Interview: Mark Schroeder's Plan

by / Sep. 8, 2017 1pm EST

When Mark Schroeder engages a crowd—at a parade, say, or a street festival—he throws his arms in the air, fists clenched, like a boxer who’s just won a match. At a podium, his body language often recalls that of an old-school populist: fists pumping, head and shoulders bent toward his audience, his voice rising in anger and then softening to make a joke. He likes running for office.

This race, a primary challenge to incumbent Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, is the longest shot he’s taken since entering public service in 2002 as an Erie County legislator, which was followed by three terms in the New York State Assembly. He is midway through his second term as comptroller for the City of Buffalo. Brown has all the advantages of incumbency: His campaign is well funded and staffed with an army of patronage workers (and would-be patronage workers); he has broad support from the political and business establishments. He also has in his favor the pervasive narrative that Buffalo is on the upswing: Real estate prices are up, the longstanding population drain from the city has slowed, there has been major investment in downtown and the waterfront. Crime is down. And while scandal and rumors of scandal have surrounded Brown’s three terms, and even swept some of his people out of politics (e.g. former Deputy Mayor Steve Casey, former Councilman Brian Davis), the mayor himself has remained relatively unscathed.

So Schroeder’s campaign has tried to offer a counter-narrative: Things aren’t great for most of Buffalo, Schroeder says. The poverty and unemployment rates are abysmal. New development downtown and amenities on the waterfront are nice but do nothing to address struggling neighborhoods where commercial districts have been gutted, the housing stock continues to deteriorate, and access to public services, when they are available, feels limited. Brown, he says, obsesses over politics when he should be focusing on the job of managing and improving the entire city. Brown, Schroeder says, invoking insight he says he has gained while serving six years as the city’s chief financial officer, has no plans that aren’t immediately compromised by political considerations.

It’s a tricky message to sell in a town that desperately want to cling to good news, after so many decades of bad. But of course the bad is real: The city is poor, and poverty issues feel intractable; the specter of gentrification should worry residents of poor neighborhoods that border the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and other high investment areas; developers and the industries that benefit from development do continue to run our politics and thus our public policy. Brown is also being challenged in the Democratic Primary by Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, and Grant and Schroeder teamed up in this week’s mayoral debate to attack Brown for ignoring city neighborhoods, accusing him of putting the interests of real estate developers ahead of common citizens.

“The mayor has half million dollars in his campaign find to spend,” Schroeder told The Public during an interview last month. “He’s going on TV to tell people how wonderful things are in the City of Buffalo. But some people are seeing those commercials and doing what they do when they’re watching a Bills game: They’re yelling at the TV, they’re saying that’s not right. Because while things may be good for some people, they’re not so great for many who live on the East Side, on the Lower West side, in Black Rock, and elsewhere. I know from going door to door that there is resistance to that message, and that people want a change.”

During our conversation, Schroeder was—as all candidates for elected office must be—unflappably certain that he will win Tuesday’s primary. What follows are excerpts from that interview. 

One issue you’ve raised recently is the Brown administration’s failure to address lead contamination and its attendant health risks, even as new studies (and Investigative Post reports published in this newspaper) underline the gravity of the situation. What would you do as mayor?

Oftentimes a candidate can say things and it can have partisan tone. But Sam Magavern [of Partnership for the Public Good, which issued a white paper on lead hazards in Buffalo] is from a not-for-profit organization, and when he says we have a lead problems that rivals Flint, Michigan, that’s an interesting and volatile statement.

Why is is that you have county executive in one building, and 50 yards away you have a mayor in City Hall, and one has a plan to address the issue and the other does not? Byron Brown put out a poverty plan, which the Buffalo News castigated and said it wasn’t anything. Mark Poloncarz put out a poverty plan, too. Is there any difference between a child living in poverty in Colden, cold and starving, and a child living in poverty in Buffalo? The county executive has a program; the mayor doesn’t have one. It’s just disturbing.

I will internalize what I can do as mayor for the people of the City of Buffalo, but I will always identify what the county can do, what the state can do, what the state legislature can do, so we can work together. The City of Buffalo may not be in a financial situation to do much about the lead situation. This is the reason it’s troubling to me that earlier this summer Assemblyman Sean Ryan had a press conference. Mark Poloncarz was there, PUSH Buffalo was there, Sam Magavern’s group was there. The mayor was absent. Ryan was talking about legislation that could help families that are affected right now by this lead problem—maybe to get some medical help, maybe to get help with medical expenses. Maybe even identify if there’s a way to have homeowner’s insurance help these families.

The mayor, the assemblyman, and other public officials—we have a responsibility to prevent this problem. When you’re affected by lead, there are irreversible things that can happen to you—neurologically, behaviorally, developmentally. So if it can be prevented, it should be prevented, and if it’s already happened to you, you must be helped. That’s why I like the legislation of Sean Ryan and I would go to Albany with my big mouth and do everything i could to get that bill passed. Because it helps people. And it helps us work together, not in silos.

That’s what happens here. We work in silos. We don’t work together on poverty, on lead, on any number of issues. I will change that.

In the course of your campaign—in campaign literature, TV commercials, in the debates—you portray Byron brown as a mayor without a plan. What do you mean by that?

The mayor doesn’t have a plan. The City of Buffalo charter, Article 19, Section 2, says the mayor must submit a four-year strategic plan. He hasn’t done it one time. Not once.

What would my work plan look like, what would it consist of? It would consist of unraveling a lot of this alphabet soup stuff. BMHA, for example, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority—no plan. Our congressman [Brian Higgins] comes swooping in, says he’s got a plan to fix the Perry projects. Really? Why do you have a plan? The mayor controls that shadow government; he should have plan. But when the congressman swoops in, the mayor is absent.

And here’s where a congressman gets himself in trouble. The congressman swoops in to try to save the day, which he shouldn’t have to do, and he makes things worse for the people living in the Perry projects. I know this, because the people there listen to the congressman and then they come to me. I know the people in the Perry project, plus my campaign office is right across the street, plus my mother lived in the Perry projects, so I have an affinity for them. They come to me and say we’re really extra nervous now. And I know why: because the congressman did not utter the phrase inclusionary zoning, which would assure them that they would not be priced out of their homes. I know senior citizens are getting up every morning extra nervous with this nutcase of a president in DC and wondering if they’re even going to get their Meals an Wheels today because that’s going to get cut. Medicaid, Medicare, all these things are on the table—they’re nervous about it.

It’s not just the Perry projects. There are 25 other developments across the city. Some are in the same or worse condition than the Perry projects; some are better. So why are some better? If some are better, then they should be a model for all. It doesn’t work that ay because Brown doesn’t have a plan. We will have a plan. You get a two-fer with me. You get a mayor but also a city manager. I know how to manage: I’ve done it in the private sector, I’ve done it for six years as the comptroller. I know how to manage people and I know how to manage projects. That’s one of the differences between me and the current mayor.

How do you fix a problem like BMHA? It’s been a problem for every mayoral administration.

Since 1934. This all started in 1934, when the mayor and the Common Council decided they were going to be in the municipal housing business. As you know, most of the funding comes in from the federal government. This mayor controls it and he has mismanaged it. What would I do differently? In the transition, on September 13, I will select a retired judge perhaps, someone like Penny Wolfgang, to come in and assess what is really going on. Because there is not justice going on. I will bring in someone who knows how to collect evidence and collect information. Then you have to find an executive director who really knows what they’re doing and has the confidence of the mayor, just as I have confidence in Anne Forti-Sciarrino, who is my first deputy. She is a technician, and I have nine other CPAs up there, and I trust them to handle this office under my leadership, and we’re the fiscal stewards of this city.

So there are 26 developments. First you have to identify which are the ones that really need help. Perry is one of them; Schaffer Village in Riverside is another one that really needs help. In New York City, there is a program in which the city administration works with the building trades, and they have a project labor agreements. What you can do by that is find a way to rebuild projects. Or to figure out whether we really need 13 stories, or is there a way to rebuild along the model of Frederick Douglass projects—that’s a different look and a different model, because there are different developers involved.

It can be managed better here. The mayor recently decided to restructure BMHA—less than two months before the primary. And they did it in a very interesting way: There is no Common Council meetings in August. The next time they will meet to discuss his new appointments to BMHA’s board or any of this is September 12, the day of the primary.

Sanders-Garrett is often offered up as an example of a Brown appointee who seems not to be doing her job. She’s absent a lot, her agency is rife with mismanagement, etc. How do you hire the right people?

Employee excellence is important to me. I have 10 CPAs in my office, and many of them I actually recruited through a headhunter. The issue of employee excellence brings me to another alphabet soup agency: BETC, the Buffalo Employment and Training Center. It’s abysmal. If you’re not a flunky ex-councilmember— those are the only ones who can become executive director there. [Former BETC executive director] Antoine Thompson is a nice man, and [current BETC executive director] Demone Smith is a nice man—but they have no skills. They have no expertise in job training. What’s worse, it’s stuck in a place at Michigan and Goodell. The kids over on Bailey-Delevan are not going to take two buses at $12.50 to go there, because there’s nothing for them. That is the reason why the neighborhood development plan is important: We’re going to have one-stop shop on the East Side, on the West Side, on the North Side, and the South Side. We may even have multiple ones, and they’ll be in the neighborhoods. So if you want a GED, if you want job training, if you want to open a business on Jefferson or Seneca Street, you want matching grants, you don’t understand tax compliance and you want someone to help you, you come to the neighborhood development center in your area and we will help you.

How do you pay for that?

One of the way, for instance, is this: There’s a woman in the University District named Beverley Newkirk, she runs  program called It Takes a Village. That is a perfect place to site a neighborhood development center because we’re likeminded and there are a lot of people coming in there. We may be able to have space in there rent-free, so the city is not paying.

There are community centers across the city that close at 5pm and don’t really have functions in there. There are now 13 community schools. We don’t have to do this alone. We can do this in partnership with others. That would be the approach.

There are ways to fund it. And who better to find those ways than the fiscal officer who has done over 65 audits of different city departments and entities? I know there is gross mismanagement going on. I don’t think it’s on purpose. There are a people who don’t have the capacity to change the way they do things to fix problems, who just don’t understand, even when we give them recommendations, as we do with every audit—what you could do to, best practices to alleviate the problems that we see. When we go to the follow-up audit the next year, they don’t do it. They say they will, but they don’t. And I believe it’s because they can’t; they don’t have the capacity. Again, it’s an issue of hiring, but also of management. There has been a COB comptroller since 1847; never before has there been a mission statement. When I came in, I brought together all my staff—civil service, exempt and non-exempt—and we created a mission statement so we would all know what we were aiming for. And the key word in that mission statement is “transparency,” which you know that mayor’s office hates. I got everyone to buy into our mission.

One reason is this: The difference between me and Brown and Masiello and Griffin and Makowski  and Sedita and Kowal is that I have 45 employees working for me: Not once have they been solicited to attend a fundraiser or carry petitions for me. This mayor holds people in temporary positions until they carry petitions, contribute to the Mayor’s Golden Arch Club or whatever the hell it’s called. I’m just not going to do it.

In the Kennewick Charter of 1927, they had term limits. The reason the politicians changed it is not because they care about the people in the neighborhoods. They did it because of power and greed. And so one of the things I will do is I will but term limits to a referendum next November—let the people decide. I believe the people of Buffalo will vote for term limits. That will give a mayor the opportunity to come in and focus and the real issues and not the political stuff.

Practically speaking, how do you win this primary? How many votes do you need and where do you get them?

Let’s say 40,000 people vote in this election. Divide that by three anyway you like. I know how to count and I know how many votes it’ll take: 16,000, 17,000 votes is what we need to win and I’m confident that we can do that.

I want those votes from across the city. I told Patrick [Curry, Schroeder’s campaign manager] early on, if any consultant comes in to help us and says that, because there are two black candidates running, I should stay out of the black community and just go door to door in white neighborhoods, fire him. I want to talk to everybody. I’ve gone to the East Side more than Byron brown has ever walked on the East Side, and I continue to do it, because I believe people want a change. I go everywhere, and people know me: I’m the only other official elected citywide. I’m going to get voters on the East Side because Byron doesn’t have a plan for the East Side.

We have Spanish pieces, we have pieces in Swahili. We’re reaching out to people that Byron doesn’t even acknowledge. Black Rock, Riverside: I go there, they know me, I’m going to win there.

The Delaware District: This mayor has crossover appeal. I know it, I get it. And when you’re middle or upper class, you don’t depend on government, so maybe Byron Brown is okay with you. So I’m going there to remind them that there are other things on their minds. There are two distinct parts of the Delaware District. People on those side streets along Hertel are not happy with the meter mayhem, which causes more traffic on their streets, people parking in front of their houses.

Then there’s the Elmwood Village: These are some of the most beautiful homes I’ve ever seen; these are some of the most expensive homes I’ve ever seen. Why is it every other house they have a big read gaudy sign on their lawn that says “No Wrecking Ball”? It tells me they’re petrified of developers coming in. The subtitle is “Enforce the Green Code.” The Green code isn’t even dried yet. It took them 10 years to do it, it’s not even dried yet. I went to a Common Council hearing and listened to a developer present six variances to the Green Code. Six? Maybe one or two…but six? You’re ignoring the Green Code on the first project to be presented under it?

Listen, I supported this mayor for 12 years. I am convinced is that he has lost his way.

You can read about Schroeder’s “Compass Plan” for the city here.