatched on their fishing boat. And what you see is that it’s not a conspiracy. It’s not something where a bunch of people get into a room, swear themselves to secrecy and then design exactly how things are going to move forward. It’s about casual connections and relationships that end up driving policy in directions that you and I might not understand but when you look at them it sheds a light on why things happen the way they do.

You have a calcified elite structure where we essentially keep trying to harken back to something that can no longer really exist in Buffalo.

Heaney: It’s interesting, of all the names you just mentioned there was not one elected official on that list. Who might you include or when it comes to real power and real influence, are public officials kind of taking a backseat to private interests?

Connor: I think generally they are. I think altogether in our society there tends to be a lot of focus on the puppets and not so much the puppet masters when it comes to policy making. Locally, there are definitely powerful elected officials. I would certainly say that Governor Cuomo has an enormous influence in the region, and actually the regional director of Empire State Development, Sam Hoyt, is very powerful, no longer elected but might be more powerful than he was as an Assembly member.

Heaney: Sam, I think, is clearly more powerful where he is now.

Connor: I think that’s a sign of how things tend to work in our society – you might go to the voting booth and think you’re electing the person who is going to say what happens in your neighborhood or community. But there’s someone else who wasn’t elected or might be appointed or runs a business that controls a number of the jobs in the community and they have an enormous say and influence on how things happen.

Heaney: What role does the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership play in all of this? Are they one of the players in your mind?

Connor: Absolutely. The Buffalo-Niagara Partnership – again, it’s not a conspiracy, it’s a coalition of businesses, businessmen who exert a lot of influence over how policy gets shaped locally, regionally, on the state level. For instance, the head of the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, Andy Rudnick, they don’t always get what they want. But they have a special voice in policy matters, such as whether the minimum wage gets increased in New York State, whether fracking ends up going forward in New York State, things like that. Again, they don’t necessarily get their way all the time, but they have a lot of influence that isn’t always front page news.

Heaney: How does the way power gets exercised in Buffalo and Western New York vary from different communities? Is the dynamic the same everywhere or is there something a little bit different about what happens here?

Connor: I think the power dynamics locally follow patterns that are similar to other cities of Buffalo’s scale, a Rust Belt city. I think there are dynamics given the economic situation here, the disinvestment, the fact that Buffalo has only one Fortune 500 company left, that it can set it apart from other American cities.

Heaney: Any nuances here that sets it apart at all?

Connor: I think institutionally a lot of wealth has fled this region over the years. The manufacturing sector has been devastated and I think as a result of that you have a calcified elite structure where we essentially keep trying to harken back to something that can no longer really exist in Buffalo.

Heaney: Do you see that changing at all with the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, where there seems to be a kind of changing of the guard? Folks like Howard Zemsky are having much more influence than some of the traditional economic development thinkers in the area and there seems to be a much smarter approach to rethinking the economy and what we ought to be doing. And a little bit of changing of the guard with some of the people on there. Do you see that as maybe a beachhead for maybe some smarter decision making?

I think Cuomo’s very beholden to corporate interests, particularly individuals from the finance sector of New York City who have donated tens of thousands of dollars to his campaigns – directly to Cuomo himself but also to his affiliated organization, the Committee to Save New York,

Connor: It’s certainly an opening. Howard Zemsky is another individual locally with a tremendous amount of power and he’s donated a lot of money to politicians locally and at the state level. At his Larkinville complex you see some new thinking about how development can happen, how planning can happen.

And I think you see that at the Regional Council as well – grading whether projects should happen based on how sustainable they are, whether they follow a smart growth model. So I think there is some better thinking and an opening for economic development that really serves the community and not corporate interests. But it’s a fight; it’s a struggle between old ways of thinking and new.

Heaney: Give me a grade. How well-governed is Western New York? If you were a teacher, give me a letter grade.

Connor: Well if I’m a teacher I lost my job because they defunded public education. It’s hard to say. I don’t want to say that Buffalo is much worse or better than another city. I’m going to give it a C, and I’d probably give every city a C.

Heaney: Let’s talk about Gov. Andrew Cuomo. His approval ratings are very strong. He’s perceived as someone who gets things done. You got a different take on Andrew Cuomo.

Connor: I think Cuomo’s very beholden to corporate interests, particularly individuals from the finance sector of New York City who have donated tens of thousands of dollars to his campaigns – directly to Cuomo himself but also to his affiliated organization, the Committee to Save New York, which is this opaque lobbying organization that has fought for his various budget proposals. So the special interests really rule the Cuomo administration and I would see him as a representative of the 1 percent in New York State, not fighting to address the wealth gap, the wealth gap that is a severe drag on the economy here but actually exacerbating it.

Heaney: How so?

Connor: Anytime you see governors going after factions of the middle class like teachers unions, public employees, where people have fair wages and salaries and representation, going after those things, going after social spending strengthens the safety net for families in New York State. All of that contributes to the worsening wealth gap in the state.

Heaney: Would you disagree with the notion that public spending in New York State is out of control and that something needs to be done?

Connor: I would say that that narrative is one that’s been pushed on the state by the corporate elite.

Heaney: I guess the question is, isn’t there some truth to it? We do have high tax rates, we do have a generous pensions and public salaries, and that has had some sort of impact on our ability to complete economically. Would you agree or disagree with that kind of fundamental argument I just laid out there.

Connor: I disagree. I don’t think the drag on our economy in New York State is the salary or pension of a teacher who served their community for years.

Heaney: Not individually, but kind of death by a thousand paper cuts. You just don’t buy it?

Connor: I don’t buy it. New York State gives billions of dollars in subsidies through tax breaks to companies and many of them are the biggest banks in the country or the world. Why do these companies need tax breaks? It makes no sense. Those are things that you don’t hear Cuomo addressing. You don’t hear the corporate elite or the media institutions in the state addressing because we’re constantly told that public employees are the problem, teachers are the problem.

In Chicago right now the teachers are standing up to this kind of narrative. When you look at the contributors to the organizations that are fighting the teachers union in Chicago, it’s literally several families of billionaires who are intent on shredding the social safety net, intent on attacking teachers unions and teachers organizations, attacking these middle class institutions that are not the problem. They’re part of the solution.

Heaney: One final quick question and quick answer. Where should Cuomo be focusing his reform efforts?

Connor: Cuomo has an enormous opportunity in the months and the year going forward to look at the campaign finance system in New York State and address what is a really problematic and corrupt system where individuals and companies can literally cut checks worth tens of thousands of dollars to politicians they want to influence. That’s something that he’s being pushed to address, it’s something he said he wants to address, and it’s a huge opportunity for him going forward.