Thank You, Buffalo Theatre of Youth

NumbertheStars1My younger daughter, Mia – she’s 9 – was cast to play the part of little sister Kirsti Johansen in the Theatre of Youth‘s recent production of Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars”.  Actually, because the schedule of performances was demanding, that role was double-cast, and she shared it with another girl.

Today was supposed to be the final performance. I was even going to let her do the talk-back; something she hadn’t been able to do during any of the earlier school performances because I needed to rush her back to school before lunch ended. I had figured today’s the Friday before break – what the hell.

Unfortunately, the Friday performance was canceled because of the snow. The districts coming to see it today were unable to do a field trip into a district that was closed; in this case, Buffalo.

Doing this production was a huge commitment in time and energy. I know that most (if not all) working actors in Buffalo also have day jobs, and I have nothing but kudos for them for the physical and emotional investment they make in practicing their art. This is not an easy gig, but you do it because you love it.

For a 4th grader, it’s tough rehearsing and doing run-throughs from 6pm – 10pm on a school night, but she did it through the second half of December and most of January. Rehearsing, blocking, and memorizing lines, taking direction, and absorbing notes take a toll on a 9 year-old from 10 – 4 on a Saturday.

The performances themselves took place over the course of four weeks, plus public performances last weekend – my daughter did two on Saturday; one at 2 and another at 5:30.  She did nine performances in all, and the tenth was canceled.

But she did it. She learned her lines. She acted in front of several hundred people nine times. She was mic’d. She knew her cues. She knew where to stand, where to look, how to act, how to emote. She made people laugh. She acted. She did it.

It’s a hell of an accomplishment, what she did. I’m really proud of her. She proved – most of all to herself – what she’s capable of. She can be thoughtful, diligent, and mature if she puts her mind to it.

We had some stumbles here and there with schoolwork falling behind, but she’s still a 9 year-old. She has yet to correlate her abilities to her everyday behavior. Kids are, after all, a work in progress.

The reason for writing this – apart from memorializing it for some future time when she might stumble on it – is to thank Meg Quinn, Brittany Wysocki, and the rest of the staff and crew at the Theatre of Youth for taking a chance on her, and giving her a first taste of professional theater. You treated her with patience, kindness, and respect and for that we are eternally grateful. It is an experience we’ll never forget.

I also want to thank the rest of the cast – the German soldiers, Bryan Patrick Stoyle and Steven J. Brachman. Uncle Henrik, played by Eric Rawski. Jesse Tiebor, who played Peter. Mama and Papa Johansen, played by Diane Gaidry and Larry Smith. Katie Harrington, who shared the role of Kirsti with Mia. Anne Boucher, who played Ellen Rosen, and Renee Landrigan, who played Annemarie. Thanks also to Joy Scime, Marissa Biondolillo, Justin Fiordoliso, Priscilla Young Anker, and David Butler. Thanks also to Barbara Priore, who was in charge of wardrobes, Dixon Reynolds, who did the costumes, and Todd Proffitt, who did the lighting and handled backstage duties.

Thank you to you all. You are so dedicated and talented, and your professionalism and kindness is something that we will forever cherish. We are so lucky to have the Theatre of Youth here in Buffalo, and the theater is lucky to have you.

Trump, Sanders: Two Sides of an Anti-Establishment Coin?

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines teaches us that any headline ending with a question mark demands the answer, “no.”

Donald Trump easily won New Hampshire’s Republican primary Tuesday night. That’s not surprising – he was leading for weeks. What was surprising is that Ohio Governor John Kasich came in second, Texas Senator Ted Cruz finished third, and Marco Rubio’s brief post-Iowa momentum collapsed. Granite State Republicans picked a coarse celebrity populist, and followed him up with literally the only sane Republican candidate left standing.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders utterly destroyed former Secretary of State, First Lady, and Senator Hillary Clinton 60-38. That’s a humiliating defeat for Clinton, whose own inevitability seems to be getting the better of her in 2016 as it did in 2008. Sanders makes a far more compelling argument to frustrated left-of-center voters than Clinton; her poor showing is her own fault.

It’s time now for Fiorina, Carson, and Christie to leave the race. Christie bet everything on New Hampshire and couldn’t break double-digits percentage-wise. Carson is now a punch line, and Fiorina is simply not a contender, and never was.

A lot of pundits argue that Trump and Sanders are two sides of the same anti-establishment coin—that they are the figureheads of movements that are sick and tired of politics as usual. All of that takes place before a backdrop of politics as usual that will only outrage Sanders’ supporters—the Supreme Court enjoining the administration’s rules to address pollution and carbon emissions, and Congress’ refusal to hear the President’s budget. The latter is especially galling, because the behavior of Congressional Republicans towards President Obama has been little more than an 8 year-long temper tantrum, with the sole aim being to oppose and embarrass him. But in so doing, they beclown and disrespect themselves.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders voters are dissatisfied with the status quo, but there the similarities end abruptly. Donald Trump (and, frankly, Ted Cruz) are so pugilistically right-wing that they know exactly what they’re doing—they’re planning to fundamentally transform America, to coin a phrase. The America they envison, however, would be a horror not only for us, but for people around the world. They are literally battling over who can commit more war crimes once elected.

Cruz is unliked and has carefully crafted a reputation for being someone completely unreasonable, unthoughtful, rude, and unproductive. Remote are the chances that the American people would elect someone so fundamentally uncharismatic and unlikeable, and as many hard-right Republicans who love him for what they think are his “conservative” bona fides, the general electorate is much broader and politically diverse.

Trump’s rise is predictable because he’s a celebrity and he knows how to put on a show. He knows what to say to rile his crowd up, and he’s unapologetic about it. He lurches from bellicose point to crude threat and his followers eat it up. The fact that he has literally no idea or plan to actually carry out any of his empty diktats matters not.

It’s not just about rah-rah war crimes though.

But my God, Trump is a phony. He’s a guy who was born a millionaire, but pretends he’s Archie Bunker. He lives in a palatial high-rise, but talks like he lives in a modest one bedroom in Astoria. He has never not been a member of New York’s real estate and media elite, but he talks like a cab driver or a character in a Damon Runyan short story. All of this is a carefully crafted tactic because his whole schtick is to appeal to the angry, disillusioned older white male.

Trump’s almost Putinesque conspicuous, nouveau-riche glitz and consumption are attractive to people who would spend their money exactly like that if they hit the Powerball. The demographic appeal comes in as a direct reaction to a feeling that the country under Obama has changed into something they don’t recognize. They don’t like same sex marriage, they don’t like Planned Parenthood, they don’t like that we haven’t invaded Syria or “bombed the shit” out of ISIS. They don’t like Obamacare or Medicaid or TANF or SNAP or anything else that in any way helps the poor and underprivileged, thus unreasonably constraining the ability of the rich or big business to get richer or bigger.

Sanders’ supporters are also fed up with the establishment and status quo, but they are younger, more diverse, and don’t think Obama went nearly far enough in transforming America from a country that spends $600 billion on its military with a casual routineness—will invest a trillion dollars to completely de-stablize the Middle East, but then cries poverty when asked to help feed the hungry, care for the sick, or educate the young. Sanders supporters don’t want to roll back the rights of others, but seek to ensure that America return its power to her people, as the founders intended.

Trump appeals to hatred, division, scapegoating, and resentment. He is quick to resort to schoolyard bullying, calling opponents names and carefully affixing blame on people whom it’s easy for his constituency to hate: Muslims. Mexicans. Women. China. Obama. On the other hand, Sanders expands upon Obama’s own 2008 playbook. He calls for unity, hope, shared ideals, goals, and purpose.

This is Brooklyn vs. Queens; left vs. right; love vs. hate; red vs. black; unity vs. division; help vs. harm; thought vs. reaction.

There’s one very critical thing separating Trump’s movement from Sanders’: evil. Donald Trump is sinister, and he isn’t just inciting an angry mob, he’s handing out the pitchforks and torches. Ezra Klein boils the danger of Trump down perfectly,

Trump is the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory. He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he’s a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he’s also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realizes he’s lying. He delights in schoolyard taunts and luxuriates in backlash.

But before you demean Trump as just another carnival barker,

He’s not a joke and he’s not a clown. He’s a man who could soon be making decisions of war and peace, who would decide which regulations are enforced and which are lifted, who would be responsible for nominating Supreme Court Justices and representing America in the community of nations. This is not political entertainment. This is politics.

Do you think that Donald Trump would run a thoughtful administration? While Sanders preaches equality, access, change, fairness, thoughtfulness, democracy, and reinvigorating the middle class, Trump preaches hatred, misogyny, war, racism, resentment, and anger. The whole thing is based on resentment and anger, but if Trump wins the nomination, there simply aren’t enough angry, resentful, xenophobic white people available to win. He is a populist demagogue and a textbook reactionary. Klein goes on to explain, accurately, that Trump addresses anger with anger, and is completely without scruples or shame.

Bernie Sanders takes hits for being an old socialist hippie with disheveled hair and lefty ideas. Indeed, his amazing showing in New Hampshire isn’t because he’s from the neighboring state of Vermont, but in spite of it. But there is a fundamental goodness in him and his proposals that, at least in part, informs his support across almost every demographic. Call it democratic socialism or social democracy, all of it is just words, and as awful as the right-wing attacks on Sanders will be if he’s the nominee, most people agree that he has identified the correct problems, even if they disagree with his solutions.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, would “make America great again” by ruling like an African dictator—an intemperate strongman who would lead through fear and threats—things that are decidedly ungreat and un-American.

The establishment is under attack, and that’s good. That’s how peaceful political revolutions work at their core, by shaking up the status quo when the people become dissatisfied. Our system doesn’t allow for you to take up arms against dysfunctional government; it gives you the power to effect political change, if you want it.

If Sanders and Trump win their respective parties’ nominations, the choice will be very clear: empower the average American, or transfer power to an even more exclusive, less temperate, one-man elite? Trump isn’t a joke and he isn’t a clown. Sanders wants to feed the hungry whom Trump dismisses. Sanders wants to ensure that people who need it get health care, while Trump would repeal Obamacare and replace it with vaporware. Sanders wants to educate the youth while Trump quite literally ran a for-profit online college that is accused of massive fraud. On top of all of this, there’s not a whole lot of Democrats nostalgic for the 90s.

This is real life, and it’s time people took it all seriously. Sanders and Trump aren’t two sides of the same coin. Sanders has one side of the coin, and Trump has junk bonds.

The County Legislature Reminds us of its Pointlessness

A fundamental, structural pointlessness. The County Legislature isn’t a necessity. County government as an entity generally exists to carry out state laws and policies. Of its $1.1 billion budget, the legislature has discretion over how about 1/10th of it gets spent. We are lucky enough to have a reasonably competent county government that carries out the policies, programs, and standard of living that Albany and residents demand. We’re not cutting funding for things like libraries, culturals, and rat control anymore. We never should have, in the first place.

This week, the County Legislature spent many hours and taxpayer money to debate when bars should close. This is not something for which the community is clamoring; a 2:00 AM call time isn’t an issue. This was a manufactured nontroversy pulled out of the clear, blue sky by big-time developers of downtown housing. The people pushing this want to sanitize gritty city living for prospective buyers and tenants. All that talk about safety and families and domestic violence are just fronts; smokescreens. More troubling is that county government wasted time holding a lengthy public hearing about this pointless nonsense, and then took it up at its Thursday session, only to see it fail 7 – 3, with one abstention.

Powerful developer-donors hijacked the legislative agenda to push a pet project at the expense of Buffalo’s vibrant, growing hospitality industry.

It’s hard enough out here for business, the last thing we need is developers making it worse for others.

The legislature’s only mandate is to approve, reject, or make changes to the executive’s proposed budget.  Everything else is surplusage. During the dark Collins years, the legislature admirably added back Collins’ cuts to funding for programs and culturals that contribute to everyone’s quality of life. It’s a necessary check on reckless executive leadership. But is there another way to accomplish this? A cheaper, less political way? How about an appointed part-time budget commission? What about the control board, which still exists, and will exist for a longer period of time than it needed to, due to borrowing that it carried out at Collins’ insistence?

The spectacle of 11 elected, paid officials (plus staff and counsel) spending hours considering something as idiotic as restricting bar times is an insult to Erie County residents. There’s got to be a better way.

New York is overweight with governments and taxing districts. We’ve known this for a while, yet we don’t do anything about it. Efforts to abolish village governments routinely fail, underscoring that people enjoy the rhetoric of less government, but don’t really want it in practice. Right now, there is an effort underway to merge Onondaga County and city of Syracuse operations. We’ve had this debate, too. It always fails for a variety of reasons, not the least of which include prejudice and the self-interest of elected officials and their personnel.

If we want business and industry to thrive in this region, we need to make it easier for them to open and operate. Taxes, fees, red tape, and regulations are all too high and too much. We should become a national model for 21st century streamlining of government, and providing a predictable, easy-to-follow process for businesses to start up and stay open. No one’s doing that. No one’s even talking about it. Can’t we recruit some of these new hospitality companies and start-ups to head up a commission to recommend changes and modernization of our laws and regulations?

Instead, our elected county legislature is busy spending time on killing hospitality and jobs on behalf of short-sighted developers of high-end apartments.

Get with it, people. It’s not 1960 anymore.

Nothing Good Ever Happens after 5:30 PM

Tuesday night the Erie County Legislature held a public hearing on the pressing issue of rolling back bar closing times from 4 AM to 2 AM.  It was a packed meeting, and people passionate about the issue spoke both for and against the proposal, which appears to have little support in the legislature. Majority leader Joseph Lorigo (C – W. Seneca) live-tweeted the whole thing, (I consolidated the whole timeline here), and added in some commentary that underscored his opposition to the move.

The popular themes among the speakers included, “quality of life”, “nothing good ever happens after 2am”, “layoffs”, and “interference with private business”. I tried to boil it down to emojis, as a “shorter” post, as I’m wont to do.

Developer and restaurateur Mark Croce’s energetic appearance on WBEN’s morning news the following day sounded belligerent and odd, but his nemesis  – elected public official and member of the Buffalo Board of Education Carl Paladino – made some absolutely ludicrous arguments. Paladino is also on the board of downtown’s Buffalo Place improvement district and was, until 2014, a director on the board of the developer-run Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps. I love to hear these old, rich men hate each other.

Paladino’s remarks echoed what he wrote a few weeks ago, arguing in favor of a 2AM closing time, stating,

In Toronto bars close at 1:00  AM. We know it as a clean and wonderful place to visit with a vibrant and thriving bar and restaurant scene.  People spend the same number of hours recreating but just go out and come home earlier and get up earlier the next day.  They have learned how to make everyday count in their lives. Do we think of New York City, New Orleans and Las Vegas the same way?

No. Toronto bars close at 2 AM. Toronto also has a thriving after-hours club scene. Toronto’s tourism agency promotes this fact on its website. In fact, there is a movement to extend Toronto’s closing time to 4 AM. The argument goes, “To be a world-class city, Toronto needs world-class nightlife.

I don’t understand the juxtaposition of Toronto versus New York, New Orleans, and Las Vegas. Toronto is, I guess, “cleaner” than its American counterparts? All three of the American cities Paladino cites enjoy “vibrant and thriving bar and restaurant” scenes, and are among the most popular tourist destinations in the country, meaning someone finds them “wonderful” if not “clean”. Is he saying that New Yorkers and New Orleanians don’t “make everyday count in their lives”? Paladino’s argument here is invalid and false.

However, if a tea party guy perceives our social democratic neighbor’s largest city as better than America’s own party cities, then perhaps Paladino is “feeling the Bern”. 

Does the greed driven parasite preying on our community, Mark Croce, want the hours moved back?  No.

Do the mayor, the Common Council or County Executive want the hours moved back?  We don’t know.

How does the community feel?  One professional poll shows 69% of the community wants the rollback.

Note the Croce name-check. How is Croce a “greed driven parasite preying on our community” any more or less than any other downtown developer? The argument in Toronto to extend closing time to 4AM goes like this, “The petition leans on the idea of Toronto’s (and Ontario’s and Canada’s) perceived nanny state tactics. “Adults should be treated like adults,” reads the website. “Torontonians of or above legal drinking age should be free to enjoy their libation later into the night.”

Nanny state. Treating adults like adults. I thought conservatives and Republicans hated nanny state New York?

In the County Legislature, 4 of the 11, namely Lorigo, Rath, Dixon and Burke say absolutely not.  Morton and Mills said they are a firm yes and the others are willing to listen to the citizens and professionals at a public hearing before committing.  Do our legislators have the political courage to implement a rollback?

In what way is this a political issue? Morton and Mills are just as Republican as Rath. Dixon is a registered Independent, and Lorigo is a registered Conservative, and both caucus with the Republicans. South Buffalo’s Pat Burke is the only Democrat whose name Paladino deigns to check. He must like Burke, and apart from giving a number, can’t even be bothered to acknowledge the existence of the remaining Democrats – people who conservatives might otherwise expect to support expansion of New York’s own “nanny state”. They include women who represent Erie County’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. This includes the people who represent the area’s largest concentrations of minority residents; African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and refugees.

What does Paladino’s omission of Barbara Miller-Williams, Betty Jean Grant, Peter Savage – not to mention Kevin Hardwick – tell us? What conclusions do you draw?

Carl “temperance” Paladino is a “repeal the SAFE Act” guy. He believes, among other things, that restrictions on gun ownership won’t address the problem of gun violence. Sort of like how drinking restrictions won’t address the problem of alcohol consumption and related societal ills?

The representative business leadership group, Buffalo Place, Inc., passed a resolution favoring the rollback as a necessary intrusion on the few bar business owners who disagree because it so obviously a major part of the cultural problem that has ripped at the family fabric, caused unimaginable societal pain and virtually destroyed the normal maturing process of so many young people.

Whoa, there. Is it a “political” issue, or is it a societal/morality issue? Is this about party politics or the “maturing process” of 21 year-olds? Remember: the nanny state dictates that you’re not even allowed to drink legally until you’re 21 years of age.  No other western Democracy in the world has such a high drinking age, and we still treat alcohol and sex like we did when people walked around dirt roads with buckles on their hats.

The other countries that limit alcohol to people 21 and over include, Kazakhstan, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, United Arab Emirates, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Solomon Islands, and India.

In fact, binge drinking has become a much larger problem domestically since the mid-1980s change from 18 to 21. Prohibiting something doesn’t make it go away. It only criminalizes otherwise normal behavior:  “When it is legal for an 18-year-old to drive, marry or serve in the military but illegal for him or her to drink a beer, the illogic of the situation is patent. As a result, the overwhelming response of young people has been, not compliance, but contempt for the law. By outlawing moderate use of alcohol in appropriate social contexts and with adult oversight, we have driven more drinking underground, where it has taken the very dangerous form of ‘pre-gaming.’ The ‘under-age’ drinker, no longer permitted the occasional beer during a dance party, is now more likely to chug high-octane alcohol in dangerous quantities before heading off to that party. As a result, alcohol use has become more, not less, dangerous.

Law enforcement says that nothing good happens after 2:00AM. Parents, educators and anyone with common sense recognize this as truth or learned it from experience.  Except for Mark Croce and a few other quick buck, in and out of business, bar owners, responsible bar and restaurant owners will say that after 2:00AM they deal with loser drunks and drug addicts preying on good young people who have told their parents that all of their friends are out so they must be out.  Is it good for a young person to be conditioned to getting out of bed at 3:00 in the afternoon on weekends?  Does it help the maturing process, the desire to achieve.

Is it a cause of domestic distress or violence.  Is it a breeding ground for the incessant drug culture?

What an intellectually lazy slippery slope argument. Going out drinking with your friends as a gateway to “drug culture” is so facile. You’re more likely to drunkenly stumble into Jim’s Steakout for a fix of fried meat and carbohydrates than to stick a needle in your arm. Rolling back closing times isn’t going to address any of this. It’s not going to end “domestic distress or violence”, nor will it affect the “drug culture”.

Again – you can’t drink legally until you’re 21 years old. You become an adult at the age of 18 for almost everything else, including signing contracts and going into the military  – dying for your country. If you’re 21 and you go out drinking until 3AM, under what circumstances are you discussing that fact with your parents, exactly? Who are these 21 year-olds in Buffalo still living at home with mom and dad, discussing their comings and goings and worrying about the “maturing process”?

I detect that there is a personal angle to all this for Mr. Paladino – an issue he won’t confront head-on.

We have all witnessed or suffered the horrible pain inflicted on so many families in our community by the current opiate drug epidemic not only in Buffalo, but throughout America.  In 2015 in Erie County, over 200 people died as a result of heroin overdose. Over 600 more were saved by police with Narcan. Others, unable to kick the habit or to deal with the guilt created by the pain they brought their families, committed suicide.  Others have stolen all the family valuables to support their habit or cost their parents their savings spent on rehab.  The scourge has ruined the lives and potential of so many people.

Are you aware of a single piece of evidence to link a 4AM bar closing time (versus a 2AM bar closing time) to the current heroin epidemic? I’m not.

Connect the dots.  Isn’t it better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.  Rolling back the bar closing time will not solve the drug problem but it will bring awareness and jump start an effort to address the culture that is so destructive to our community.

Non-sequiturs everywhere. Here you have a tea party conservative advocating for stricter nanny state regulations on the hospitality industry in Buffalo. I don’t care either way what they do because it doesn’t affect me, but to see this creep spread lies and silly, hypocritical moral arguments about heroin and family values is simply ridiculous.

Carl Paladino has no standing whatsoever to lecture the community on morality. Something about glass houses and rocks comes to mind.

If you really want to discuss people’s behavior, the quality of life, community standards, and how late-night drinking is a gateway to drugs and immorality, then consider Paladino’s own behavior:

Presumably, an earlier call time might also protect Buffalo females from elderly male bar patrons demanding to see their “pussy”, or calling them a “fucking dyke”.

The Iowa Caucus: Determining Nothing

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are essentially tied at 49% and change, each. As of Tuesday morning, Clinton appears to have a minimal lead. It’s somewhat inexcusable, since Clinton has been running for President since 2007 and lost Iowa in 2008. One would expect her to learn from the 2008 primary, and would have used the following 8 years to anticipate how to deal with a surge from a surprise candidate like Bernie Sanders. Clinton is five votes ahead, and has one more delegate than Sanders, so far.

Can someone explain why O’Malley was still in the race at this stage, given his ridiculous showing?

Make no mistake, though, Democrats. You might be rooting for Sanders, you might be rooting for Clinton. You might be in Sanders’ camp because of Clinton fatigue – getting past the 90s, for instance. You might find Hillary Clinton untrustworthy, unlikeable, susceptible to attacks based on scandals old and new. But never forget this fundamental truth:

Even among those who don’t believe in the phony scandals, there is, as there was in 2008, a desire for someone new, who they imagine won’t bring out all that ugliness. But of course they’re wrong: if Sanders is the nominee, it will take around 30 seconds before Fox News is nonstop coverage of the terrible things he supposedly did when younger. Don’t say there’s nothing there: a propaganda machine that could turn John Kerry into a coward can turn a nice guy from Brooklyn into a monstrously flawed specimen of humanity in no time at all.

It will take 30 seconds before Fox News whips out the mothballed red stars and hammer and sickle graphics, because smears are the name of the game over there.

Here’s what happened on the Republican end:

All you Trumpistas – bored with winning yet? Because America’s own African dictator lost to the far better organized and exponentially more unlikeable Ted Cruz, with Marco Rubio coming up right behind him. That translates into a big win for Cruz and Rubio; the former for obvious reasons, and the latter because he out-performed expectations.

Trump, on the other hand, is a loser, looking now for New Hampshire voters to bail out his campaign much like a Saudi prince bailed out earlier failures. What happened? From the Washington Post:

Donald Trump may have been hampered by two unexpected factors: Weaker than expected performance among new voters and a late surge by Marco Rubio. In the last Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll in Iowa, Trump led Cruz among first-time caucus-goers by 16 points. On Monday night, Trump’s margin among this group was closer to half that. Rubio earned about as much support from new voters as did Cruz, and was the preferred candidate of about 3 in 10 Iowa Republicans who made up their minds in the last week.

The article goes on to say that fully 45% of Republicans made up their minds in the last week. Just 14% of them went for Trump. Cruz won among evangelicals and movement conservatives.

It’s not over for Trump, though. Cruz will do poorly in New Hampshire, where his brand of obnoxious, Christianist brand of conservatism won’t play as well as in Iowa. Recall that Huckabee won Iowa in 2012, and Santorum won in 2008. This last week, they sheepishly shared a stage with Trump at his “screw you, Fox News” rally.

Polling in New Hampshire shows Trump at 33%, with Cruz, Bush, and Kasich trailing at 10 – 11%, and Rubio at 9.5%. Expect Iowa to give Rubio to get a bounce, and a second look from New Hampshire voters. Trump’s lost his sheen of invincibility, and that might hurt him with the low-information crowd who find his boasting about poll numbers to be substantive and compelling.

After New Hampshire come Nevada and South Carolina, where the results will be much more interesting to watch.

Why Donn Esmonde Sucks

Every so often, people ask me when/why/for how long I have been maintaining my Gjakmarrja – my Albanian blood feud – against occasional Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde. Rather than repeat myself, let this act as a sort of compendium of why I wish nothing but ill upon him.

Before 2013, I thought him to be a typically self-congratulating small-town columnist. He is best known for having made common cause with Buffalo’s preservationist community, and he had been a strong advocate for public education, especially as it dealt with the district in the city of Buffalo, but he was a big proponent of charter schools, which have come under heavy criticism from people who see them as elitist and unfairly selective.

I had publicly disagreed with Esmonde often in my own writing, but also gave him kudos when I thought it deserved. After all, that’s what I did for most of my blogging years – comment on stuff that was happening in the news, and at the News.

In early 2013, however, everything changed for me.

I live in Clarence and both of my kids attend public schools there. When we moved to WNY, we specifically bought property in Clarence because the taxes were low but the schools were excellent. Both remain true today.

In 2013, the school district found itself in a fiscal dilemma. Some of it was self-inflicted, but a great deal of it was due to inflated pension costs related to the 2008-2009 global financial meltdown. Pension funds had been adversely affected by the drop in stock prices, and this risk was essentially socialized and spread out over a term of years, and the last bad chunk was happening in 2013. Contributions to the NYS Teachers’ Retirement System essentially quadrupled for up to five years to account for the market crash. The problem wasn’t the pensions – it was the unanticipated and practically unprecedented economic emergency. It wasn’t the teachers who were at fault – they did nothing to precipitate the financial disaster.

Without getting too far in the weeds, the only way that the district could maintain its then-extant level of staffing, classes, and services would be to raise the tax levy in excess of the recently implemented tax cap. At the time, the cap was about 5%, and the district wanted to raise the levy by 9.8% for that year only.

The tax levy is not the same thing as a tax rate, it was a one-time emergency measure, and it was a test by the Board of Education to determine whether the community would support going over the cap in order to maintain the schools’ excellence. A couple of groups, very well-funded by a local developer, popped up and flooded people’s mailboxes with flyers accusing the teachers of greed, the district of being spendthrift, and predicting doom and horror. The measure was defeated by a huge margin.

We’re still fighting this same battle every year, even with the budgets back to normal, emergency over, and within cap.

The parents and residents who didn’t want budget issues to be resolved on the backs of their kids’ educations never had a chance. They had a losing message, no funding, a nascent organization, and honestly never saw it coming.

There was a re-vote to keep funding at the cap, which passed in June, but the damage had been done. Here is what Esmonde’s advocacy accomplished:

  • Since 2011, the district had cut 113 full-time positions; 53 of them in 2013 alone.
  • In 2013, the high school lost art, math, English, tech, and business teachers. The entire family & consumer science department was cut, and we lost a guidance counselor.
  • In 2013, the middle school lost an art, English, and science teacher.
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated 3 K-5 teachers, two librarians, and 12 teacher’s aides.
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated four music teachers, the last social worker, and summer school.
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated 23 high school clubs and extracurricular activities
  • In 2013, the cuts in the revote budget eliminated 15 middle school clubs and extracurricular activities
  • In 2013, all the elementary school librarians were let go.
  • When these clubs are eliminated, parents must find privately funded alternatives. This hurts the poorest families  – that 8.7% – hardest.
  • In 2013, the revote budget eliminated all HS freshman sports, affecting 90 kids.
  • In 2013, the revote budget eliminated all modified sports in the middle school, affecting 225 kids.

Also these electives:

To call that devastating is an understatement.

Part of the reason why the anti-tax people were able to out-do the pro-school people? These two columns by Donn Esmonde:

Overstuffed with School Tax Excess on May 23, 2013, and Clarence Reformer Has Solution for District’s Failing Formula on June 2, 2013.

I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe either one. Here was a columnist who was well-known for his suburb-bashing columns going out of his way to insert himself into a public school crisis that had real consequences for real kids. I know they’re mostly white, mostly well-off kids, which is why Esmonde likely felt comfortable advocating for the dismantling of their educational opportunities, but (a) not all of them are; and (b) public education should always be strengthened, not weakened.

Clarence, of all places, is not “overstuffed” with excessive taxes. Here is the breakdown over the past several years:

I wrote an open letter to Esmonde on May 24, 2013. You can read it here, and I still can’t believe I had to write it. I sent it to his email address, but typically never heard back. He did lay bare his anti-suburb bias, though, shortly thereafter.

Drew “Wing King” Cerza helped mediate a truce for the Clarence June 2013 re-vote, and Esmonde wrote about here. Here was my response.

It was amazing to me that Esmonde – a member of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild, and whose wife was a member of the Buffalo Teacher’s Federation – would denigrate the salary and benefits of teachers who had been in the profession for over 20 years. If you think they don’t deserve it, ok, but at least explain why.

Here’s what is especially galling about Esmonde’s arms-length trilogy about a subject that directly affected me – for him, caring about education is merely a pretense.

Make no mistake: Come budget-approval time, officials in every school district are masters at pushing parents’ emotional buttons and propping up false choices. It goes like this: Vote for the budget, or you will force us to cut (choose your poison) sports/music/field trips/foreign language.

It wasn’t false at all, though. He wrote glowingly about all the anti-school activists who were working to prevent non-existent runaway spending and runaway taxes, which were also fictional. All the threatened cuts to teachers, programs, sports, classes, and electives took place.

Families had to scramble to raise money to restore some of what we lost. He could have written about the effort to restore some programs that came about via private donations, but that would have meant he’d have to confront the real-world effects of his own advocacy in the area’s sole daily paper.

Within a year after the 2013 election, one of Esmonde’s “reformers” was linked to an effort to ban a laundry list of books from the English curriculum. I wrote to him about it, sarcastically congratulating him. He never responded. He shouldn’t have to confront the real-world effects of his own advocacy in the area’s sole daily paper, after all.

The Buffalo News published a story that Esmonde wrote, detailing the woes of spending a lot of money to rehab a building he bought so that he could add “petty landlord” to his resume. I have no sympathy for him. I wish him nothing but ill – every check he writes is a win.

On Twitter, I wrote that I hope his ultimate tenants are grifters who trash the place and skip out on the rent. Well, this was just too much for a local librarian and the Buffalo Gay Men’s Chorus!


Donn Esmonde’s advocacy in the sole regional daily paper resulted in the firing of librarians and the elimination of choral programs in the Clarence schools. But if you attack their golden boy, Donn Esmonde, the Buffalo elites pounce.

Fuck Donn Esmonde.


The Buffalo News’ Tacky Sign

No way this is in the 2004 Master Plan.

The Buffalo News building has the good fortune to be across the street from Canalside. The News moved into its current location in 1973, and the building is, from street level, somewhat imposing – concrete and institutional, like a Communist-era Warsaw apartment block. That was all well and good for the time when it was kitty-corner from some surface parking and the old, ugly, Donovan Building, but now it’s surrounded by new, shiny things like the Courtyard by Marriott and the other Marriott with 716 and the rinks in it – Harborcenter.

The more we celebrate history, the more it helps Canalside. – Donn Esmonde

So, the Buffalo News building is, I suppose, something of a brutalist anachronism. Tolerable, but unfortunate.

But just this week, something tacky happened.

There’s been a recent outcropping of these LED advertising billboards in town – one on Oak Street inbound, another on the 190 in Black Rock, and now this on the side of the Buffalo News. When I saw the unlit sign on the side of the building this past weekend, I thought that the News might be trying to get a sort of Times Square vibe at that corner, like some sort of haphazard effort to transform that particular corner into a modern-day Shelton Square. But instead, it just looks vulgar.

The historic elements are what gives everything around it credence and value. Fads and businesses come and go. History has a generation-to-generation appeal. That’s why it’s so disappointing that this stuff hasn’t been done. – Tim Tielman, to Donn Esmonde

It reminded me of an article that the News’ own self-righteous retired columnist Donn Esmonde wrote in April 2003. In a three-peeves-in-one blog post, Esmonde excoricated WGRZ for the chain link fence topped with barbed wire that then surrounded its parking lot fronting Franklin Street. He wrote,

Thousands of visitors here for last weekend’s Frozen Four hockey championship were drawn to the Chippewa bars. They raved about our great downtown buildings. And they noticed, in the heart of downtown, the prisonlike fence around the Channel 2 parking lot.

The cyclone fence topped by rings of razor wire wasn’t welcomed when it went up six years ago. It hasn’t improved with age, as the Chippewa boom attracts more people and events like the Frozen Four bring out-of-towners.

Downtown is safer than ever, but the razor wire suggests it’s a combat zone. It doesn’t just startle tourists and less-hearty suburbanites. Restaurateur Mark Croce has sunk more than a million bucks into three places near Channel 2, including his upscale Chop House. Diners coming for a $30 steak first feast on the Attica ambience next door.

“I’ve had countless (patrons) say (the fence) is ridiculous for this part of downtown,” said Croce.

Despite numerous pleas to lose the razor wire, Channel 2 General Manager Darryll Green just says no. He says it protects his people, trucks and satellite equipment.

“You’ve got empty buildings on Main Street,” said Green. “Our fence isn’t the problem downtown.”

True. But it’s not helping. It belongs in a factory district, not on a thriving nightlife strip.

Green says the station can’t afford the security cameras and guards that work for other businesses. He’s open to other suggestions. We’d hate to think it’s time to pass the hat for the local NBC affiliate.

That was long before Esmonde went on to champion the placemaking plan for Canalside, emphasizing green space and history and “lighter, quicker, cheaper“, and “flexible lawns”, and solar powered carousels. It was all supposed to be special – it was supposed to be like the very epicenter of our unique “sense of place” and authenticity.

Yet here is the Buffalo News – the paper that employed him and continues to pay him – throwing a cheap, tacky LED advertising sign on the side of its building.  Mind you, the News didn’t slap that cheap piece of trash on the side of the buiding facing the 190, but right on the corner facing Canalside, where all the people looking for their flexible lawns, a sense of place, and maybe a Bass Pro will see it.

If WGRZ needed shaming over its barbed wire fence, then the News needs some shaming for uglying up Canalside.

And it’s not just the garish, cheesy sign – how about all of that prime street-level real estate that is completely empty on the News’ ground floor? If you’re going to take advantage of your building’s proximity to a new local downtown attraction, why not put that space to use? As it stands now, you have a brutalist fortress of a building with an empty ground level and the sort of tasteless LED signage you might expect in downtown Minsk or Ulan Baator.

But maybe we’ve solved part of the problem for One Seneca Tower.

We can improve any part of Buffalo by slapping a cheap LED “advertise here” sign on the side of something. Does this all follow the 2004 Canalside Master Plan? The guy in the tree suit probably wants to know.

It’s nice that history shapes the look and feel of Canalside. It’d be even nicer to finally make more of the real history that inspires it. – Donn Esmonde.

Bad Day for Right Wing News

Trump Chickens Out

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump – which is a phrase that really speaks volumes – has declared that he won’t participate in an upcoming Fox News debate because he can’t handle questions from Megyn Kelly.

Let that sink in for a second – Donald Trump is too chicken to answer questions from a right-leaning reporter on an ultra-right-wing news network because she had the audacity to ask him some tough questions at his first debate. This guy is the right’s macho man? This is the WWE wrestler type guy who’s going to be Randy Savage and Ronald Reagan reincarnated all at the same time?

This racist multiple-bankrupt – and, to quote the late Bob Grant, “fake, phony, fraud” would have you believe that he would erect a wall to keep Mexicans out and get Mexico to pay for it, but he can’t answer a few questions about politics and policy from Megyn Kelly. Fox trolled Trump about it,

We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president. A nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings

This heavily coiffed Paladino clone will “kick ISIS’ ass” but he can’t handle a tough question from a reporter FROM FOX NEWS. Hey, Rus, how you like Trump now? Hey, Carl, this is the best you could do? A coward?

I know that a lot of conservatives are having a hard time dealing with the fact that Donald Trump is little more than a parrot, willing to say whatever the right wing wants to hear, regardless of his actual opinions or beliefs. This fundamental act of sheer, unadulterated cowardice should make even his most hardcore fans shudder.

Donald Trump is a coward. He was a coward when it was his turn to go to Vietnam, and he’s a coward now. He’s trying to Twitter-block Fox and Kelly in real life, but ends up looking like a milquetoast who can’t take the heat.

Oregon Cretins Engaged, Arrested

It looks as if the dildo-and-snack fueled “occupation” of the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve may soon be over. Ammon Bundy and some other morons were taken into federal custody after some sort of shootout. Hopefully, no one from law enforcement was hurt.

Just remember: the same people who support Bundy and his band of dummies and their weeks-long occupation of land that belongs to all Americans would have you believe that Eric Garner just should have complied.

Eastern Hills Mall : Lifestyle Center?

Last July, I set out a rough-sketch proposal that the moribund and outdated Eastern Hills Mall transform itself into western New York’s first lifestyle center. It got picked up by WGRZ earlier this month when it was announced that Macy’s would be vacating its space at the mall. A few months earlier, Dave & Buster’s moved to the Walden Galleria.

My point was that, whether the mall knew it or not, it was dying. The Gap left last year. So did American Eagle Outfitters Aeropostale.  Nothing against small, local retailers, but you get a sense that they enable the property to tread water, barely. The mall needs a dramatic re-think, and quickly. This matters because the town can’t afford to have a derelict mall with difficulty paying its taxes or PILOTs.

In my July piece, I recommended that the EHM keep the big box locations as standalone facilities, but rip down the remainder of the mall. Replace it with something just about everywhere else in the country has, except western New York: a lifestyle center. I specifically drew a comparison to what the owners of the once-similar Nanuet Mall in Rockland County did to transform it into the Shops at Nanuet; from a late 60s throwback to a charming replica of a village downtown:

Now, the Eastern Hills Mall seems to be listening. WGRZ reports that it is considering a “major redevelopment”.

Facilities across the United States have transformed from traditional enclosed shopping centers into these open-air plazas, which gives shoppers the atmosphere of a mini-downtown area. Minneapolis has one. So does Cleveland, Pittsburgh and several East Coast cities.

Western New York doesn’t have a lifestyle center yet.

So Eastern Hills Mall, sensing an opportunity, might try to be the first.

In an attempt to adapt to the changing times, the mall will now explore this new “town-center” model of a lifestyle center, according to General Manager Russell Fulton. In an email, Fulton said the redevelopment could include condominium space, hotel space, new restaurants, offices, fitness centers or sports facilities, all tied together by open walkways and plazas.

That is accompanied by this rendering:

Instead of ripping the mall down, it adds the lifestyle center to the area fronting Transit Road and around the north and south edges. It leaves the massive sea of rear parking used now mostly for car dealer overflow and driving lessons. I’m gratified that they’re considering something different, but would tweak this a bit. I think the mall building itself probably needs to go, and the project needs to address that rear area, as well. But it’s a start. I don’t know whether there’s a need there for a “resort”, but a waterpark might be attractive. Several years ago, the town of Clarence debated a public/private partnership to develop a skating rink facility at the EHM, and that should be revisited, as well.

Some balk at the idea of a lifestyle center in western New York, pointing to the weather. People won’t walk outside in the cold, they say. But if you give people a reason to do so, they will. There are thriving downtowns in lots of cold places – Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City come immediately to mind, but so do Boston, Portland, ME, and New York.

There is a lifestyle center in Toronto, just north of the Ontario Science Centre. The “Shops at Don Mills” has high-end restaurants and shops, and the weather there is about as similar to Buffalo’s as you can get. Here’s what it looks like:

So, if you give people a reason to brave the cold and weather, they’ll do it. (See, e.g., Canalside). The Eastern Hills Mall in particular is surrounded by some of the wealthiest zip codes in western New York, yet people treat our region like we’re all on welfare, recently laid off from Bethelehem Steel.

Eastern Hills Mall’s plan is being proposed by one of its tenants, Nathan Mroz, who owns a Buffalo-themed shop in the mall. He says his plan would cost about $300 million, and the town’s new supervisor – a commercial real estate developer – likes it. The mall’s General Manager also seems interested,

In an attempt to adapt to the changing times, the mall will now explore this new “town-center” model of a lifestyle center, according to General Manager Russell Fulton. In an email, Fulton said the redevelopment could include condominium space, hotel space, new restaurants, offices, fitness centers or sports facilities, all tied together by open walkways and plazas.

$300 million here, $300 million there, and pretty soon we’re starting to build stuff people want.


Killing Flint

Flint, Michigan is about 70 miles from Detroit – about the same distance as Rochester from Buffalo. For half a century, Flint’s running water came from Detroit, but at great expense – about $12 million per year by 2014. That year, a decision was made to supply Flint with drinking water from the Flint River until a long-planned, equally delayed Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline from Lake Huron could be completed. When the pipeline is completed, Flint could expect to save about $3 million per year.

It was supposed to save the city $5 million per year until the new pipeline comes online. Overall, switching from Detroit water was supposed to save the city of Flint $19 million over 8 years – a no-brainer, on paper. When the Flint city council voted to join the Karegnondi Water Authority, Detroit gave Flint a contractual one-year termination notice, and Flint spent $4 million to update its own water treatment plant in order to handle Flint River waterThe city of Flint made the switch in mid-March 2014, with approval from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality; Flint water began flowing from faucets in April. Complaints, too, quickly began pouring in. The water smelled bad. It tasted bad. It was hard water. The city and state maintained, however, that it was all perfectly safe. 

But four months in, testing revealed excessive bacteria rates, and Flint residents were advised to boil their water. GM wouldn’t use Flint water at its local manufacturing plants for fear of corrosion. By January 2015, testing revealed excessive levels of trihalomethanes – TTHM – in the water. TTHM is a chemical byproduct of water disinfectants, and can cause cancer and other ailments. Flint was slow to react, and when Detroit offered to reconnect its supply and waive the $4 million fee, Flint rejected that, even when Detroit offered to do so with no long-term contract. City leaders appealed to the state for help, and the DEQ said everything was safe and under control.

A water consulting company the city retained also said that the discoloration and sediment was a problem, but that the water remained safe to drink and use. That same company – Veolia – manages the city of Buffalo’s water supply

By March 2015, Flint was forced to spend an additional $4.6 million to add carbon filters and other changes to try and improve the water quality. The city council finally voted to reconnect to Detroit’s system, but emergency manager Jerry Ambrose said Detroit water was “no safer” and opposed the move.

In early September 2015, researchers from the Virginia Tech found that the corrosive Flint water was damaging the lead delivery pipes, causing lead to leach into the water supply. Soon, local physicians and hospitals recorded a spike in Flint children’s blood lead levels. By October 1st, the county had declared an emergency, and asked people to not drink the water in Flint. Governor Rick Snyder announced the state would spend $1 million for new water filters, but didn’t commit to reconnecting the supply to Detroit’s. Flint’s technical advisory committee recommended immediate switch to Detroit water. By early October, the governor announced a $12 milliion plan to do just that.

Today, the city that Michael Moore made famous is back in the spotlight. During the Reagan Administration, Flint became famous as an example of the ugly byproduct of globalization and the deification of profit and shareholder return. It was the city that Reaganomics left behind. Except statistics show that most people and most places have been left behind thanks to Reaganomics – supply-side, trickle-down theory that never worked.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

It worked, alright. It worked for the moneyed elites. It worked for big business. Cutting taxes on the wealthy and big business worked great for them. Carving out special loopholes in the tax code to enable the superwealthy to avoid paying taxes while the rest of us rubes financed wars and deficits and tax cuts worked great for some people. We bail out megabanks and insurance conglomerates but scoff at people on WIC or food stamps. We subsidize massive private enterprise but wonder when “entitlement America” is going to pull itself up by its bootstraps and get a job, already.

Flint is merely a symptom of a nationwide disease. If people sincerely want to make America great again, then they need to make the middle class strong again, rather than sacrifice it to appease our billionaire gods.

Flint, Michigan shows that penny wise is, indeed, pound foolish. Switch to the corrosive, dangerous water supply to save a few bucks, and spend far, far more to concoct emergency fixes. End up right back at square one with millions of dollars squandered and thousands sickened. Spend millions more over years to deal with the social cost of poisoning people with lead, a neurotoxin.

Flint is now a federal disaster area. There are open criminal investigations with the state’s attorney general and the Department of Justice.

But Flint is special. It’s a city in receivership, administered by an emergency manager appointed by the Governor. The emergency managers maintained that Flint River water was safe from the moment the first complaints came in. When the TTHM problems arose, the city council wanted to switch back to Detroit water, but the emergency manager hired Veolia, instead. When the Mayor pleaded for help, the emergency manager said they were working on it, but resisted switching back to Detroit’s supply.

Poison people to save a few bucks. Save a few bucks and end up costing taxpayers exponentially more to fix the unnecessary resulting crisis.


It was not until Jan. 5 that Snyder declared a state of emergency and Jan. 12 that he mobilized the National Guard to assist with distribution of bottled water and water filters. Although the state helped Flint switch back to Detroit water in October, danger remains because of damage the Flint River water did to the water distribution system. President Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint on January 16.

A problem that first manifested itself in 2014 is only now being addressed in a remotely serious manner. It bears mentioning that the population of Flint is largely poor, and predominately African American. These people matter. They deserve better. They deserve better than to be used as guinea pigs in some sick penny-pinching experiment. They deserve better than to be completely let down by government at all levels, which is almost pathologically looking for “cheap” rather than “quality”. The Wal*Martization of the delivery of government services.

Now, the state’s Republican governor is in full CYA mode. He is pledging $28 million to temporarily alleviate a problem that never had to happen in the first place, but was carried out to save a small fraction of that.

Flint is the result of bad government, bad governance, and a selective refusal to do the right thing. Flint is what happens when the system breaks down and regulations mean nothing. It is a catastrophe with a massive human toll.

The thing that’s scary is that if you get in just the right people who worship “smaller government” and are willing to cut corners to save a few dollars, and do so without considering the consequences, it could happen here, too.

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