It is an important election year in the City of Rochester. Bill Johnson is retiring after 12 years as mayor. Three important long-time City Councilmembers will be leaving. Rochester, despite its deep, unique resources, is facing enormous challenges: job loss, tax-base erosion, the flight of well-educated young people, a federal government that is ignoring the needs of cities, continuing suburban sprawl, and a staggering concentration of poverty.
Despite those challenges, Rochester has made significant strides under Johnson and his predecessor, the late Tom Ryan. City Hall has a record of fiscal responsibility and professionalism. Basic city services are delivered competently. And despite the sprawl, Rochester is by no means a dying city. Property values in some neighborhoods are increasing. Market-rate housing is growing downtown. Arts institutions and museums continue to be crucial components of the city's economy and quality of life. There are outstanding examples of excellence in the Rochester school district. Downtown's East End district is thick with people on weekend nights.
The potential is there. But so is the danger. If we do not take the right steps in the next few years, if we do not move aggressively in the right directions, Rochester could become a dying city.
Can we attract new business? Can we make significant strides in providing education, job training, and jobs for our poorest neighbors? Can we be a community that attracts, rather than repels, bright young adults?
Rochester has the potential. We will need a mayor of unique talent and ability to tap it. Among the Democrats running in their party's September 13 primary, we believe that person is Wade Norwood.
For the editorial staff at this newspaper, this has been a difficult decision. Four Democrats are competing in the primary. (Attorney John Parrinello is the Republican candidate in the November general election.) Newcomer Chris Maj, as we have noted previously, has neither the experience nor the understanding of government that qualifies him to serve. But each of the other Democrats --- Norwood, former Police Chief Bob Duffy, and City Councilmember Tim Mains --- is more than just competent.
Each is a passionate person, intensely committed to the city. Each has great professional and personal strengths. Each would do a good job as mayor. If one of them is elected in the November election, Rochester will be in good hands, and the staff at this newspaper will not be disappointed, regardless of the outcome of the primary.
But Norwood's exceptional combination of skills and talent earned our endorsement.
Norwood is bright, charismatic, and personable. After 15 years on City Council, he knows Rochester well. He knows its attributes. And he knows not only its problems but their complexity. He has specific ideas about what needs to be done to address them.
He is a consensus builder.
He has a clear vision of what City Hall should be, and what it could be if he were mayor. He has true leadership qualities. And he is a great salesman.
The importance of sales ability can not be dismissed. Rochester's next mayor must be able to rally its citizens. He must build trust and conviction among suburban residents and their elected officials. He must convince county leaders that the health of the city is indeed in their best interest --- that county assistance now, for example, means lower county expenses and greater job growth in the future.
Of all the candidates, Norwood best addressed those needs in his conversations with us.
Norwood does not have the name recognition that Duffy generated as police chief. In large part, that's because of Rochester's strong-mayor form of government, and the way City Council has worked under it. The mayor initiates much of what City Council considers. The mayor, not individual City Councilmembers, gets the television and newspaper exposure --- as does the police chief, of course.
Norwood does have a record of accomplishment on City Council, including helping insure that Hickey Freeman stayed in Rochester. It is no small thing that nearly every member of City Council is supporting his campaign for mayor.
Finally, we gave great weight to Norwood's experience in politics, particularly his experience in state government as special assistant to Assemblymember David Gantt. It's popular to denigrate politicians, and to consider lack of political experience and connections as a plus. That's a serious mistake. The mayor's job is a political job. A successful mayor must be able to chart the city's way through some pretty treacherous waters politically.
We are particularly concerned about Rochester's fiscal condition. Unquestionably, the city must find ways to grow its tax base. But that won't happen overnight, and recent Kodak announcements make it clear that the erosion will continue. Rochester must get a fair share of state aid, which it has not been able to do recently. Norwood's knowledge of Albany and his connections there give us hope that he could change that.
That said, we have two serious concerns about Norwood. The first: He has conducted a disappointing, harsh, personal, misleading, and needlessly negative campaign against Bob Duffy. He has mercilessly criticized Duffy's reorganization of the police department, when Norwood himself voted in favor of it. Norwood might just as well blame City Council for approving the plan as blame Duffy for implementing it.
Norwood has also blamed Duffy for Rochester's crime rate. Norwood knows that crime in Rochester --- including murder --- is substantially lower than it was in the early 1990s. And he knows that while there are things a police department can do, poverty, joblessness, and drugs are the driving forces, not the police chief.
That kind of campaign is more than unfair to a talented former police chief. It spreads the impression, in Rochester's suburbs and beyond, of a city in which no one would want to live or invest.
Finally, Norwood has criticized Duffy for sending his daughter to parochial school (called "a private school in Brighton" in the Norwood ads). Parents make school choices for many reasons. A strong religious commitment and family tradition is not something to be mocked.
We were disturbed and saddened by Norwood's campaign tactics. They are completely out of character, and make us worry about what they represent. The campaign made us question his judgment, and it very nearly cost him our endorsement. More important, we're confident that it will cost him votes.
Our second concern: His proposal to have the school superintendent report to the mayor. This is a seductive idea, and Norwood makes the most emotionally convincing argument for it that we've heard. But it's not who the superintendent reports to that's causing Rochester's poorest children to do so poorly in school. It's Rochester's high concentration of poverty. Having the superintendent report to the mayor won't change that.
The next mayor will have more than enough to do to manage City Hall. Working for a structural change in the school district would sap the mayor's time and energy and accomplish nothing. Rochester would be better served by having the mayor drum up support for Superintendent Manny Rivera's Children's Zone proposal.
The brightest candidate in this campaign is unquestionably Tim Mains. He has demonstrated sharp scrutiny and analysis in his 20 years on City Council. He has a firm grasp of city and regional issues --- and, most importantly, their complexity. He, more than the other candidates, focuses on one of the principal root causes of Rochester's problems: concentrated poverty.
As a long-time educator and now principal of Rochester's School 50, he has the clearest understanding of the Rochester school district and student achievement problems.
Mains does more than analyze, though. He looks for solutions. He comes up with creative ideas. We'd bet that if Mains isn't elected mayor, the winner will pursue his Pioneer Tax Credit plan, which would give tax relief to commercial property owners for substantial investment in their property.
Mains has a strong, clear, sophisticated vision, and he does the best job of all the candidates in expressing that vision.
He shaped and expanded the Greece School District's Teaching and Learning Center, and in his job at School 50, he seems to be a thoughtful, popular, effective principal. He has had to make tough management decisions, good experience for running any operation. He knows and understands the city budget better than anyone else on City Council.
He is energetic almost to a fault, an absolutely tireless worker.
Our principal concern about Mains: How effective he would be as mayor. Ideas are important, but mayors must sell them. Mains doesn't seem to have been able to sell other City Councilmembers on many of his ideas. He has sometimes been an outsider. That's been a valuable attribute on City Council, but it could be a handicap in trying to lead the city, where getting consensus among other elected officials will be critical.
We worry that he would have a tough time building consensus among Rochester's divided state delegation, something that will be essential if Rochester is to keep its finances stable, and move forward.
Rochester's former police chief has the highest name recognition of any of the candidates. And that name recognition is a positive one. That speaks volumes about his record as police chief, and about his character.
He has served a diverse population, and he is extremely popular. Tall, imposing, and intensely likeable, he has an almost rock-star quality. That popularity will be important to Rochester if he is elected mayor. He may not be the salesman that Wade Norwood is, but his popularity gives him clout.
He was a good manager of the Rochester Police Department, dedicated and creative, bringing a raft of innovative programs to address the city's serious crime problem. He is not afraid to make unpopular decisions and to ride out the criticism.
He showed the depth of his toughness and his character in 1990 when, as a young lieutenant, he was tapped to investigate civil-rights violations by Rochester police officers. The chief of police had been arrested for embezzlement, and several officers were accused of police brutality --- including throwing suspects down the stairs and forcing their heads into toilets. This was a traumatic time for Rochester and for police officers. Duffy was harshly criticized by the police union; he stood up to that criticism, writing an eloquent op-ed piece in the Democrat and Chronicle opposing excessive use of force by police.
Since that period, there has been no love lost between the union and Duffy. Despite that, Duffy was able to build a strong record as police chief.
He continued his predecessor's efforts in wresting some control from the police union, gaining more flexibility in assigning officers and in putting more police on the streets. He has searched out and promoted men and women of color.
During one terrible year of his tenure as chief, four African-American men died while in police custody. Duffy's calm, his actions, and his reputation helped keep the city from exploding. While he certainly has critics in the black community, he is extremely popular in much of it.
He clearly understands Rochester, and repeatedly notes that education, economic development, and public safety are "inextricably linked." And clearly, he has a good understanding of city government, though not at the level of Mains and Norwood. Our concerns:
His lack of political experience could hurt him, or at the least, slow his progress. Just as seriously, he is far less substantive than Mains and Norwood when he discusses the issues. He often says he'll appoint "leadership councils" or "impact teams" to address Rochester's problems. Study is important, as is collaboration. But we are worried about Duffy's lack of specifics and lack of heft, of substance, in his discussions with us. That combined with his lack of political experience make him a slightly weaker candidate to us.
The September 13 primary will be decided, of course, by voters, not by newspaper endorsements. If you're a registered Rochester Democrat, we urge you to do what we did. Make a list of the things you hope will change in Rochester. Study what the candidates have to say about those issues. Read the newspaper coverage of the campaign. (Our extensive interviews with the candidates are available --- free --- on our website, www.rochester-citynews.com; click the Elections 2005 tab). Watch the televised debates. Attend community forums.
Then get to the polls on September 13.