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Buffalo in Black and White

The Buffalo News is owned by Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in America, revered by investors the world over. On the front page of the Buffalo News for July 30, 2002, what did the people of Buffalo see? They saw large above-the-fold color photographs of Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, whom the paper supports, and Buffalo Common Council President James Pitts, whom the paper does not support.

Giambra is full-frontal: you can see both ears and white on either side of both pupils. He is wearing reading glasses, looking slightly upward, like a college professor addressing a large class. He has a thoughtful smile on his face, as if he’s just had an interesting idea he knows you’ll like. His lips are slightly pursed, as if he’s about to say something witty, or perhaps he’s hoping for a kiss.

Pitts is photographed at an angle, perhaps in bright sun. He squints, one eye more closed than the other, deep in shadow, hard to see. The pupil you can see is shifted all the way to the side. The very bright light on his forehead burns out all the detail. His teeth are slightly separated, like he’s speaking angrily or about to bite.

Accurate photos of what they two men really look like? What story are the pictures telling? Someone who has never met Pitts looked at the photo and said, “He looks satanic.” Why would the Buffalo News juxtapose an almost-academic straight-on image of Joel Giambra with an oblique image of a satanic James Pitts?

Everything in a newspaper is instrumental. Newspapers aren’t just facts; they’re also strategies. Show a politician scowling all the time and people begin to think he’s an angry, scowly guy. Show him smiling and people think he’s pleasant. Photographs are codes we know so well we don’t even stop to think about them.

The photographs of Giambra and Pitts are part of a three-column-wide piece by Patrick Lakamp titled “Regionalism rears its head in redistricting debate.” Lakamp’s first two paragraphs are: “To those watching from the suburbs who thought that cutting the size of the Buffalo Common Council was a quarrel pitting city leaders against each other, common Council James W. Pitts-and many of his supporters-are sending a different message: The debate is coming your way.” Read that closely: the argument isn’t over the best model for city government or a better way to serve the city’s residents. It’s about James Pitts and his supporters (who the Buffalo News has painted relentlessly as black and racist) and folks in the suburbs. And something is coming your way. Your way. Oh boy: why did you move to the suburbs, anyway?

The rest of the article doesn’t get much better: it’s basically about Giambra and his point of view. Giambra is quoted directly several times, as are several people who agree with him.The few Pitts quotations seem to have been cherrypicked out of various public events. Lakamp says Pitts declined being interviewed for this piece. Pitts says Lakamp only contacted him at the last minute and he didn’t want to get sandbagged by Lakamp once again. He got sandbagged anyway.

There’s a terrific political fight going on in Buffalo now that is cast in terms of saving the city $600,000 but which is really about limiting the black presence in city government and, in particular, getting rid of Jim Pitts, the city’s only really powerful black elected official. The city’s one daily newspaper has taken to calling racist anyone who opposes the plan, which the city’s 7 white councilpersons voted for unanimously and 6 nonwhite councilpersons voted against unanimously. The area chamber of commerce, which spent a lot of money last election trying to defeat Pitts, sent messages to the 7 whites on the council to “hold firm.” The mayor won’t come out of his office to pour a bit of oil on the waters because someone told him that Pitts is involved in the current recall petition campaign against him.

White Flight in Short Hops

Buffalo’s population was 580,000 in 1950; it was down to 292,000 in 2000. In that half-century, the steel mills went to Japan, the grain industry disappeared, the lake ships now make their Atlantic ocean ports via the Welland Canal to the west of here, and the massive rail operations that supported all those operations shrank or died with them. Buffalo has been hard hit by the decline of rustbelt industries, as have many other cities, and its downtown has suffered as middle class white folks moved to suburbs where they could shop in malls and not have to look at people who didn’t look like them.

New York State law prevents Buffalo from doing the kind of incorporation of contiguous population centers that was done by Houston, Los Angeles, Louisville and many other cities, so the decline in heavy industry and the shift in population has been accompanied by a decline in the city’s tax base: there is hardly any downtown shopping, hundreds of commercial and residential buildings are vacant and decaying. A simple vote in Albany about fixed borders could remedy that, but the real estate and political interests are too rich and powerful ever to permit that.

Comparing the number of people who lived in Buffalo at some glorious time in the past and the number who live here now tells you the number of people listing their home addresses within Buffalo’s city limits has decreased, but you need to know more to make sense of this.

Buffalo’s population did indeed decline-but in an amount nearly equal to the increase in population in surrounding white bedroom communities. Buffalo is now about fifty percent nonwhite. I recently heard the city described as a dark core surrounded by a huge white donut. The contiguous towns of Amherst and Cheektowaga, for example, tripled and doubled their populations in that same 50-year period. Amherst, which is 88.3% white, went from 33,700 in 1950 to 116,500 in 2000. Cheektowaga, which is 97.5% white, went from 45,354 in 1950 to 94,109 in 2000. Much of Cheektowaga’s expansion consisted of Polish-Americans who moved out of Buffalo’s Fillmore district.

The white flight has gradually made itself felt in city government. The first African-American councilman at-large was Delmore Mitchell 1965. In 1975, Mitchell became the first African-American Common Council president. It is very likely that the city will have its first African-American mayor before the end of the decade. And that is another reason many people think the exercise in raw power by the white majority on the current Common Council and the city’s white power structure is stupid: what happens when nonwhites again control the Council and they also control the mayor’s office? Are they supposed to forget how the whites took the Common Council presidency away from them in 2002?

White Power

On Tuesday, July 23, 2002, the seven white members of Buffalo’s Common Council voted unanimously to reduce the number of seats on the Council from thirteen to nine. All six African-Americans on the Council voted against the reduction.

The plan removes four at-large seats, including the position of Council president, which is also an at-large seat. Two of the at-large seats and the Council presidency are held by African-Americans. With the city’s present demographics, the new district lines are expected to produce a Council of four representatives from white districts, three from black districts, one from a mostly Hispanic district, and one that could go either way.

Proponents of the plan, all of whom seem to be white, say it produces a leaner, more efficient Common Council, and that it will be fair because the new districts should produce a council that represents the ethnic balance of the city.

Opponents, mostly non-white, say that removing all the at-large seats and especially the Common Council president, not only reduces the number of blacks on the Council by three, but, more importantly, creates a council easily manipulable by the mayor’s office. The mayor can say to a councilperson representing a district,”You want that school, you vote with me on….” He has to work a lot harder to influence someone who is elected by a citywide vote. That, they say, is what the plan is really about. A 1926 reform commission created Buffalo’s strong mayor/strong council system in order to reduce corruption in city government. This plan, they say, would destroy that check on executive power.

The nine-member plan was strongly endorsed by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership (formerly the Chamber of Commerce), a business organization that often involves itself in local political affairs. Three years ago, it contributed heavily to the campaign of David Franczyk, who was trying to unseat the incumbent Common Council president, James Pitts. The plan was also backed by-some say it originated with-the Buffalo News, the city’s only daily newspaper, and the only newspaper wholly owned and controlled by Warren Buffett. Lately, the News has been mounting an editorial war on Pitts and it is difficult to tell if its articles and editorials about the plan are about streamlining city government or merely getting rid of a powerful African-American politician who doesn’t follow orders to roll over and play nice.

The African-American community is in a rage over the whole thing. Both of its weekly newspapers wrote strong editorials opposing the plan, and the hundreds of citizens who crowded the Council chambers the night before the 7-6 vote argued strongly against it.

The Partnership, the News, and the city’s mayor, Anthony Masiello, all say the reduction in Council size is necessary because the city is in terrible shape financially and the reduction would save $600,000. They say it has nothing to do with race or controlling political power; it’s just about economic efficiency.

No one who knows much about the way public money is passed around in this town takes that seriously. The whole city government is fat and bloated and hardly anybody seems willing to give anything up. Summer programs for kids have been cut, funding for arts organizations has been slashed, but the police department refuses to consider one-person patrol cars in safe neighborhoods at safe times of day, the fire department refuses to consider smaller and more efficient fire engines, and the mayor’s office hasn’t reduced its own payroll at all.

Another Option

I don’t know anyone who says the Council should remain with thirteen members. The question is how many and which seats are to be cut. There is another plan on the table, one that is acceptable to the non-white community and which differs from the plan the Council passed in only two small regards. The differences are small if the intention of the cut really is merely economic. If the intention of the whites is instead to cripple black political power, then the two differences are very large. Deal-breakers.

The plan was drafted by the 13-person Citizen’s Reapportionment Commission, whose members were jointly appointed by Masiello and Pitts and approved by the entire Common Council. The Commission spent most of a year studying the question. It recommended cutting one at-large position and one district created by gerrymander 10 years ago. That district didn’t make much sense then and it makes much less sense now, since it has grown thinner than any other district in the city because of white flight.

The councilperson representing that district is David Franczyk, the man the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a developer named Carl Paladino and some lawyers ran against Pitts in 1999. It was Franczyk who introduced the nine-person all-district plan. Franczyk and his backers, who had been trounced at the polls by James Pitts three years ago, seem now trying to force him out by a massive restructuring of city government.

Most people expected the Council to adopt the Citizen’s Reapportionment Commission recommendation because all six African-Americans and one white, Rose LoTempio (who had previously announced her intention to retire at the end of her present term), were on record as favoring it. And it was, after all, a plan produced by an independent commission appointed by the mayor and the Council president.

Then, at the last minute, LoTempio switched her vote. One of the weekly newspapers in town reported that she has 19 relatives on the city payroll, and nearly all of those jobs were controlled by the mayor’s office. “Tony Masiello reached in there and touched Rose LoTempio,” Pitts said. You can never prove things like that, unless the parties to the deal tell all, which they would be crazy to do, but nobody, LoTempio included, has come up with a better reason for her sudden and total reversal.

Neutralizing Black Power

Pitts, and nearly all African-American and Hispanic leaders in Buffalo, argue that this isn’t an economic move at all, that the economic talk is simply cover for the mayor, Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Paladino and a few others to rid the city of the only city-wide positions of power nonwhites have. Pitts says that the Reapportionment Commission’s plan would have maintained a strong Council president, while the plan the seven whites passed would have a rotating president selected from the district representatives, which would mean they could be easily controlled by the mayor.

Anthony Masiello is a sweet guy whom almost everyone finds a likeable fellow. He is also feckless and inconsistent. He has a reputation for agreeing to almost any plan anyone proposes to him, until another plan comes along offered by someone else, whereupon he agrees with that. When it comes to spending public money he tends to favor a small group of developers. Carl Paladino, for example, wanted to buy a city-owned former department store in the heart of town but he didn’t like the building’s roof. Masiello used $800,000 of city funds to put a new roof on the building, then sold it to Paladino for one dollar. He recently committed over a million dollars in federal discretionary money to a developer who wants to take another downtown building, this one presently occupied and doing pretty well, and convert it into upscale condos. He is currently working with a group of investors who want convert the former Statler hotel and the present convention center into a gambling casino-directly across the street from city hall and the proposed new federal courthouse.

People on the East Side look at those numbers and say they have a hard time believing that the reason for getting rid of all four at-large positions is simply to save $300,000 more than the Reapportionment Commission’s eleven-member Council plan would have saved.

African-Americans say they’re getting screwed by whites who want to keep them in their place; whites say those people just don’t understand economic necessity and this is all for their own good. It doesn’t go down very well. The Buffalo News focuses most of its anger on Pitts, basically painting him as self-serving and rabble-rousing.

Several of Masiello’s associates have asked him to use the power of his office to calm things down. He refuses. In addition to his close alliance with a county executive working to shift many public functions from the ethnically mixed city to the predominantly white county, he just doesn’t like Jim Pitts. He’s convinced that Pitts is one of the people behind a current recall petition campaign, which he isn’t. He’d rather let the city blow up than calm things down, if calming things down means urging the Council to reconsider and go back to the eleven-person Common Council the Citizen’s Commission recommended.

Taking It to the Streets

The Council vote isn’t final. Three further steps are required: the mayor has to hold public hearings on it, he has to decide whether to accept or veto it, and then, if he accepts it, it has to go on the November ballot as a referendum. Masiello has announced a date for the public hearing. It will be in a space far smaller than almost everyone expects will be needed. Masiello said it doesn’t matter because he’s already decided to sign the resolution and send it to referendum. The public can come and talk to him, but he’s got no intention of listening to anybody.

The proponents of the nine-person plan are counting on the usual pattern of there being a larger voter turnout in white than black and Hispanic neighborhoods. They may be in for a surprise. The night of the Council reorganization vote, with its perfect racial split, Pitts said,”We’re going to take this to the streets.”

Some of his opponents took that to mean he was urging racial violence, which gives you an idea of how little in touch they are with current political language. Nobody in the city’s African-American neighborhoods thought Pitts meant anything other than, “We’re going to campaign very hard on this issue and we’re going to kick your ass at the polls in November.”

Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University of Buffalo. He edits Buffalo Report.

His email address is bjackson@buffalo.edu.

 

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Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo

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