Buffalo, N.Y., mayor's race becoming a battle of personalities. Challenger Arthur finds `nice guy' label may be an election hindrance

Buffalo Mayor James D. Griffin has been called ``western New York's Koch,'' because both he and New York City's unrestrained mayor, Edward I. Koch, are outspoken and feisty. And as election day nears, the two leaders of the state's two largest cities are both seeking a third term in office. But the comparison ends there.

In New York City, Mayor Koch is expected to be reelected handily, despite a field of six challengers. He won the Democratic primary in September with nearly 65 percent of the vote.

In Buffalo, Mayor Griffin -- a registered Democrat -- lost the September Democratic primary to City Council president George K. Arthur, a veteran politician who seeks to be the first black mayor of a major New York city. Now running as the Republican, Conservative, and right-to-life candidate, Griffin faces a much tougher battle than the one Mayor Koch is waging.

His style, too, seems to be the biggest issue in the campaign. ``The personality of the incumbent is genuinely an issue,'' says State Assemblyman William Hoyt, an Arthur supporter. ``Jimmy Griffin is overtaken with hubris.''

``He is `controversial' because he is outspoken,'' says Griffin supporter Ross D. Kenzie, chairman of Goldome Bank and president of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce. ``I have been quoted as saying I wish the mayor were more statesman-like -- and I do.''

But Griffin cheerfully admits that he does indeed alienate some people. ``That's my personality,'' he says. ``Gary Hart changed his name, his handwriting, and his age, but it didn't do him any good.''

Mr. Arthur, on the other hand, is seen as ``a nice guy'' by many in Buffalo. And in some ways, that is his biggest handicap. Polls show Griffin leading by nearly 10 points, with Liberal Party candidate Nicholas C. Costantino running a distant third. About 10 percent of the voters are undecided.

``Arthur is perceived as `sensitive, caring, sincere . . . a nice guy,' '' says media specialist Gerald M. Goldhaber, who has conducted polls on the race. But at the same time, a large percentage of people say they don't know enough about Arthur to really talk about either his strong or weak points.

``He is well known, but not known well,'' says Mr. Goldhaber. Griffin, on the other hand, is described by supporters as ``determined, strong, honest, and decisive.''

His opponents are far less charitable. But whether they like him or not, two-thirds of the people surveyed could talk at length about him.

Much of the business community supports Griffin, ``because he has delivered and because he is a known entity,'' says Mr. Kenzie. Buffalo has also made good progress under Griffin, he says, claiming the mayor is beholden to no one.

Arthur disputes this. He has, in fact, made much of Kenzie's support for Griffin, saying the mayor is more cozy with business and real estate leaders than with the people of Buffalo.

Arthur points to other issues. He says Griffin's squabbles with local and state politicians, including Gov. Mario Cuomo, indicate a lack of leadership. He faults the mayor for not looking into the long-term future of Buffalo. He also points to a feud between Griffin and the public school board.

``Buffalo on the surface appears to be doing good. But its people are not working,'' says Arthur. Still, opponents like Hoyt give Griffin credit for keeping tax increases minimal and financing downtown redevelopment, mostly through Urban Development Action Grants. Why is a new mayor needed?

``My feeling is that Griffin has become his own worst enemy,'' says Hoyt.

``This Corregidor mentality is going to reflect on the city in the next four years. . . . [The mayor] has become so defensive that a third term would be counterproductive.''

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