Q&A: Mayoral candidate Bernie Tolbert

Bernie Tolbert is challenging Byron Brown in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary for mayor.

Tolbert, 65, is a Buffalo native with an extensive background in law enforcement. He worked as an agent and supervisor with the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1980 to 2001. His assignments included special agent in charge of FBI operations in Buffalo and Philadelphia and several stints at agency headquarters in Washington, D.C.

He joined the National Basketball Association in 2002, first and vice president of security and later senior vice president. He retired in 2010.

Earlier in his career, Tolbert worked as a teacher and social worker. He is a graduate of Lafayette High School and the University at Buffalo, where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work.

Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney interviewed Tolbert on June 11. A 2 minute, 59 second video clip featuring the highlights of that interview is posted above. The full 20 minute, 38 second interview is posted deeper in the transcript, produced by Ivy Rivera, which has been edited lightly for clarity.

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Heaney: I want to start off by asking: Why in the world would you want to be mayor of the city of Buffalo? You’re 65. You’re retired. You could put your feet up and kick back. Why would you want to be mayor?

Tolbert: You’re asking me the very same question that everyone asks, ‘Why would you want to do this’?

Heaney: Probably starting with your wife.

Tolbert: Starting with my mother, first. Yes. It’s pretty simple for me. This is my home and I’m not ashamed to admit that I love Buffalo. I’ve always had the reputation as that crazy guy from Buffalo, always talking about Buffalo. So I want to see my city, that’s been very good to me, be the very best it can be. I think I have an obligation, on my part, to give back. That’s what motivates me.

Heaney: I think a lot of people think … you were a semi-big wheel in the FBI and ran security for the NBA… but that doesn’t make him qualified to be mayor. In the city, it’s a whole different game. It’s politics. It’s running a corporation that spends over $400 million a year. What do you say to people who say, “He may be a nice guy. He may have some qualifications. But being mayor of a big city – he’s just not ready for prime time.”

Tolbert: Well, one of the first things I say is that I’ve had over 40 years of progressive, executive and management experience in my professional career. Experiences, I think, that stand me in very good stead when it comes to running a city, running an organization, or pretty much anything else. I’ve been in a position where I’ve had to manage people, manage large numbers of people …

Heaney: What’s the largest organization you’ve ever overseen in terms of numbers?

Tolbert: Numbers? In terms of the people that I was directly responsible for? When I was at the NBA with my staff that I had in New York City, as well as assigned to the different teams, I had well over 200. And in the FBI, when I was the head of the Buffalo office, when I was the agent in charge, the total was in that same range of folks.

And, the other thing I would say is that my management experience and my executive experience … you say, “Is he ready for prime-time?” …  Byron Brown, when he became the mayor, prior to that he was a councilman, I’m not sure how many staff he had…

Heaney: No, state senator.

Tolbert: State senator, but first he was a councilman. Maybe a staff of five?

Heaney: Not even that.

Tolbert: If even that. And as a state senator, again, five, six, ten people at best. So, I’ve had far more experience in terms of managing people and decision making. It’s always been a forte of mine in all of the positions I’ve been in. I have the skills that will do well.

Heaney: Let’s talk about the issues. Obviously, you’re not happy with Byron Brown’s performance as mayor or you wouldn’t be running against him. So, you were a school teacher for a year when you first got out of college. Let me ask you to put on your school teacher hat for just a minute. Byron Brown’s been mayor now for, going on eight years. What grade would you give Byron Brown as mayor?

Tolbert: I would give him a grade C, maybe C -.

But let me just correct something you said. You said that I’m not happy with Byron Brown or obviously I wouldn’t be doing this. My doing this has nothing to do with Byron Brown, per se. It has to do with what I think I can bring to my city. It’s about what I have to offer and what I can bring. If it was Jim Heaney as mayor or Byron Brown or anybody else, it wouldn’t be because of who you are.

Heaney: What differentiates you from Byron Brown? For better or worse, how are you different from Byron Brown and how does that translate into a better Buffalo?

Tolbert: I’m a Buffalo native, born and raised. I have a deep, deep commitment to, and passion for, this city. This is my home. This is the city that helped me to be whatever it is that I’ve been able to do. So, that’s one difference. Byron is from Queens, New York.

Heaney: He’s been here a long time, though.

Tolbert: He’s been here a while but I’ve been here my entire life, except for the times that I’ve had to move because of work.

Also, leadership. I think that it’s time for new leadership in this city. I think my entire career has been reflective of one that shows strong leadership ability. So, there’s some differences right there.

Heaney: There’s some implied criticism of Byron Brown’s leadership.

Tolbert: I think there are areas where the mayor has not stepped up as a leader.

I would be out there every day being a very strong advocate for education for our children.

Heaney: Well, let’s talk about those. What I want to do is have you list a handful of examples where has Byron Brown fallen short in your estimation.

Tolbert: I’ll start with education. It’s no secret that our schools are going through some pretty rough times. We’re graduating about 50 percent of our students. When you look at black males, it’s under 25 percent. I think we have a lack of leadership in that regard. I recognize that’s one area where I think we need more, and stronger, leadership because our children are our future.

Heaney: Let me ask you about that because, obviously, the mayor does not appoint the board. Beyond the bully pulpit, he doesn’t have much to say. There’s been criticism of Brown over the years that he hasn’t really even used the bully pulpit. But, in a concrete way, what could you do as mayor to improve the schools?

Tolbert: Well, first we start with the bully pulpit. I would use my position as mayor every single day to say that, “Unless our children are getting the best that we can do for them from an educational standpoint, then we are not succeeding.” I would be out there every day being a very strong advocate for education for our children. I know that it’s necessary. I know that the position demands it. That’s one of the things I would do.

Another thing I would do… you talked about the mayor’s position not having a lot of statutory authority, but there’s no reason you can’t seek statutory authority. For example, we have nine school board members. We have six districts and three at large. How about seeking some legislation that says the mayor gets to appoint the three at large members? This way you have direct input.

Heaney: Is that something you would go after?

Tolbert: That’s absolutely something I would look into doing. And it would give you a chance to have some direct say. And I expect to be held accountable for my role in education.

Heaney: So, you feel the mayor’s fallen short on education. Give me a couple of other examples where you don’t think he’s doing the job that needs to be done.

Tolbert: I think that our neighborhoods have not progressed in the way that they should. You hear talk about so much development going on in Buffalo. I hear various figures, but $1.7 billion is a figure I’ve heard. I’ve talked to people in the neighborhoods and they don’t see that development. They don’t see the impact on them. They say, “Standing from my neighborhood – where is it? I don’t see it. It hasn’t impacted me.” So, sure, we’ve done some things on the waterfront, and that’s been good, but we can’t dismiss our neighborhoods and leave them behind.

Heaney: What would you want to do in the neighborhoods?

Tolbert: If you walk down the Kensington-Bailey area, you look at Broadway-Fillmore-Jefferson Avenue – a lot of shuddered-up buildings. A lot of buildings have been demolished but nothing is planned to take their place. I would want to make sure that as we demolish buildings that need to be demolished, that we have a strategic plan that says, “Ok. Here’s what we’re going to do with that building.” In the short-term and/or the long-term, certainly we want to draw new business into the neighborhoods, new jobs. Poverty is one of our big issues and that stems from a lack of jobs, which impacts crime.

Heaney: Realistically speaking, what can a mayor do when it comes to the economy? There are forces at play that go way beyond the city of Buffalo, even the state of New York. Realistically, what could you, as mayor, do to overcome the legacy of poverty in the neighborhoods that you’re talking about? I mean, they’re pretty down-and-out stretches of town.

 I think we need more police officers.

Tolbert: They are. But you can start by engaging the community, making sure that you’re pulling the community in and getting all of their ideas. You engage the community, you partner with the community to say, “I’m looking to make this area better and I need your help. Here’s how you can help me. You tell me what things you can do to help me.” How about going out to other businesses and other cities and selling them on all the good things that we have in Buffalo and finding ways to bring them here into our neighborhoods? How about going to young entrepeneurs and finding ways, offering ways that can get them to invest in our city as they build their start-ups? Things like that.

Heaney: What’s your take on the governor’s Billion for Buffalo?

Tolbert: Obviously, anything that makes Buffalo better is good. I think that the governor’s billion dollars is something that, hopefully, will translate into a brighter future for us, something we can build upon and leverage. Take that billion and leverage it into billions more. But again, that’s not an initiative of the city’s administration.

Heaney: Talk to me about crime, being a law enforcement guy. First of all, size up the Buffalo Police Department. How effective of a crime-fighting prevention organization is it? How modern of a police department is it?

Tolbert: I think the Buffalo Police Department makes the best effort they can. However, I think they fall short in some areas.

For example, I don’t think that we provide them with enough training. Law enforcement is an evolving field and there are new techniques and methodologies that come into play on a regular basis. If we’re going to know about those, use these, and implement them, then we need to make sure that our police officers, from the executive level on down to the police officers walking the beat, make sure they’re getting a chance to engage with their counterparts in other cities. By attending training sessions and things that will help them to find out what’s happening in another city, we might bring and apply these to Buffalo.

I also think we need more police officers, quite frankly. Buffalo’s ratio of officers, per capita, is smaller than other cities in New York State that are comparable in size, and across the country that are comparable in size. So, I think we need more police officers.

What I would look to do is give our police officers the very best we can in terms of equipment, training, and recognize the good job they do and prepare them so they can go out and …

Heaney: How good of a job are the police doing? In the community there’s a fair amount of criticism about response times, sometimes about professionalism. Let’s go back to the grade. What kind of a grade would you give the Buffalo Police?

Tolbert: I think we can be better. I know we can be better.

Heaney: Is that a C, C-? Or is it a D?

Tolbert: I don’t want to give them a grade in that respect because that can be misleading.

Heaney: Needs improvement?

Tolbert: Absolutely needs improvement, but grades are subject to interpretation.

Heaney: The city budget. The mayor has gotten, generally, good grades for the city’s improved bond rating and what not, yet the city remains very reliant on state aid. Do you see any way of managing the city’s funds differently than the way they’ve been managed the last seven years?

Tolbert: Well, I would certainly say that I would bring to bear my experience and expertise on budgets, as well as, others who have more experience than I do at this. We do rely very heavily on state aid and we’ve turned back money that I would not want to turn back.

Heaney: You’re talking about HUD funds?

Tolbert: HUD funds. To me, given the state of our city and the condition we’re in, it’s a travesty to turn back money. We should be using every penny we get, and trying to get more. So that’s something I think we definitely can do better at.

And, the other thing, when you talk about the city’s budget and the bond rating that we have, we’ve been under a control board for quite a number of years, so I think much of the credit for our current situation. You have to look at the control board and say that part of that has to do with the fact that we had a control board overseeing how we manage our budget.

Heaney: Let’s talk about your campaign a little bit. I think your family has good name recognition in the black community but in the city at-large, you’re a relative unknown. The incumbent has a million dollars in the bank. He’s got the party endorsement which, I don’t know if it helps him as much as it hurts you in terms of foot troops. Let’s talk about what your plan is here. First of all, who’s in your corner? In terms of viewers out there, who’s in your corner by way of endorsements, fundraisers, campaign staff … names that they might recognize.

Tolbert: You’re right, in terms of name recognition. I want to address that issue. One of the things that I’m looking to do is reintroduce myself to the community, not just as Bernie Tolbert the FBI Guy or Bernie Tolbert the NBA Guy, but as Bernie Tolbert, the guy who really cares about his city and is committed to doing everything he can to make it better. I have a campaign staff that works with me of committed people who share my vision, people who want to see our city move in a more positive direction. I have co-campaign managers. My brother Don, who worked in City Hall for 30 years, is one of my co-campaign managers, along with Donna Berry, who has almost 30 years with the Buffalo Police Department. So, they have some experience. They’re well known in the city. They know folks. So, that’s part of my team.

We are very confident in terms of what we’ve been doing in raising funds.

Heaney: Endorsements? Fundraisers?

Tolbert: We’ve been having fundraisers.

Heaney: Again, names? For people sitting in the audience, a name they might recognize?

Tolbert: Well, one of the problems we’ve seen is that there are a lot of people who say, “I support you but I worry about retribution from City Hall. So, you’ve got my support and I’ll do things that I can, but I need to be careful. I need to be sub rosa, if you will. I need to do things from the background.” I don’t want to put those people in a position that they don’t care to be in. But I would say that, come disclosure time in July, you’ll see who supports me.

Heaney:  How much money are we going to see in your bank account at that time?

Tolbert: Well, I’m not sure what we have. We are very confident in terms of what we’ve been doing in raising funds.

Heaney: How much have you raised this far?

Tolbert: We set a target for what we need to raise to run this campaign.

Heaney: And the target is?

Tolbert: It’s not the million dollars that the mayor has.

Heaney: Alright, well give me the closest hundred-thousand.

Tolbert: It’s in the $300,000 range. $300,000 – $350,000 range.

Heaney: In terms of what you need between now and September?

Tolbert: Between now and September, absolutely. And we’ve made significant progress in that regards.

Heaney: Have you hit $100,000 yet?

Tolbert: We’ve hit over $100,000.

Heaney: $200,ooo?

Tolbert: We’ve hit over $100,000. I’m not exactly sure where we are today but I will say, as I mentioned, we’re confident that we’re on the right track and we’ll be able to do well.

Heaney: I’m of the understanding that Michael Joseph and Hormoz Mansouri are among those that are either raising money or giving money so far. Are those two names?

Tolbert: Those are two individuals that I know, that I’ve talked with who share in my vision that we can do better in Buffalo. Those are folks who I’ve certainly had conversations with.

I’m in it for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to win. I fully expect to win.

Heaney: Now, your ground game. In terms of people who are going to be distributing literature, doing door-to-door campaigning, getting campaign nominating petitions signed – there was a sense on a part of a lot of people that Champ Eve was going to be one of your lieutenants on doing that. The word now is that because of the alleged peace pact between the party headquarters and the Brown camp, that Champ Eve has been, at least, officially, sidelined. Is Champ Eve in or out at this point?

Tolbert: Champ Eve can speak for Champ Eve, quite honestly.

Heaney: But you’re the candidate. Is he part of the team or not?

Tolbert: Champ and I have talked. Champ is a member of the Democratic Party and Champ is doing what he feels he has to do to be loyal to the party. I will say that the Unity Coalition, which Champ is a part of, has a number of people who have been circulating petitions for me.

Heaney: How large of a campaign organization do you have to put together between now and September, in terms of bodies, to get the job done?

Tolbert: My basic answer is that we need to put as many as we possibly can. So, if 500 was a number and we could get to 600, then 600 is the number. We have been very successful in recruiting volunteers. We had a number of people sign up when I made my announcement and since then, every day, we get people calling and saying, “I want to volunteer.” Or people on the street, as I go around the city, say, “I want to participate in your campaign.” There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t get people saying to me, “I want to help out in whatever way I can.”

Heaney: One final question: You’re perceived as long shot. Obviously, you’re going up against the incumbent who’s got the party, at least technically, behind him. My sense is that things would have to break just right for you to get elected. You have to really run a smart campaign, raise enough money to get your message out, and it probably wouldn’t hurt if Brown stumbled along the way, although he’s not one to stumble during the campaign season. So, to me, your challenge is really getting volunteers, voters and contributors to think, ‘”Hey, this guy’s got a shot. Maybe he’s worth investing a little bit of time or money in.” Would you agree with that assessment?

Tolbert: Whether I’m a long shot, let me just tell you that I am not in this on a lark. I’m not in it for any purpose other than to win it. I’m not looking at what comes next. That’s not in my game plan, not in my thinking. I’m in it for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to win. I fully expect to win. I fully expect to run against Sergio Rodriguez in November. Whether I’m a long shot or not, I’ll leave that to other people to decide. But we have identified, we have a strategic plan that we’ve identified the vote, where they are and what it takes to get them. We know what we need and we have a plan to get there. And we are fully confident that we will get there.

Editor’s note: Investigative Post has invited Mayor Brown to sit down for an interview. His office has not responded to the invitation.