GETTING A GRIP BY MICHAEL I. NIMAN
Doomsday in Buffalo Part III
Dave Franczyk, Racism and a Divided Council
ArtVoice August 8th, 2002
Anyone who walked the Garden Walk, attended Juneteenth, watched an outdoor movie on Elmwood Avenue or in Delaware Park, rode the Critical Mass bike rides or enjoyed a street festival or free outdoor concert, knows that Buffalo is vibrant and alive. Despite decades of dire predictions and dismal indicators, it seems our obituary has been penned prematurely. We’re here, alive, in your face, phat and living large. But dammit, we’re getting by as a community despite getting nothing but grief from the pathetic, greedy, bickering old dinosaurs in City Hall.
The problem is that our city government is not run by elected community activists or utopian idealists with dreams and vision—it’s run by career politicians who stress their limited intellects plotting and conniving to keep their little patronage fiefdoms alive. That, in a nutshell, is the skinny on Buffalo politics. We’re governed by competing mafias vying for control of our scant tax dollars. For them, job number one is maintaining their own jobs, keeping their otherwise unemployable family, friends and supporters employed on the public payroll, and undermining any efforts by competing political camps to do the same. Solving civic problems and running the city is an aside for these clowns. Most of their energy goes into the big chess game they play against each other. What little is left goes toward managing the city.
Add racial politics to this mix and a bad situation quickly turns toxic. Buffalo’s politicians often manipulate xenophobic racial fears to their advantage, using the underlying racial tension present in our society as a political tool at election time. In the short run, such tactics churn the votes and put politicians into office. In the long run, they poison our community and condemn us to a future crippled by racial animosity, fear and mistrust. The end result after years of racial politics is a community divided against itself—a community with no coherent future.
Franczyk’s Plan is Not About Money
Council Member David Franczyk’s current plan to downsize the Common Council, approved by the Council by a vote of 7 to 6, along racial lines, follows this pattern. Franczyk ostensibly billed this as a money-saving move, however, the approximately $600,000 that will be saved, represents only 0.007 percent of Buffalo’s approximately $903 million (including the $487 million Board of Education) budget. More noticeable is the fact that it eliminates three of the six Council seats currently held by African-Americans.
Proponents of the Franczyk plan, which calls for eliminating the Council President’s seat and the Council’s three at large seats, argue that their motive is not racial, that these are all city-wide positions in a city with a [small] white electoral advantage, hence the reduction of the Council should, in the long run, not affect minority representation. The fault with this line of reasoning is that the Franczyk plan targets not seats, but personalities, removing some of the strongest and most outspoken blacks from political office. These are African Americans with track records for winning white support in citywide elections. They have a track record for transversing Buffalo’s rigid racial boundaries, and hence, are in theory the kind of politicians this city needs. Foremost among them is Council President Jim Pitts, who Franczyk ran against and suffered a decisive loss to in 1999.
In recent years, Pitts has emerged as Buffalo’s loudest critic of corporate welfare and corporate power in local politics. He’s often earned the scorn of prominent members of Buffalo’s business community such as developer Carl Paladino, a major financer in Franczyk’s unsuccessful bid to unseat him. Pitts has also emerged as the most powerful force opposing County Executive Joel Giambra’s ersatz “regionalism” plans, which would dilute black and urban political power while not addressing any of the fundamental regional disparities such as unequal education and police funding, or property tax formulas that starve the urban core. It’s no secret that David Franczyk, like Tony Masiello, is in Joel Giambra’s political camp. Make no mistake about it, this is not about reducing 0.007 percent of the city’s budget. Like everything else in City Hall, it’s driven by personality politics and the lust for power. If in the process of screwing Jim Pitts, Franczyk’s plan further polarized the city, so be it—this is business as usual in City Hall.
A New Porky Council
The at large seats that are being eliminated have traditionally served to allow under-represented groups to gain power in City Hall. The “best three of the pack” process used to elect these Council Members mimics the parliamentary process in allowing minority voter blocks power in a crowded open field election. A candidate can be elected with as little as 15 or 20 percent of the citywide vote, providing they are one of the top three vote getters. In the past, this process has given us our first and only openly gay Council Member, as well as a slew of minority members, all of whom were elected by a dedicated core constituency.
The nine-member Council proposed by Franczyk would only have district representatives elected to represent the needs of one specific ward. They’ll be reelected by voters who respond to how successful their representative has been in bringing home projects to their neighborhood or getting their garbage collected. The result is a Council comprised of legislators all looking out for their own little political backyards—with no one elected to look out for the city as a whole. The power of the Council will be further eroded since legislators will be beholden to the mayor to fund projects in or provide specific services to their wards. By rewarding one member with pork while denying services to another, the Mayor can make or break political careers. There will be no at large representative to balance this process.
The Franczyk plan also further disenfranchises people who have traditionally been powerless. With the current Council, citizens have five members who they elect and who are beholden to them as constituents (three at large members, the President and the district Council Member). If one doesn’t solve their problem, they can try to solicit help from the next. Under the Franczyk plan, citizens will only have one representative or advocate on the City Council: their district Council Member. If they are a political opponent of that Council Member, or if that Council Member simply isn’t providing any service to them, or if that Council Member is a dolt, they are simply out of luck. By comparison, people with money or power have a slew of options, even with the new Council structure, when City Hall isn’t working for them. The victims here are not just black, but are poor folks from various ethnic groups.
Buying Council Votes
In order for the Franczyk plan to come to life, Franczyk needed to line up his seven white votes. While there is a strong argument that racism lies behind many of Franczyk’s recent political moves, this is not necessarily true of the other supporters of his plan. Their motivation seems more pragmatically driven. Councilmember at large Rose Marie Lotempio, for example, just voted to eliminate her own seat. While she claimed to be voting from her heart, numbers published by The Alternative Press (7/19/2002) paint a different picture. Using conservative estimates, Lotempio’s friends and relatives are currently earning $566,650 (a figure almost equal to the amount to be saved under the Franczyk plan) from their county and city patronage jobs. Lotempio’s City Hall opponents claim she sold her vote to protect these jobs, but they themselves also have similar tallies of friends and relatives on the city payroll.
Lotempio, incidentally, was elected to the position of majority leader of the Council by the former black majority City Council (the black majority ended when Franczyk unseated Karen Ellington in 2001—read on), who, ironically, were not playing racial politics. Lotempio’s defection to the Franczyk camp, taken by itself, has set political race relations in Buffalo back a decade.
The same City Hall sources also allege that Council Member Mark Coppola sold his vote, in exchange for a promised County (Giambra) water authority position for a supporter from his Delaware [political] Club as well as support for his uncle Al’s possible bid for the 57th district Senate seat. Council Member Rich Fontana was reportedly promised an accounting position for a relative as well as a slew of political fundraisers to be scheduled for his family’s ailing Fontana’s Grove, a private party field for hire. Whether these allegations pan out to be true or not, they are in line with a distrurbing business-as-usual culture in City Hall.
The Other Plan
The Franczyk plan is bought and paid for, signed, sealed, and with a Mayoral signature, ready for delivery to the voters in November. It didn’t emerge, however, to fill a vacuum. To the contrary, Franczyk penned it to replace the Council downsizing plan authored by the Citizen’s Advisory Commission on Reapportionment, which is a Council appointed body which represents Buffalo’s diverse communities. Their plan would have eliminated one at large position and Dave Franczyk’s oddly shaped gerrymandered Fillmore district, which at approximately 25,000 people, is the smallest in the city. Before Buffalo’s population loss, district Council Members represented approximately 60,000 people each, hence there is a strong argument for cutting district Council positions, which, ironically, are not touched in the Franczyk plan.
In summation, the Franczyk plan creates a pork-driven, divided Council where members, beholden to a powerful mayor, are reduced to looking out for their own small fiefdoms in lieu of supporting a coherent citywide agenda. Disempowered groups would be further disempowered while Joel Giambra and local developers would see their adversaries disappear from public office. The most serious impact of the plan, however, would be to further racially polarize this city. Intended or not, that is the ultimate impact of this power grab. The 7-6 margin by which this legislation passed the Council demonstrates that there is no consensus among legislators on this plan. To hurl this heap of dung at the voters as a resolution only promises to further racially polarize the city in the same fashion as the Council.
“Race” is a Political Construct
The key term in all of this is “race.” Anthropologists are quick to point out that race is not a biological construct. There are no significant biological differences among the so-called races—only geographically explicable features such as skin pigment. Race, they point out, is a political construct. As such, it is often used by those with power to manipulate those without power.
This is the legacy that former mayor Jimmy Griffin gave to Buffalo. Election after election saw Griffin running against black candidates. The subtle message to white voters, including those who did not particularly like Griffin, was that Jimmy Griffin was their last line of defense against blacks, who were poised to take over the city (as if politics was a sort of black vs. white football game). This was obvious from start in 1978, when Arthur Eve beat Jimmy Griffin in the Democratic Primary for Mayor. Griffin came back in November on the Conservative line in a racially driven campaign whose aftershocks we still feel today. Stop signs throughout South Buffalo and white sections of the East Side were stenciled into “Stop Eve” signs. Griffin forces made a monumental effort to churn out the votes in these same areas. The message was clear. Voters weren’t coming out to support Griffin. They were coming out to vote against the black man. All of Griffin’s subsequent elections saw him matched up in similar Democratic primary battles.
Griffin’s campaigns, however, were subtle. While racial tension and fear was always seething below the surface, Griffin was restrained while electioneering and was never caught producing outright racist literature or making clearly racist utterances. Fillmore District Council Member David Franczyk, the architect of the current power play ripping this city apart, is not so subtle. During the past decade, the Franczyk name has become tarred with allegations of racism, with David Franczyk emerging as a poster boy for racially divisive campaigning.
Franczyk began his career as a political reformer backed by various political activists associated with Buffalo’s progressive community (including this writer). Ostensibly, he was a leftist with a penchant for Marxist theory. He was an anti-racist who won the political backing of the then Ellicott district Council Member, Jim Pitts. He was unashamed of his past dependence on food stamps and proud of his accomplishments working with friends to found a community newspaper and business (Polish American Voice, now the Polish American Journal). In short, despite emerging from a dynastic political family (his father was former Council chief of staff and his uncle was the former Fillmore District Council Member), he seemed to be a man of the people, well suited to represent the ethnically diverse, working class Fillmore District. With the help of the black political establishment, he easily unseated the incumbent, Steve Godzisz, who at the time was a Griffin crony.
Since taking office in 1986, however, Franczyk began a Lyndon LaRouche style political transcendence, migrating from left to right, from anti-racist to xenophobe, from community activist to the pawn of a real estate developer. Along the way he lost his progressive political base as community activists left the Franczyk camp, with many (including a strong cadre of Polish-American senior citizens) working to unseat him in subsequent elections. Like LaRouche, however, he maintained a core group of supporters, who, in an unlikely cult of personality, followed him across the political landscape. They were joined by a new army of workers, who, devoid of political ideology, are dependent upon Franczyk and his political allies for their jobs. Political opponents refer to them as Franczyk’s “mafia,” while others whose discourse is tainted by their own xenophobia, refer to them as “The Polish Mafia,” which is a misleading descriptive considering the strong anti-Franczyk outcry in the Polish-American community.
Franczyk’s performance as a Council Member during his early progressive years was exemplary. He’s almost single-handedly responsible for saving St. Mary of Sorrows Church from demolition, and was a strong supporter as it was subsequently converted into the Martin Luther King Urban Life Center. He started the ball rolling on what later became the city’s recycling program. He fought to fund new projects throughout his district and did an adequate job representing both his white and his black constituents. He was the only Council Member to take an activist stand against slumlords, and he authored the city’s innovative landlord licensing bill.
Over the years, however, his political career went nowhere (hence the nickname, “Council Member for life Idi Amin Franczyk”). In all, he spent 17 years on the Council while the city slipped further and further into a socioeconomic quagmire (Jim Pitts has been on the Council in various capacities for 26 years). Franczyk’s early productive years were short-lived, soon giving way to burnout as he presided over a district that lead the region in population loss. As conditions in Fillmore became more bleak, Franczyk’s electoral base became more disillusioned with him. Franczyk responded by electioneering—not on his emerging record as a failure, but by playing to gut-level racial fears.
At election time, he, like many of his Fillmore district opponents, often printed two sets of political leaflets—one for white voters and one for black voters. The white leaflets removed all photos of Franczyk with black people, and omitted all of his claimed accomplishments in helping the black community. In their place, were unflattering photos of his black opponents hobnobbing with black politicians such as Arthur Eve who were unpopular among white voters. Franczyk, in effect, adopted Jimmy Griffin’s time tested politics of fear, as year after year he asked white voters to vote, not for him, but against his black opponents.
With the Fillmore district quickly changing into a majority black ward, Franczyk’s formula became less reliable. After the 1990 census, Buffalo’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Reapportionment, a body that included Franczyk’s father, drew up new boundaries for the Fillmore District, cutting out middle class black voters in the north of the district, while picking up working class white areas in the Old First Ward of South Buffalo and the Marine Drive apartments. The new district, which at points was only one block wide, snaked from Franczyk’s East Side neighborhood, all the way to the waterfront. Judge Foschio shelved legal challenges to the racially gerrymandered district for eight years. During this time, the new Fillmore district, like the old one, once again became majority black. In 1998, the legal challenges were dismissed as no longer timely, since a new district would be drawn after the 2000 census.
In 1999, Franczyk gave up his Fillmore seat to take a stab at citywide office, running against Jim Pitts for Council President. Franczyk camp insiders claim that Franczyk, who enjoyed the financial backing of Pitts’ nemesis, developer Carl Paladino, fully expected to easily beat Pitts, based on the fact that he, like the majority of the voters in a citywide election, was white. This was Franczyk’s first attempt to run for a citywide office, and he quickly learned that his country thinking didn’t carry in the big city. Issue-oriented voters needed more than an “I’m white—he’s black” logic to make their decision. The citywide spotlight also proved brighter than what Franczyk was used to. The Buffalo News exposed Franczyk’s past history of racially divisive campaigning, and both black and white voters turned against him in droves. In the end, Pitts soundly defeated Franczyk despite the racial disparity among voters—even beating the unpopular Franczyk in a number of predominantly white conservative South Buffalo election districts.
Divide and Conquer
In 2002 Franczyk made a comeback, running for the same Fillmore seat he gave up in 1999. By then, however, he was commonly seen as a racist among Fillmore’s predominantly black voters, many of whom heard rumors of Franczyk’s alleged racist utterances in local bars. On the onset, getting these black voters to elect Franczyk seemed like an insurmountable task. For the Franczyk team, however, getting Franczyk elected just required a more complicated strategy.
They opted for a divide and conquer approach in dealing with Fillmore’s black voters. What they needed were two black candidates running against one white candidate. The problem was, that while incumbent Karen Ellington, who came to office after defeating Franczyk’s former aid, would easily get on the ballot, there were no other viable contenders. There was, however, Ron Fleming, a perennial candidate for Fillmore Council Member, who usually couldn’t muster enough legally binding petition signatures to get on the ballot.
Franczyk, in an effort to make sure Fleming got onto the ballot, came onto the scene early in the election cycle, announced he wasn’t running, and endorsed Fleming. He then commanded his loyal democratic Committee Members to endorse Fleming, thus guaranteeing Fleming the Democratic Party endorsement. The Party endorsement, in turn, guaranteed that party hacks would carry Fleming’s petitions and assure that he would get on the ballot. Once this was accomplished, Franczyk then privately announced that he had changed his mind, and would now be running for the Fillmore Council seat himself. The one wrench in the machinery was Steve Godzisz, the former Council Member who Franczyk defeated in 1986. Godzisz filed petitions to run as well. This would make the election two whites and two blacks. Franczyk’s legal team, however, filed objections to Godzisz’s petitions, a move which led to his name being removed from the ballot. Franczyk’s team, of course, filed no objections to Fleming’s petitions.
The plan worked, and Franczyk was elected to office, garnering 41 percent of the vote, compared for 32 percent for Ellington and 27 percent for Flemming. The low voter turnout enabled Franczyk to return to City Hall with one of the lowest vote totals garnered by any legislator in this city’s history. Franczyk immediately returned to his old ways, hiring an all-white staff to serve his minority district. During his 17 years in City Hall, Franczyk has never hired an African-American to a full-time position on his legislative staff despite the fact that he represented a majority black district for most of those years.
Once a Racist?
Once returning to office, Franczyk wasted no time playing his game of racial politics. This time, he’s at the center of a citywide controversy that has white Buffalonians and black Buffalonians lining up behind opposing political camps—a controversy created by Franczyk that split a once somewhat cohesive Council perfectly along racial lines.
Franczyk, quoted recently in The Buffalo News, defended his recent moves, arguing, “The people in this city are demanding radical change and forward motion. We’re losing our young people.” Franczyk’s plan, however, offers us neither radical change nor forward motion. To the contrary, it’s a return to the dark days of racial disenfranchisement. As for young people leaving, if you count educated African American youth, it’s safe to say more people leave this city due to its racial polarization and lack of opportunity for people of color than because of the number of at large versus district Council seats.
And it’s also not about money. There are plenty of ways for this city to start saving money. A good place to start would be with an across-the-board cut in bloated Council and Council Staff salaries, eliminating unnecessary political patronage positions, and pressuring County Executive Joel Giambra and the County Legislature to pick up more of their share of the costs of maintaining the region’s urban core. Franczyk’s legislation addresses none of this. It poisons race relations while producing no coherent benefit. Tony Masiello should do the right thing and veto it.
Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous Artvoice columns are archived at http://mediastudy.com/articles.
ęCopyright 2002 ArtVoice
Return to mediastudy.com