Feisty Mayor No Stranger to Abortion Controversy : Welcoming Operation Rescue brought Buffalo official criticism, but he defends the right to demonstrate on either side of any issue.
When Buffalo Mayor James D. Griffin said the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue would be welcome to demonstrate in this western New York community, he set off a firestorm of controversy. Critics condemned him for , in effect, opening Buffalo to weeks of civic interruptions and disorder. A local poll showed most residents, regardless of their views on abortion, to be unhappy with his stance. But controversy is nothing new to Griffin, a feisty one-time mill worker and railroad engineer. As a state senator he led an ultimately unsuccessful movement in the early 1970s--before the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision--to repeal New York’s liberal abortion laws. A former Buffalo city councilman, he was the first mayor of the city to be elected on the Conservative ticket. Although still nominally a Democrat whose political idol is Harry S. Truman, he has supported Republican presidential candidates since 1984. Now 62 and serving a fourth term, Griffin spoke last week with Times national correspondent David Treadwell in the mayor’s second-floor City Hall office, where a portrait of Truman dominates the wall over the fireplace, just above a large, blue-and-white placard that reads: “Abortion Kills Children.”
Q: The big question, I suppose, is why did you invite Operation Rescue to come here?
A: Well, it wasn’t a formal invitation. That was done at a press conference that we had. A reporter asked me, “Is Operation Rescue welcome in Buffalo?” I said: “Sure they are. Bring them in. Anybody can come into our city.” I want to show people our city.
Q: But inviting Operation Rescue is not exactly like inviting tourists.
A: If you say stay out of the city, they’re going to come anyway. They didn’t come here because I said in a press conference that you’re welcome in Buffalo. They came here because they were going to come.
Q: And you said they would be treated “with compassion” here?
A: Sure they would, because that involves civil rights. Whether pro-life or anti-life--or pro-choice, whatever you want to call it--we have to make sure that when anyone comes into our city that they’re not going to be mistreated.
Q: But didn’t you think that you might be inviting certain disaster?
A: That’s why I said that they weren’t going to be mistreated. They did mistreat them in Atlanta and Los Angeles. In Wichita they didn’t. Wichita did a great job. Wichita had 2,600 arrests, but there wasn’t one lawsuit (invoking violation of) civil rights. And there was only one internal affairs investigation. Maybe if people had looked into what (the police) did to the pro-life people out there in Los Angeles, you wouldn’t have this incident that happened with this Mr. (Rodney) King and the four police officers.
Q: Nevertheless, this is a controversial stand, to say Operation Rescue would be welcome.
A: You say that, but we have three people running for President proclaiming pro-choice. You got (Arkansas Gov. Bill) Clinton and (former California Gov. Edmund G.) Brown in the march in Washington, D.C., for pro-choice. You’ve got (billionaire Ross) Perot for pro- choice. You’ve got the wife of the head of CNN (actress Jane Fonda , who is married to Ted Turner) who is going around yelling and screaming about pro-choice and staying out of her womb and all this other stuff. Ted Turner, he’s probably pro-choice; 80% of the media is pro- choice, as far as I’m concerned. So why not the mayor of Buffalo being pro-life?
Q: Your anti-abortion stance is not some sort of recent political conversion?
A: No, no . I’ve been that way all my life. It’s my religious teachings. And the economics of it. We have 1.6 million abortions a year in the United States. And you find, over history, any country that has all these abortions, it hurts them. Japan, I understand, they have to import workers to fill jobs.
Q: Are you willing to pay the costs, in terms of Medicaid and social welfare programs for children who are born to poor women who might otherwise seek abortion?
A: That’s the reasoning (of the pro-choice movement). But just think what we’re missing as a society by those kids not living. We might be missing one of the greatest scientists that could have lived, one of the greatest musicians that could have lived, one of the greatest athletes that ever came around. We have a “throwaway society,” and that’s a problem that’s going to haunt us in years to come.
Q: What do you think Operation Rescue has added, in general, to the whole national debate on abortion?
A: I don’t think they’ve added that much. They’ve sometimes been a negative factor because they don’t have the people who are bringing a positive message. And that’s what you need. I’ve found out in my political life--and I’ve been running since 1959--that people want to hear the positive.
Q: What instructions did you give the police before the protest started?
A: Number one, that excessive force by any employee of the Police Department against any individual engaged in nonviolent civil rights demonstrations is prohibited. And, number two, that all employees of the Buffalo Police Department shall enforce all state and local laws against physically barring entrance to or exit from a facility or location, which is the subject of such nonviolent civil rights demonstrations.
Q: Does state Atty. Gen. Robert Abrams have some legitimate concern that you might be too lax on the anti-abortion protesters?
A: I told him, first of all, he was posturing because he was running for U.S. Senate, but I also said my Administration will see to it that the law is enforced . . . and if arrests are necessary they will be carried out with the minimal degree of force. I also pointed out that to do otherwise would violate the civil rights of those arrested.
Q: What about Operation Rescue’s tactics--brandishing fetuses in people’s faces, running ads on television naming the names of abortionists and saying, “These doctors kill babies”?
A: But they (the doctors) do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an ad such as that.
Q: So you don’t have any problem with the tactics Operation Rescue uses?
A: Yeah, some of the tactics. But I saw Rev. (Robert) Schenck (a Buffalo area anti-abortion activist) the other night on national TV, and he was terrific, because he was doing it in a positive manner. You can show the 6-month-old, dead baby. People can see that. But when you’re shoving it in a person’s face, that’s the wrong tactic.
Q: If you were on the Supreme Court, how would you vote?
A: I would try to overturn (Roe vs. Wade) . . . . (One issue is) parental consent. One of our daughters couldn’t get her ears pierced unless she had our permission. On the other hand, they can get an abortion without telling their parents.
Q: What do you think the stance you’ve taken toward Operation Rescue’s coming here will do to your political fortunes in the next election, if you run?
A: I never worry about what people think of me. I’ve got people that wouldn’t vote for me if Christ came down and told them to vote for me.
Q: What do you think Operation Rescue’s presence here is doing to Buffalo’s image, though?
A: I’m glad you ask me that one. No one hurt us more than that over-the-hill comedian Johnny Carson, with the 1977 blizzard, with his wisecracks about the city of Buffalo. If people come into this city, they’ll find in these last six or seven years, our snowfall was below normal, and we’ve had great winters in the city.
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