This year's mayoral election could be a turning point for Rochester. Like many other cities, this one faces serious, escalating problems and shrinking resources. And the candidates for mayor – incumbent Tom Richards, City Council President Lovely Warren, and Green Party candidate Alex White – offer different paths to Rochester's future.
Richards and Warren compete in a Democratic primary on September 10, and the winner of that contest will face White in the November general election. And given the lopsided Democratic registration in the city, the winner of next month's primary will be a heavy favorite.
The two Democrats offer voters a particularly clear choice, not because Richards is an older white man and Warren is a young black woman but because they have a different approach to governing the city. Richards isn't talking about new directions or major new initiatives. Warren is.
Unquestionably, both Richards and Warren have a deep love of the city and a commitment to it. Both have the same goal: a vibrant, financially healthy city in which all residents have attractive, safe neighborhoods, the opportunity for good jobs, and successful schools for their children.
The differences in how they would lead the city toward those goals, plus Richards' experience, knowledge, and pragmatism, lead us to endorse Richards.
A City Council member for nearly six years and president for nearly four, Warren is knowledgeable, determined, and confident. As the representative of the northeast Council district, she serves some of the city's poorest neighborhoods – areas with high unemployment, high crime rates, and tragically low student achievement. She is fiercely passionate about the needs of the residents of those neighborhoods, and about the city's responsibility to address them.
And she has done more than talk about them. On Council, she has pushed for affordable housing and for employment opportunities for minority city residents, and she personally went to inner-city churches to recruit minority residents for the fire department.
During this campaign, she has been both eloquent and charismatic, speaking movingly about the reality that there are two Rochesters: the Rochester of tech start-ups, trendy restaurants, and safe, thriving neighborhoods, and the Rochester in which tens of thousands of poor people live, with frequent violence, street-corner drug trades, little hope of a job, and dead-end education.
We have no doubt that as mayor, Warren would be a forceful advocate for initiatives she believes will improve the lives and the future of all Rochesterians. (Readers can study her recommendations on her website, lovelyformayor.com; read excerpts of an interview with Warren elsewhere in this issue, and see video excerpts on our website.)
Warren has proposed some innovative initiatives to reduce unemployment among minority residents, including the use of social impact bonds, which get private investment to help fund expensive social-service initiatives.
We're concerned, though, that Warren is naïve about the cost and feasibility of some of her proposed initiatives, and about the potential effect of some of the others. Many of them would rely on grants, an uncertain and short-term funding source.
Warren says the Richards administration has focused too strongly on attracting and building large businesses, that small businesses can be a key to Rochester's future, and that she could do more to attract and help them. But she seems to underestimate the obstacles to success in small business and in creating new entrepreneurs.
She wants to create a Rochester Industrial Development Agency to let the city require that a percentage of publicly funded construction jobs go to minority city residents. But we think Richards is right when he worries that a separate city IDA could lead to increased competition between the city and its suburbs when what we need is more regional economic-development efforts.
Warren wants city government to become heavily involved in education, helping the school district recruit teachers, for instance. She wants city government to recruit charter-school operators, and she wants to provide hiring bonuses to attract excellent new teachers not only at traditional public schools but also at charter schools. This kind of support could further weaken traditional public schools, hurting the neediest, most vulnerable inner-city children.
In the areas of both employment and education, Warren is eloquent when she talks about Rochester's problems. She is less strong when it comes to having realistic ways to attack them.
Equally significant, Warren has less experience than Richards in key areas such as finance and management – essential for a mayor in a city with Rochester's challenges.
A former corporate executive turned public servant and government administrator, Richards is knowledgeable; experienced in business, law, and government; realistic; thoughtful, and deeply honorable. And he is a pragmatic government official with a strong progressive streak.
He has guided the city as it copes with a declining tax base, keeping costs under control while he tries to protect government services and encourage business and residential development. He has worked hard to preserve city services such as recreation centers and neighborhood libraries, insisting that when cities let financial pressure force them to nibble away at key quality-of-life amenities, they contribute to their own demise.
While government officials in some parts of the country blame public employees for financial problems, Richards has worked with employee groups to find ways to reduce labor costs rather than threatening them or trying to slash salaries and benefits.
Richards has been less adventurous than the two previous mayors (Johnson on the ferry, Duffy on mayoral control). We have seen no big-idea announcements from him. But his knowledge and no-nonsense pragmatism have helped build confidence among developers, and we have seen steady, step-at-a-time business investment: individual companies moving downtown from the suburbs, new restaurants opening in neighborhoods, new apartments and condominiums, the completion of another stage of Midtown Plaza's replacement, the beginning of work on College Town.
He has worked with labor unions and contractors to create a Project Labor Agreement to provide job training, union membership, and jobs for city residents on public construction projects like Midtown and the school district's buildings modernization program.
Richards understands fully the complex roots of urban education's problems, and he has become a supportive partner for the school district, a change from the open criticism of former Mayor Duffy. And while he doesn't oppose charter schools, he says that given the instability the school district has experienced, City Hall needs to support the district and its superintendent and to do what is within the mayor's power to help the district help its children. And so, rather than propose assistance for charter schools, as Warren is doing, Richards is focused on aligning the operation of the city's recreation centers with that of the school district to support the district's longer-day initiative.
These are all nuts-and-bolts, administrative points. Layered over them, for us, is Richards himself: a dedicated, no-nonsense but deeply humanitarian person who speaks of his job as mayor as "a calling," a term that implies something far beyond an ordinary career or a political plum.
This was not a second career that he had planned on. Comfortably retired from the presidency of RG&E and RGS Energy Group, he could have spent the rest of his life doing something far less stressful. But when Bob Duffy won his first term as mayor, Richards was persuaded to serve as the city's corporation counsel. He served there so effectively that when Duffy resigned abruptly during his second term to join the Cuomo administration, Richards filled in as deputy mayor, then ran for mayor in a special election and won. And now, apparently as happy in politics as New York's Michael Bloomberg is, he is running for his first full term.
These are challenging times for Rochester: for its neighborhoods, its downtown, its business and industrial base, its finances, its schools. Richards has been a strong, effective leader. He was the right person at the right time when he filled in for Bob Duffy two years ago, and he is absolutely the right person now.