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Campaign opener: scenes from the forum


It was a pretty typical election-campaign event, but the size of the audience was anything but typical. People packed City Hall's spacious Council Chambers March 8 to hear three candidates for Rochester mayor --- and one possible candidate --- discuss campaign issues. There were people sitting on the floor, people standing several deep at the back of the room, several deep in the hallway, craning their necks and straining to hear. Undoubtedly, some were committed supporters of the candidates, but certainly not all.

            Participants in the event were Democratic candidates Bob Duffy, Tim Mains, and Wade Norwood, and Republican John Parrinello, an attorney who says he's considering running but hasn't yet declared. County Legislator Chris Wilmot, a Democrat-turned-Republican who's also thinking about running, was attending a legislature meeting.

            There was little disagreement on the issues. That is to say, all four agreed that the city needs economic development, safe streets, and good schools. How the city gets those things is another matter, and none of the candidates shed much light on that.

            All four said that Rochester has a bright future ahead, and that they'll work hard to help the city reach it. All said Rochester has great resources, and as mayor, they'll help the community tap them. They're all glad to see that County Exec Maggie Brooks and Mayor Bill Johnson get alone so well, and they all promised that they, too, will cooperate with other levels of government.

The specifics: All four are eloquent, passionate speakers, and each can be funny when the occasion arises. So what exactly did they say?

            Norwood noted that Johnson's State of the City address earlier this month laid out the problems the next mayor will face, and he called the speech "a brilliant discussion of what we have to do."

            Duffy said the city has an image problem, and, he said, "much of it is self-inflicted." "We're also fighting a population problem," he said. Rochester has to find a way to get to the thousands of students who graduate from area colleges and universities each year and get them interested in living here, he said.

            Parrinello noted the thaw in the relationship between the Democratic city administration and the Republican county administration and suggested that things would be even better with a Republican mayor.

            Parrinello drew derisive laughs from the crowd when he complained that Rochester has one-party rule, with a Democratic mayor and a completely Democratic City Council, and coupled that complaint with the following:

            "We have a Republican county executive. We have a Republican governor. We have a Republican president. We need a Republican mayor."

            "Stagnation," he said, with a straight face, "is one-party rule."

            Norwood talked about the importance of Rochester's culture and the arts and linked them to economic-growth potential. "Culture and the arts," he said, "equal jobs."

            Duffy noted that Rochester got a $250 million benefit last year from tourism and said the city needs to "think big and think bold."

            Mains, as he has previously, cautioned against placing too much hope solely on large projects. "This city," he said, "has adopted a 'project' mentality.'" Projects like the ferry and the soccer stadium may be fine, he said, but there must be a larger vision into which they fit.

Schools and the city: There was a sliver of difference on the issue of city funding for the city school district. Mains, who is a city school principal, said schools must have sufficient resources to succeed, and that the mayor and City Council "must make sure that they have those resources." And, he said, the mayor must be an advocate for the schools.

            Norwood, who supported last year's cut in city funds for the school district, said extra money will have to come from the state. City government will never be able to be a primary funder of the schools, he said; it can barely pay for the essential services it has to provide. The city, said Norwood, must make sure that it can afford to pay for services that children and their families need outside of the schools.

            Duffy didn't mention funding, but he did voice strong support of the school district, as he had when he announced his candidacy earlier in the month. He noted the close correlation between crime and lack of a high school education, and he said the city should be "full partners" with the school district.

            Parrinello, in attack mode, criticized the Johnson administration, charging, among other things, that Johnson had run former Superintendent Clifford Janey out of Rochester. (Johnson was a critic of both Janey and of the school board for what he said was a too-expensive buy-out of Janey's contract.)

            "The mayor and City Council should keep their hands and their noses out of city school district business," he said.

Balancing acts: There was also a bit of difference about balancing the needs of downtown with those of city neighborhoods. Most of the candidates said the city needs to pay attention to both; the city, said Mains, doesn't have to choose between the two. But Parrinello said he would give neighborhoods a higher priority.

            Curiously, Parrinello launched into an attack on the Johnson administration that was based on an erroneous assumption. The questioner who raised the issue of the downtown-neighborhood balance said the city has faced "a deficit budget" several years. The real question, said Parrinello, is: "Why do we have a $20 million deficit for the third year in a row? We should be a balanced-budget city. Somebody is not watching. Somebody is not taking care."

            As a former City Councilmember, Parrinello no doubt knows that Rochester is prohibited by law from passing an unbalanced budget. With expenses rising and the city's tax base declining, the Johnson administration has faced major fiscal problems. It balanced its budget by cutting services and by securing additional state aid.

            "The city administration has never presented a deficit budget," noted Norwood.

Casino? Yes. The forum brought one small surprise: All four candidates are at least open to the possibility of a casino for downtown Rochester, and two of them --- Norwood and Parrinello --- support the idea.

            "I am not convinced that Main Street is the right place," said Norwood, and he said he's concerned about the possibility of a sovereign nation --- one of New York's Indian tribes ---owning property downtown, with the restrictions it could place on city government. But, he said, "I do believe we have to learn how to say goodbye to the old way of doing business."

            Parrinello said the casino should be in MidtownPlaza, with Sibley's developed into "a high-end hotel." "That block," he said, "is a natural place to put the casino." Concerns about involvement by a sovereign nation are overstated, he said, since the city would negotiate the terms of the casino's operation, including how much revenue the city would receive.

            Duffy said he needs more information before deciding. "I would have to listen," he said, adding, "there are social costs, but also great economic-development benefits."

            Mains said he's not against a casino, but said it should fit into a broader economic-development plan. And, he said, "it's not a decision the mayor should make; it's a decision that the community should make."

            The candidates might want to read carefully the study that the Center for Governmental Research did for developer Tom Wilmot when he proposed a casino for the Midtown-Sibley's area. The casino itself might be successful, CGR said, although the region is becoming saturated with casinos. And, said CGR, restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, and other businesses located in the casino complex would be successful. But they would probably simply displace those dollars: They would draw business from nearby restaurants and entertainment venues and could lower property values in the area.

            And, said CGR, while a hotel opposite the casino could prosper, it's highly likely that it would draw business away from other downtown hotels, increasing their vacancy rates and reducing the county's hotel and motel tax receipts.

Personality. Issues alone, saidWXXI's Michael Caputo in a recent column, won't help voters decide who to support in this campaign. As last week's forum proved, Caputo's right. The candidates will probably say pretty much the same thing, perhaps in a slightly different way. They all know that the city's fiscal constraints severely limit what a mayor can do.

            What voters will have to decide is who'll be able to do the best job, given those constraints. Who'll best be able to make tough decisions? Who'll best be able to inspire commitment from developers? Who'll best be able to build coalitions between the city and its suburbs?

            The decision, said Caputo, turns on "personality," and he didn't mean charm and charisma. Personality, he said, means "leadership qualities --- their intellect and ability to adapt, their skills at mediation and their backbone."

            That may be hard to sort out. It'll certainly be impossible to determine leadership qualities from television ads or from direct-mail pieces. For a conscientious voter, this will be a campaign demanding research, and attendance at forums like last week's.

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