Q&A: Mayoral candidate Sergio Rodriguez

Sergio Rodriguez isn’t daunted by the odds of running for mayor as a Republican in a city where Democrats hold a seven-to-one enrollment edge.

Rodriguez, 32, is a native of the Dominican Republic. His family moved to the United States when he was 10 and grew up on Long Island. Rodriguez moved to Buffalo a decade ago after a five-year stint in the Marines. He earned an associates degree in business  from Medaille College, a bachelors degree in business management from D’Youville College and a masters degree in organizational leadership from Medaille.

He ran unsuccessfully in 2007 to represent the Niagara District on the Buffalo Common Council.

Rodriguez served two years as deputy director of the Erie County Veterans Service Agency, then worked as coordinator of the Office of Veterans and Military Affairs at Medaille, a job he recently resigned from to run full-time for mayor. He owns Luminant Digital Media and serves on the board of several community organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America Greater Niagara Frontier Council and the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park.

Rodriguez was interviewed March 18 by Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney. A 4 minute, 4 second video clip featuring interview highlights is posted above. The full 15 minute, 43 second interview is posted deeper in the transcript, produced by Ivy Rivera, which has been edited lightly for clarity.

The interview has already generated media coverage, including a story by WGRZ that aired Thursday and a blog post by Heaney that posted Friday.

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Heaney: I think the common question for those who are paying attention to the mayor’s race – it’s still relatively early – is: “Who is Sergio?” So, tell us three essentials that you would want the public to know about you, as an individual in your working life, politics aside. Sergio Rodriguez – as a person. Three quick, fast facts.

Rodriguez: Sure. I am an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. I served in the Marine Corps for five years, active duty, with the 2nd Radio Battalion. I was also attached to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. I’m also heavily involved in community organizations in Buffalo, predominantly on the West Side of Buffalo. I’m also on the board of several other organizations.

Heaney: Now you’ve decided, at the tender age of 32, to run, not only for mayor, but to run as a Republican. The obvious question is: Why do you want to run for mayor?

Rodriguez: I’m running for mayor because there are many issues in the city of Buffalo, which, I feel and many people feel, are not being addressed. There’s no sense of urgency when it comes to education, crime, poverty and unemployment. There’s a continuing population loss in Buffalo. So, that is the reason why we’re running. We feel like we can provide solutions to these issues and be more aggressive to make a better environment here in the city of Buffalo.

I certainly think there’s a lot of complacency in the administration. I don’t think we’re being aggressive enough to address the issues that matter the most to residents.

Heaney: You’re obviously not a fan of Byron Brown or you wouldn’t be running against him. He’s been in office – he’s ending his second four-year term – so, he’s been in office more than seven years. The Buffalo News this week ran a survey based on input from community leaders. They gave him decent grades for management, not-so-decent grades for vision and willingness to tackle the important issues. What’s your critique? What’s he done well? What is he not doing well?

Rodriguez: Well, you know what, I think there are some things he’s doing well. For example, the Green Code. I love that initiative. I love the things that are happening with the Green Code, and we’ll soon see that come to life. There are some things that, I think, sometimes he stays out of the way of some projects and initiatives, some of which are happening at the waterfront …

Heaney: Now, when you say, “Stay out of the way,” do you mean in a good way or a bad way?

Rodriquez: I think it’s good in the sense that he’s not being obstructive to some of the progress that’s happening at the waterfront and, certainly, I look at what Congressman Higgins has done taking the leadership, and secured $252 million from the Power Authority to develop the waterfront. So, that type of leadership is something that calls out to me more.

Heaney: What have been the mayor’s biggest shortcomings?

Rodriguez: Well, I think, lack of leadership, lack of vision. I certainly think there’s a lot of complacency in the administration. I don’t think we’re being aggressive enough to address the issues that matter the most to residents. We’re facing, literally, an epidemic when we’re graduating less than half of our kids from high school, when shootings go up 70 percent, homicides go up 40 percent…

Heaney: Stop. Shootings up 70 percent? A couple of numbers there. What’s your definition of a shooting? What time frame are we talking about?

Rodriguez: Shootings from 2001 to 2012 went up 70 percent in the city of Buffalo.

Heaney: Seven zero percent?

Rodriguez: Seven zero, yes sir. Seventy.

Heaney: Alright, so you’re saying the city’s become more violent?

Rodriguez: Oh, it is. Literally, in October, Forbes Magazine named Buffalo the nation’s 10th most dangerous city. This is the first time we’ve ranked in the top ten of the nation’s most dangerous cities. This is based on FBI statistics. So, certainly in terms of safety, the city of Buffalo is facing an epidemic. A lot of people are not feeling safe.

Heaney: I want to get back to what you would do if elected mayor in a little bit, but let’s talk about the campaign. You’re starting out with little-to-no name recognition, probably no money in the bank.

Rodriguez: I have some money but nowhere near as much as the current …

Heaney: … probably a very small political organization. The Republican Party doesn’t seem particularly thrilled with having anybody on the line, come this November, because of other elections that they like to suppress the vote in the city on. First, tell me – If you were a Las Vegas book banker, what would be the odds you would put on your prospects here? Are you a one in 10? One in a hundred? What are you in your mind?

Rodriguez: I think, believe it or not, that there’s a reasonable chance for my candidacy to be successful in the city of Buffalo.

Heaney: Give me a number.

Rodriguez: Maybe one in three. Things change, literally, every day. I’m getting a lot of energy when I go to block club meetings and when I’m meeting with the people. What I’m sensing is very different from what’s being broadcasted out there, and the perception that people have about the status of the current administration in the community.

Heaney: I take it you’re sensing a lot of unhappiness?

Rodriguez: Yes, a lot of unhappiness. I think that when you look at the single-most important issue facing the city right now, which is education, and the lack of involvement by the administration in the single most important issue – I think that has a lot of people concerned. We’ve given this administration eight years to address some serious issues that are happening.

Going in as mayor, I would have more managerial experience, going into office than the current administration did.

Heaney: It’s one thing to be unhappy with Byron Brown and it’s another thing to vote for somebody who’s 32, and has never held elected office before, much less held executive-type positions. Aren’t you asking voters to take a pretty big leap of faith? You know, ‘I’m 32 and I’ve never been in political office. Hand me the keys to City Hall.’

Rodriguez: I don’t agree with that, Jim. I have a lot of experience, not only, in the Marine Corps, as a sergeant leading Marines but, also, as Deputy Director of the Erie County Veterans Agency, and as Coordinator of Veterans Military Affairs at Medaille College. I’ve been in an assistant management position overseeing over 100 employees. So, I have experience. I’m the president of a non-profit organization in the city of Buffalo.

Heaney: But, in terms of government, and managing a large organization that has thousands of employees. You’ve got a budget in excess of $400 million. You’re talking about getting involved in the schools where it’s $800 million. Are you really ready for prime-time? I think it’s the question that a lot of people, who really aren’t happy with Byron Brown, they might take a look at you but the question is: Is this guy really ready to run the city of Buffalo?

Rodriguez: Well, Jim, I do want to say that going in as mayor, I would have more managerial experience, going into office, than the current administration did. Remember, the mayor served as senator. You’re not overseeing a large staff. He also served as a Council member, also, not overseeing a large staff. So, I’m coming in with experience leading many people in a big organization. So, I believe I do have more experience, going in as mayor, than the current administration did when they got elected.

I’ve been encouraged not to run. Strongly encouraged.

Heaney: Let’s talk about the Republican angle for a minute. It’s been widely reported in the press that the Erie County Republican Party is not happy with the prospect of having a Republican running for mayor in November. There are other countywide races that they would like to see as low a turnout as possible in the city. Tell me about the discussions you’ve had with the Republican Party leadership and what they are telling you.

Rodriguez: Well, Jim, I think one thing that is important to understand is that these have been private discussions. They’ve been uncomfortable. And, certainly, we are in disagreement with where I feel the party should go in terms of going forward.

Heaney: Have they asked you point blank to not run?

Rodriguez: I’ve been encouraged not to run. Strongly encouraged.

Heaney: Have they offered you anything in exchange for not running?

Rodriguez: There have been some things that have come to my awareness in order for me to stop running.

Heaney: Like a job?

Rodriguez: You know what? There have been offers made, sir.

Heaney: There have. Alright. Yet, you told me right before you came on camera that you’re committed 100 percent. You’re not backing down. You’re running?

Rodriguez: 100 percent. I’m not doing this because I want a job out of this or any type of opportunities like that. I really believe that with the right leadership and vision, the city of Buffalo can go into a more prosperous future.

Heaney: Discussions with Carl Paladino?

Rodriguez: I had, yes. I did.

Heaney: Tell me a little bit about what was said and where things ended.

Rodriguez: Well, Mr. Paladino was very non-committal.

Heaney: This was approximately how long ago?

Rodriguez: About a month-and-a-half ago or so. It was, actually, prior to my official announcement. So, actually, a little more than a month-and-a-half ago.

Heaney: So, the two of you met. Is he with you? Is he against you? Is he thinking about it? Where is he?

Rodriguez: He’s focused on running for School Board and currently he’s non-committal. So, in the future … I’m not particularly seeking that type of support at this point. I’m very focused on grassroots, going up to block clubs, going into senior centers, interacting with the community – that’s where my mind is set.

Heaney: So, Carl didn’t say, ‘Yes’ and he didn’t say, ‘No’?

Rodriguez: Correct.

Heaney: And since then he’s been given a lucrative project – waterfront development project – by the mayor and he’s contributed some money to the mayor’s campaign. So, if I had to bet, if I go back to those odds from the odds makers, I would guess that a big check from Carl Paladino is probably not coming your way.

Rodriguez: Probably not.

Heaney: How do you run a campaign? You’ve quit your day job. You’re working on this fulltime. How much money do you think you need to raise? What kind of organization? What sort of support have you attracted so far? What’s your game plan for trying to pull an upset?

Rodriguez: Well, the key thing to understand is that I’m not in this alone. I have a campaign manager who has a lot of experience running candidates.

Heaney: Who is that?

Rodriguez: Mitch Martin.

Heaney: What campaigns has he run before?

Rodriguez: He’s run the current councilwoman in Cheektowaga, Angela Wozniak. He also ran the supervisor there and got a judge elected in Cheektowaga, as well. He was also the chairman of the Cheektowaga GOP, and has been very involved in politics. So, he is someone who’s been successful at his job, who is in my campaign team and who I’m very happy to have because he has a lot of experience with this.

We certainly don’t need a million dollars to topple the current administration.

Heaney: What’s your volunteer base look like at this point?

Rodriguez: Very strong. A lot stronger than we anticipated.

Heaney: Give me a number.

Rodriguez: Well over a hundred.

Heaney: How much money have you raised? How much money do you think you need to raise to run an effective campaign?

Rodriguez: Well, we had our first official fundraiser at the Olivencia Center about a month ago. We had over a hundred people show up and we raised thousands of dollars.

Heaney: Can you give me a more specific figure?

Rodriguez: Several thousand dollars. We anticipate that we really don’t need beyond $300,000 to run a very effective campaign. We certainly don’t need a million dollars to topple the current administration.

 Education is the single most-important issue.

Heaney: So, you’re going to need an excess of a quarter of a million dollars, then?

Rodriguez: Correct.

Heaney: And how confident are you that you’re going to be able to hit that mark?

Rodriguez: Very confident.

Heaney: So, your strategy is to raise $300,000 and do a very strong, grassroots, volunteer-heavy type campaign?

Rodriguez: Well, more than just raising $300,000, our focus is really on going into the community. I’ve been to many block clubs in the city. I’ve been to the Bailey-Brinkman Avenue Block Club, the Utica Heights Block Club, the Kaisertown Coalition Board of Block Clubs, the Oxford Square Block Clubs, and the Trinity Towers Senior Center.

I’m going all over the city, to different churches and community organizations, and I’m engaging with residents – talking about these issues. They ask me a lot of the questions and I provide them with responses. I learn a lot from the residents. They’re telling me that the issues that matter most to them are not being addressed.

Heaney: If you were to win, if you were to pull a major upset and win – what would be three concrete things you would try to accomplish in your first couple years? Concrete. Not, ‘improve education’, but three concrete steps you would take to get the city moving again.

Rodriguez: Well, Jim, if education is the single most-important issue – the city contributes $70 million a year towards an education system that’s graduating less than half of our students – then, certainly, we need to make steps towards addressing that major issue.

I can tell you one concrete step. I’m looking at what other administrations have done in other cities, here in the state of New York. For example, Michael Bloomberg sought mayoral control over the education system, and he got it.

Heaney: So, that’s something that you would seek?

Rodriguez: That’s something that I would seek. Yes.

Heaney: Give me two others, quick, because we’re running out of time.

Rodriguez: Yes, so that would be one thing. The other thing would be with crime. There are programs, like in Boston, Massachusetts, that have been successful in an urban setting that we can implement right here in the city of Buffalo that can be successful to address crime.

We also need to look at the mismanagement of these funds that we’re getting from HUD. So, we need to make sure that instead of giving back a half-a-million dollars to the federal government, we’re actually keeping that money that’s meant to serve the poor with programs and services, right here in the city of Buffalo. So, these are concrete things.