Antoine Thompson? Really?

We've got 37,900 unemployed residents and this obvious patronage hire is the best Byron Brown can do to help them?
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Antoine Thompson couldn’t find a job when voters fired him from his state Senate job two years ago.

So, of course, Mayor Byron Brown has now hired Thompson to help the county’s 37,900 unemployed find jobs.

Yeah, right.

This is about as blatant – and shameless – as patronage hiring gets.

First consider that Thompson and Brown have been joined at the hip, politically speaking, for most of their careers, dating back to their days together in Grassroots, the political club that helped spawn both of their careers.

Thompson worked as a legislative aide to Brown when he served on the Common Council, then succeeded him when Brown won election to the state Senate. Brown vacated that seat when he was elected mayor and Thompson eventually assumed it.

There has been talk of a political estrangement of sorts between the two since Thompson lost his Senate seat in 2010, which brings me to my second point: hiring Thompson helps Brown in very narrow political terms.

The mayor has been catching heat for his failure to hire many blacks to ranking administrative posts in his administration. The Buffalo News reported over the summer that African Americans held only one of 12 commissioner posts. News columnist Rod Watson declared the makeup of Brown’s cabinet “appalling for any mayor, but is especially grating considering the hopes and expectations of change that came with Brown’s election.” Many in the black community agreed.

By recently hiring Ellen Grant as deputy mayor – good luck co-existing with Steve Casey – and now Thompson, Brown can tell his base he’s finally getting around to adding people of color to the upper ranks of his administration. He also removes Thompson as a potential backer of  Bernard Tolbert, who is mulling a race for mayor next year. A far fetched possibility? Perhaps.

Then again, Thompson and Brown backed different horses in the recent Senate race pitting Betty Jean Grant against Tim Kennedy. Brown’s candidate won – barely.

But, of course, politics has nothing to do with the Thompson hire. Or so insists Thompson, Brown and Casey. No, the mayor told WGRZ that it’s all about Thompson’s extensive government experience and his terrific research and writing skills.

Really?

Fact is, Thompson was held in about as low a regard by folks in governmental circles as any elected official I’ve covered. He was widely regarded as an ego tripper with few real accomplishments who is –  how can I put this diplomatically? – not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Brown’s description of Thompson’s writing prowess is, well, I’ll give hizzoner an ‘A’ for creative writing and revisionist history. I mean, Thompson as state senator sent out campaign material, often at taxpayer expense under the guise of constituent updates, that included more than its share of misspellings and grammatical errors.

And who can forget about his junket to Jamaica? Or his history of financial problems? (Sorry I can’t link to the original stories because The Buffalo News website has yet to restore it archives.)

Thompson, when I interviewed him Monday, cited a number of positions he’s held that are employment related. But the vast majority involved “show up for the occasional board meeting” positions or seats on Senate or Common Council committees related to the economy. None required any real experience or expertise.

Nor does Thompson have any experience running a large agency such as the employment and training center with its 30 workers.

Thompson told me Brown approached him about the job, begging the question, did the mayor put any real effort into finding a qualified job candidate? Ron Plants of WGRZ asked the mayor about the search process and how many other candidates were interviewed. The mayor gave Plants his Jackie Gleason imitation. You know, “humunah, humunah.”

I won’t pretend to speak for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the folks at the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council. Heck, few of them are even talking to me after our report last week on the shaky finances of the company in line to benefit from the first infusion of state aid under the mostly sound Billion For Buffalo program. But I’ve got to believe they are shaking their heads at the Thompson appointment.

Just last week Cuomo and Co. announced a blueprint for spending $1 billion in state aid to rebuild the local economy and workforce development was listed as one of six priorities. Its inclusion was a tacit acknowledgement that the current agencies tasked with the job simply aren’t getting it done.

Yet, just a week later, the mayor has turned his workforce development agency over to a patronage hire who could do no better than landing a job selling real estate when he went looking for work after losing his Senate seat. Yes, he also launched a monthly magazine and companion website, but it looks like a decidedly part-time gig.

At an annual salary of $79,900, Thompson said he’ll focus on his new job. Let’s just hope he has gotten better at heavy lifting than he was in his younger years.