The Politic: Can you give me an example of something that you recently faced that was totally unexpected?
Well, for example, in 2008, in my desire to acquire more ready land for development, I led an effort for the city to search for remediated ground field. And we have worked to maintain and clean that area, to market that area. Recently, based on our relationship with the State of New York, these last few weeks, we sold one portion of that land and then a second portion of that land to the state of New York for a high-tech manufacturing hub in the city of Buffalo, which is expected to employ over one thousand people. So, certainly, when I purchased it, we did expect business development and job creation, but not to the extent that we see now. This is going to be over a $1.7 billion investment.
The Politic: What impact can a mayor have that no other elected official can have?
The impact that a mayor can have, and that a mayor should be able to have, is the ability to make quick decisions and get things done quickly. There are things that a mayor has an impact on that are very small and unseen — [from] cutting a vacant lot next to a senior citizen’s home that has become overgrown and that is vacant and that the city might not own and is rodent-infested, to doing major economic development projects like when the city recently, under my leadership, put up an RFP for a surface parking lot that now is going to become an over $172 million mixed-use entertainment complex destination in the City of Buffalo.
The Politic: It seems like you really enjoy working locally, and I know you worked in the State Senate in the past. What’s the biggest difference between working locally and working in the State Senate?
As Mayor, I am the principal decision-maker, I’m in an executive position. So I’m the CEO of a $504 million municipal corporation that employs over 2,600 people, as opposed to being a member of the legislative branch, one of more than a couple hundred members of the state legislature. So, it is an executive mindset and work versus a legislative mindset and work. It’s a dramatic difference. I think, though, that it has been incredibly helpful to have that background, because…I have an understanding of what legislators think about, what their interests are, and have relationships with some of my former colleagues in the state legislature. [That] gives me the ability to be more effective as mayor, because when I’m seeking legislation, when I’m seeking state assistance, I really have a good perspective in how to steer those things through the state legislature and the city council as a former member of the city council as well.
The Politic: Did you have a moment when you decided to commit your life to jobs in public service?
I don’t know if there was any particular one moment. I think as a student, I wanted to get a good education. It was something that my parents and grandparents encouraged. After starting a career originally in the private sector, a position had opened up in city government, where I had interned previously. I applied for that job, was hired for that position, and working in that job in city government, I saw the neighborhood that I lived in was getting worse and worse. It was an inner-city neighborhood. There were concerns about government not being as effective as it should be. And I think that’s when I initially developed the idea of actually running for office myself and being in a position where I could make a difference myself, where I could engage and involve people in the community and play a role in turning that section of the community and the city around.
The Politic: Does being the first African-American mayor of Buffalo affect your perspective on your position, and, if so, how?
Certainly, that has been a source of tremendous pride for many in the community. For me, there has been a sense of responsibility as being the first in setting a good example for others. I want to be able to demonstrate that members of the African-American community are capable of being excellent leaders and managers at the highest levels. I see a responsibility to encourage young people of all backgrounds and to break down barriers for people of all backgrounds. One of the things that I have tried to champion in my work as mayor in this city is respect for diversity of all kinds…whether it is race, gender, [or] national origin. In many of the economic development projects that the city has been involved in, I have been able to champion diversity from the standpoint of implementing or negotiating community benefit agreements in those projects which set goals for minority- and women-owned business participation, minority and female worker participation, prevailing wage focus on the hiring of city residents, first source agreements that look at hiring city residents first. So it is something that has, I think, inspired many in the community, but it also says a lot about the people of Buffalo, who have elected me three times to be their mayor. Buffalo is recognized as the City of Good Neighbors, and that is a reflection of the great people that we have in this community. The fact that I am first [is] not because I am so unique or special. I think it is because we have unique people in this community that recognize the potential and value of all citizens.
The Politic: That’s a great way to put it. I know we’re running out of time, so I’ll ask one of my final questions. If I’m visiting Buffalo for the first time and have two free hours, what should I do? What’s the iconic Buffalo experience?
Well, Buffalo is known internationally for its architecture. All of the masters of modern American architecture practiced in the city of Buffalo, and there are examples of those properties everywhere you look and turn in Buffalo. In fact, I’m very blessed and privileged to work in City Hall, which is an iconic building. Buffalo City Hall is the tallest City Hall building in the nation, and it’s on the national register of historic places. You can go to the twenty-eighth floor of Buffalo City Hall to the observation deck area, and you can get a panoramic view of the entire city. We also have a tremendous park system designed by the noted architect Frederick Law Olmstead who designed New York’s Central Park. We also are known for our arts community. Several times, Buffalo has been recognized as the best mid-sized arts destination in the nation. We’re also recognized for our food and restaurants—some of the best restaurants in the entire nation. And in fact, we have a two-day food festival called the Taste of Buffalo, which is the largest two-day food festival in the entire nation.
The Politic: I’d love to know if you have any personal political heroes—local, national, or international—and if you had those as a youth?
Well, I think as a youth, I grew up in a family that paid very close attention to current events and national events. My parents were very much drawn to the work of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and to the Kennedy family – President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy. So I think listening to my parents talk about them and reflect on some of their work, and the feeling of hope and optimism that they were able to engender in the country, always inspired and impressed me. Obviously, over the years, there have been many individuals who have impressed me and been inspirational, but I would tie much of my inspiration to active parents, an active mother and father who were good citizens and inspired my sister and [me] to get a good education and to be active, involved citizens ourselves.