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The Richards factor 

Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson still won't say whether he'll be a candidate for County Executive in November, but he's giving every indication that he will. And while several other Democrats hope to run, the nomination seems to be Johnson's if he wants it.

                  Meanwhile, the political community is awash in reports that Tom Richards, former CEO of RG&E, has gotten interested in the job.

                  For months, some Democrats and Republicans have urged Richards to run, but he seemed to resist. Now, though, he's non-committal. In his Monday "Political Notebook," WXXI's Michael Caputo said he asked Richards if he was interested in running. Richards' response: "I really don't have a comment. Whatever I say can get me in trouble."

                  Maybe this is just a set-up, to keep the Republicans off guard. But if Richards is interested, the Democrats --- and Johnson's supporters --- may have a dilemma.

                  The Democrats ought to be able to win the county-exec race. The Doyle administration's record is abysmal. Doyle and his crew have run roughshod over public opinion and have manipulated and obstructed important public projects. The county faces a fiscal crisis that will take years (and considerable pain) to remedy. While the crisis is not solely Doyle's fault, it is clear that better management could have lessened the pain.

                  And there are numerous instances of major Republican contributors getting lucrative county contracts. That creates the impression that Doyle bases his decisions not on the needs of the community but on the needs of his party's finances.

                  Doyle isn't seeking another term, but that's beside the point. The problem is not just Doyle. The problem is Republican chair Steve Minarik and other party leaders: their principles and vision. Many longtime Republicans are as upset with the Minarik regime as the most ardent Democrats are.

                  The Minarik stranglehold on the county and on his party has to be broken. That will happen only if a Democrat is elected county executive, with such a margin that conscientious Republicans can regain control of their party.

The question is, which Democrat has the best chance of winning?

                  Brighton Town Supervisor Sandra Frankel and State Assemblymember David Koon want to run. They don't have Johnson's countywide name recognition and his clout, however. Until recently, he has seemed the Democrats' best bet. But now there are these reports about Tom Richards.

                  Richards and Johnson aren't strangers. And they met recently to discuss the county-executive race. Maybe they've reached an agreement about which of them will run.

                  Or maybe Richards' supporters have persuaded him to run --- but the mayor has moved from reluctant candidate to enthusiastic, regardless of what Richards and his supporters want. And Richards likely has no intention of running if the mayor wants the job.

And there's the dilemma. Who is the best candidate? And who would be best for the county as county executive?

                  Johnson is widely respected, and he has a solid vision of where the county --- and the region --- should go.

                  He himself, however, has raised the question of whether he can be elected --- both because of his race, and because of his vision. He has insisted repeatedly that the county and all of its parts should consider some form of metropolitan government.

                  He has offered no proposal; he has simply said that we have to start talking about metro. But the Republicans will hang the metro issue around his neck. They will run a well-financed, negative, scare-tactic campaign, warning that this African-American mayor intends to take over the county, bring black and Latino children to suburban schools, and dump the problems of the city into the laps of the suburbs.

                  If Johnson is able to counter that campaign and get elected, a fair number of Republicans in the County Legislature --- and, doubtless, some Democrats as well --- will do everything they can to obstruct his programs.

                  Richards, in that light, may seem the better candidate. He is highly respected in the business community. He should be able to attract campaign donations in his own right; and an endorsement by Johnson would bring more support. (A Johnson endorsement would also counter a Richards handicap: Richards isn't as well known as Johnson in the city, by African-American voters, among others.)

                  The Minarik machine might have fun slinging mud at Johnson. It's hard to picture that happening with a Richards candidacy.

                  And if the Democrats don't have to counter the metro argument, it leaves them free to focus on the Doyle record.

                  In addition, Richards might find it easier to build coalitions with Republicans on the County Legislature --- to strengthen the independence of legislators like George Wiedemer and Ray Santirocco and entice some Democrats into a bipartisan effort at governing.

                  On the other hand, Richards has no political experience. His business background would be valuable. But he would be operating in a political environment, needing to make tough choices and build support from contentious, highly political legislators. He might not have the stomach and the political smarts to be effective. And the public has no idea what his vision is for the county.

                  The Democrats' decision may already have been made. Still, the party has an opportunity it hasn't had in recent county-executive races: a strong chance at winning. And Democrats have something else they haven't had in years: strong candidates. That forces them into the difficult position of fortune-teller: Is their best bet the highly visible, experienced Johnson? Or is there the possibility for a dream team: Richards as county exec, and Johnson in charge at City Hall?

                  Want to comment? Write or The Mail, City Newspaper, 250 North Goodman Street, Rochester 14607. Please include your name, address, and daytime phone number.

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