Article from NY Times, March 2003

There were problems in this city, plenty of them. Dilapidated housing, potholed streets, neglected parks. But the biggest problem of all was getting someone to understand the needs of the predominantly black residents on the east side of town, and fight for them.

Some of those residents decided their best hope was finding representatives just like them. Even better, one of them. And so Grassroots Inc. was started some 17 years ago, over kitchen and dining room tables, by a handful of block association leaders and self-described community activists.

But what began with a plan to get more political and governmental attention focused on their troubles has evolved into a Democratic Party political powerhouse in western New York.

These days, Democrats running for statewide office in New York would be negligent -- foolish -- if they did not pay a visit to the leaders and foot soldiers of Grassroots Inc. Since it was founded in 1986, the organization has grown to include hundreds of members, among them three Buffalo City Council representatives, an assemblywoman and a state senator who is widely viewed as a leading candidate to become Buffalo's first black mayor. It has registered new voters and gotten them to the polls.

''I think they are one of the smartest, savviest political groups in the United States,'' said Senator Charles E. Schumer, who sought the support of Grassroots before his election in 1998. ''They know how to get things done and they have brought lots of young people into politics. They're a breath of fresh air.''

Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who met with Grassroots leaders in his campaigns last year and in 1998, said, ''I think that a candidate running in Buffalo or for statewide office would be remiss not to sit down with the leadership of Grassroots.''

The man acknowledged as the founder of the organization is Maurice Garner, who was then the executive director of a liberal advocacy group. He brought together four other leaders of block associations and community organizations.

''Our concept was to find a way to make change and to be more proactive in determining who the elected officials would be who represented our community,'' said Mr. Garner, who is now an administrator with a federally financed nonprofit community-action organization in Buffalo.

The political structure that existed was not working for them, he said. ''We found that the Democratic Party was making decisions about who our representatives should be,'' Mr. Garner said. ''They were chosen by the party bosses. And many of us considered it essentially to be a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. So, we decided to do something about it.''

Their formula was different from much of what had come before as an outlet for African-American frustrations. Unlike the National Action Network, which sprang up around the Rev. Al Sharpton, Grassroots made a point not to center on an individual, rotating its leadership every two or three years.

And unlike 1960's activism, which was about attacking the system, the Grassroots philosophy was -- and still is -- to penetrate it.

The group started by running block association leaders for the posts of state committee members, the bottom rung of the ladder of Democratic Party politics. Then those members moved to zone leaders, the next step up in the hierarchy.

A lowly start, but a strategic one.

''We found that when you control the infrastructure, when vacancies came up, you can help control the process of who gets placed into that office,'' Mr. Garner said. Once in office, the theory went, an official would have an easier time being elected to another office in a forthcoming race. Sometimes it worked in those early years, and sometimes it did not.

But by the mid-1990's, Grassroots had two of its members in the Buffalo City Council and others in the Erie County Legislature. In 2000, its candidate, Crystal D. Peoples, then the majority leader of the Erie County Legislature, nearly defeated Arthur O. Eve, who was then the deputy speaker of the State Assembly and the longest serving member of that legislative body.

Although Mr. Eve prevailed, the closeness of the race -- Ms. Peoples received 47 percent of the vote -- raised Grassroots's profile outside Buffalo. Mr. Eve, a founding member and a former chairman of the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus, was considered an icon in black politics in the state.

That same year, one of Grassroots's members, Byron W. Brown, a former City Council member, defeated an incumbent, Alfred T. Coppola, becoming the first black state senator from western New York or, for that matter, from outside the New York City area.

Mr. Brown's victory was significant for Grassroots for another reason. His Senate district is nearly 60 percent white, 34 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic and includes parts of Niagara County. For the first time, Grassroots's reach had exceeded Erie County.

Last year, Mr. Brown won re-election easily and Ms. Peoples was elected to the Assembly, succeeding Mr. Eve, who did not run for re-election.

Keith W. Reeves, a political science professor and director of the Center for Social and Policy Studies at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, said one of Grassroots's strengths was cultivating a new generation of community activists. ''They are giving these young activists a sense of purpose, and a sense that politics can be a positive thing,'' he said.

As they continue to grow their own, the pragmatists who took the 1960's theme of ''power to the people'' and meshed it with the very 1980's theme of ''work the system'' are continuing their press for political access.

''The obvious next step would be the mayor's office,'' said Clarence Lott Jr., the organization's president, who works as an aide to Senator Brown by day and often holds court at Grassroots's headquarters, a renovated storefront that was once a hardware store. ''I think for most people in Grassroots, that's the next goal.''

The candidate deemed by Grassroots members most likely to succeed is Senator Brown.

Mr. Brown said he was not ready to commit, politics being an ever-shifting playing field and 2005 feeling a light-year away. If he decides to run, he is likely to face the incumbent, Anthony M. Masiello, a fellow Democrat who said he was inclined to run for a fourth term.

Grassroots has not been able to achieve its political gains without some friction. The group leaves behind a trail of animosity, particularly in the wake of the race between Ms. Peoples and Mr. Eve.

''That race caused a lot of division within the community,'' James W. Pitts, the Buffalo City Council president, said. ''When you have a race against a person who has been in that office for that length of time, it creates tension.''

Mr. Pitts also said that some politicians here viewed Grassroots with suspicion. ''There have been accusations that they are not really representing the community, but their own agenda,'' Mr. Pitts said. ''But I'm not saying that's my view. In my political career, I've never attacked a community-based organization.''

For many in Buffalo, the central issue about Grassroots is whether the group's members, now elected to office, can do what the community leaders who founded it set out to do: change conditions on Buffalo's east side.

Members of the group say they have not had power long enough to be judged adequately. But, they said, change is still their goal, and so they meet regularly to discuss programs to encourage housing development in the inner city, the impending opening of a new supermarket, construction of a new library and the refurbishing of Martin Luther King Park, a once-proud landmark here.

They have their work cut out for them. Jefferson Avenue, the major commercial thoroughfare, has as many businesses shuttered as open. And some of the residential streets appear neglected.

''I hope that we will make a difference, or else it all will be for naught,'' Ms. Peoples said. ''We have spent years talking about the need for change. Now it's time for us to show people that we will make a difference.''

"These days, Democrats running for statewide office in New York would be negligent -- foolish -- if they did not pay a visit to the leaders and foot soldiers of Grassroots Inc."

''They are giving these young activists a sense of purpose, and a sense that politics can be a positive thing,''
Keith Reeves

''We have spent years talking about the need for change. Now it's time for us to show people that we will make a difference.''


Crystal Peoples-Stokes

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