By Allan Mendoza and Rubens Mukunzi
Byron William Brown was born and raised in Queens New York, is the 62nd and current mayor of Buffalo, New York, elected on November 8, 2005 and is the city’s first African-American mayor. He previously served Western New York as a member of the New York State Senate and Buffalo Common Council. A member of democratic party, Brown was the first African-American politician elected to the New York State Senate to represent a district outside New York City and the first member of any minority race to represent a majority white New York State Senate district.
A month after his primary victory in a three-way race, we sat down with Mayor Byron Brown to talk about Buffalo’s future, the upcoming election, and the city’s immigrant and refugee population.
The interview has been edited for content and length.
When you first got elected, how did you view the city and what did you feel like you had to change and improve?
When I came into office as mayor, the city was in a fiscal crisis. Because of that, the state had imposed a fiscal control board to managed the finances of the city. The city had to lay off hundreds of municipal employees. The control board froze the wages of all the municipal employees and taxes were certainly much higher. We weren’t seeing the level of economic development activity that we’re seeing now. Crime was higher and the city was in a period of distress and there were some people at the time talking about merging the city with the county.
Those were the conditions that I met when I came in as mayor. I wanted to stimulate the economy and help to create jobs. I wanted to create a situation where we would improve the quality of life in the city of Buffalo. And I wanted to really make sure that people living in our city had a sense of hope and opportunity for the future, and that they would know the city of Buffalo was going to grow again, get strong again, and be a vibrant place again.
What did it feel coming in as not only the first African American mayor of Buffalo, but also someone who didn’t grow up inside of the city?
I came here when I was 17 to attend college at Buffalo State and went on to do degrees in journalism and political science. Buffalo reminded me greatly of the neighborhood I grew up in Hollis, Queens. I was adopted by a lot of people here in Buffalo, and befriended by a lot of people here in the community and made the decision early on that after college I was going to stay here in Buffalo and not go back to live in New York City.
When I was elected the first African-American mayor of the City of Buffalo it was certainly a huge accomplishment and was something that some people, even at that time, thought was impossible. It was an honor so many people throughout the city in every section of the city of Buffalo felt I was the best person to lead this community into the future.
You’ve touched upon on what you’ve already done to improve to city. What are your goals moving forward, 12 years in?
Twelve years in, I think we’re going to continue with some of the things we’ve started. We’ve been very strategic in investing in all the areas of Buffalo, stimulating economic development. My administration calculates that since 2012, there has been $6.1 billion in economic development projects that have broken ground in the City of Buffalo. What that means, looking at it another way, is that in the next two to three years, more than 12,000 new jobs are going to be created in this city. I just did an interview yesterday with another publication and they’re calculation is less conservative than me and my economic development staff’s. They calculate that since 2012, there’re been more than $7.8 billion dollars in economic development projects that have been initiated and that are moving forward in our city. We’re going to continue to focus on development in every single section of the city: East side, West Side, North Side, South Side.
We’re [also] going to invest in the education of our children. We have increased aid to our public schools and we want to say yes to an education that promises a college financial scholarship to every child that graduates from a Buffalo public or charter school and goes on to college. We have put in place a budget over the years that provides more employment in the summer for young people in our city than ever in the history of the City of Buffalo. So we’re going to continue to do some of the things that are working. Buffalo is no longer a well-kept secret; we’re not getting national and international attention for some of the successes we have been able to achieve.
Given the increased development, there are concerns about gentrification. I know the East Side has been given additional funds, but it’s still many years behind from the rest of the city economically. Are there any plans to help the area catch up with the rest of the city?
Yesterday, we broke ground on a Highland Park project in the [former] Central Park Plaza, Fillmore-Leroy area of the city. That area is targeted for $90 million dollars of investment so it will be mixed-income housing, senior housing, and commercial spaces that are being developed in that area of the city that will be transformational. In the Northland Corridor of the City of Buffalo, which is by Delavan-Grider on the East Side of Buffalo, there’s more than $70 million being spent. The largest portion of that spending is in a $44 million New York State workforce training center that will prepare for the jobs that are coming on-line in our community. It will also create a light manufacturing and industrial hub in that area of the city where people can go not only for training but also for employment opportunities. We will extend our investment into the surrounding community, making sure [it’s] is strong as well. One other major investment that I want to mention in East Buffalo is that $50 million on Jefferson Avenue where we were creating affordable housing, retail spaces, [and] a museum that will chronicle the history of black achievers in the City of Buffalo. There will be investment in a comprehensive health care center that will be somewhere between an urgent care and a hospital emergency room facility. That will also be transformational on Jefferson Avenue. It’s a commercial strip that has tremendous emotional appeal for the East Side of Buffalo and for Buffalo’s black and African-American community because it was one of the most vibrant retail areas of the city in the 60’s and 70’s. We think we will return a lot of that excitement and vibrancy to that area again. But my strategic plan and vision has been to make strategic investments in every section of the City of Buffalo to stimulate private sector investment and growth. For example, Niagara Street we’re spending more than $31 million in streetscape investment that will go from Niagara Square all the way to Niagara Street to Ontario Street. As a result of that public sector investment where the city has taken city, state and federal funds, we’re seeing tens of millions of dollars in private sector funds being made in housing, bars and restaurants, and commercial spaces. Niagara Street will be an exciting and beautiful gateway into our country from cars that exist the Peace Bridge into Buffalo.
The city and your office have been traditionally very welcoming to the refugee community. How will you continue this relationship with this community of new Americans and new Buffalonians?
We think it’s essential for the city to continue to be welcoming. We are very pleased to be a preferred refugee resettlement city and to have the designation to be a welcome city. Just recently, the City of Buffalo joined a group of cities that are part of the Cities for Citizenship organization. That’s something new that we’re doing that promotes citizenship and will give us additional opportunity to work with the growing immigrant and refugee community and to help people to become naturalized, and to assist people in getting their citizenship. That’s going to be a major new initiative in the city that’s coming. We’re very pleased to have these three designations as a city.
We created an Office of New Americans in 2015 because of the growth of the immigrant and refugee population in the City of Buffalo. I wanted to do more as the mayor of Buffalo to support this community and that growth. It’s projected [for the 2020 census,] that for the first time since the 1950s census that Buffalo will see its population grow. One of the reasons for that is the presence of immigrants and refugees who are having a good experience in this city and are telling other members of those communities that Buffalo is a good place to live, work, and raise your family.
How do you feel about the caps on incoming refugees by the Trump Administration? And how do you think they will affect the city in both the long and short term?
We think limiting refugees come into here by the Trump Administration is the wrong approach. I have publicly opposed that approach. We have [also] written to the White House [indicating it.] It’s quite possible that as limits are placed our refugees being able to come to this country, and as the travel ban is being debated in the courts, it could slow the presence of immigrants and refugees coming into our community and could impact the stabilization and the growth of the population that we are seeing in the city. We have had an experience that immigrants and refugees have been great members of the community and have been people that are industrious, creative and who create jobs that are active in the community. We’ve expressed our experience with immigrants and refugees to the White House. We hope they will listen to what we’re saying in Buffalo and what mayors and municipal officials are saying all over the country in support of continuing immigration in this country.
There’s a number of settlement agencies that help out refugees and immigrants. Do you think they’re doing enough or do you think the city should help them out?
The city does help. The resources that the city has are limited so it would be a challenge to take on some of the responsibility of the federal government.
Through the federal programs that bring immigrants and refugees to our community, they provide resources to resettlement agencies to assist individuals and families in getting resettled in the communities they travel to and come to all across the country. I think even in the
Mayor Brown at Word Refugee Day celebrated at Buffalo last July ( Photo Rubens M.)
best of times, the resources that those families and individuals get might not be
enough, and unfortunately now, under the Trump Administration, those resources are in danger. They are threatened by an administration that doesn’t seem to believe in immigration and seems to look at the American Dream in 2017 differently than has looked at in the country for centuries, where this country has always opened its arms to people from different places in the world. That is part of the American Experience. We will continue to speak out [and] do what we can with the resources we have. But it would be challenging for any city to duplicate or supplant the resources of the federal government and the programming the federal government traditionally provided to support immigrant.
Tell us about the upcoming election. What’s going on with the campaign right now?
It’s going well. I have four lines: the Democratic, The Working Families, Independent, as well as the Women’s Equality lines. I just went through the primary Sept. 12 and had a large win in the Democratic Primary. Some describe it as a landslide win against two opponents, and now we go into the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 7. I’m asking all of the voters of the community, regardless of their party affiliation, for their vote and support in the general election. Tremendous progress has been made in the City of Buffalo. Our city is moving in the right direction and we want to continue that. I’m very thankful of this community for the incredibly strong support that I have received, both in the primary and after it. There are many voters of different backgrounds, not just Democrats, but even Republicans who have joined our campaign because they want to continue having me as mayor and continue seeing progress in this city.
Many immigrants may not think it’s important to vote. What would you say to them?
I would say to the immigrant and refugee community that every single vote counts and matters. One of the things that our city did with the Office of New Americans is that we had a study done of the New American community. One of the things that came out of the study is that there are 23,000 plus immigrants and refugees are registered to vote in this community. Unfortunately, less than 13,000 of them actually vote. That portion of our community could be a very, very strong, power voting bloc if they voted in higher numbers. Right now they’re voting at 50 percent. If they voted at 75, 80, or 90 percent, they would catch the attention of every elected official, and it would make that community even more powerful. I encourage members of the immigrant and refugee community to vote. Every vote makes a difference and counts. Voting is a very precious right. In this country, over the years, people have fought and died to vote so I ask everybody to take advantage of that right.