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Choosing a mayor in a challenging time


For anyone who follows Rochester politics, there was little doubt that City Council President Lovely Warren would run for mayor. The only question was when.

Last week we found out: it's now.

And so we will have incumbent Tom Richards, a 69-year-old white male lawyer and former corporate executive, and Warren, a 35-year-old African-American woman lawyer, in a Democratic primary in September. The winner will likely face Green Party candidate Alex White and, possibly, a Republican candidate and others, in November.

It will be an important campaign. And if everybody resists the temptation to go negative, it could offer the city – and the metropolitan area – a chance to take stock of where we are, where we may be headed, and our options for the future.

Those options, frankly, are limited. And the challenges are enormous: persistent, concentrated poverty; an eroded manufacturing sector and tax base; an outdated structure that forces the city to rely heavily on property taxes to finance its services; and governmental barriers that keep poverty walled up inside the city.

Still, there are options. And it matters who leads the city.

Richards likely will campaign as a pragmatist, emphasizing the challenges we face; cautioning that there will be no grand projects, no magic solutions; and offering himself as an experienced manager who can keep the city stable in tough times.

And while in her kick-off press conference last week, Warren said that the city "needs a vision for the future," I don't expect her to promise miracles, either. She's been on City Council for almost six years and has been president for the last three, so she should know the city's challenges as well as Richards does.

One Warren theme will almost certainly be neighborhoods – particularly Rochester's poor neighborhoods and their residents. On City Council, Warren has been a dogged representative of the northeast inner city. And she pushed successfully for affordable housing in College Town on Mt. Hope.

In her press conference last week, she challenged an approach that the Richards administration has followed for neighborhood development. Called "focused investment," the policy directs financial resources to a few targeted neighborhoods rather than spreading them among all neighborhoods.

So this campaign could result in a serious discussion about a serious topic: how we invest the city's limited resources in a way that benefits everybody. How we balance the need to attract development with the need to lift the poor.

But there are also risks in this particular campaign between these two particular people. Everything Richards and Warren say from now on, as mayor and City Council president, will be viewed through the lens of the September election. And the campaign could impact the actions of City Council, which at least publicly, has been a fairly cohesive group and has been supportive of the mayor. Now the Council president is running against the mayor, and Council members are beginning to take sides: Adam McFadden is supporting Warren, and Carolee Conklin, Elaine Spaull, and Matt Haag are supporting Richards.

There is also the danger that the campaign will take on racial or class overtones. Rochester's recent political history includes the election of plenty of African Americans – a mayor among them – so Warren's candidacy itself doesn't inject race into the discussion. But the moment it looked likely that Warren would announce, I started hearing mutterings of concern that this would quickly become a race-based campaign, pitting the needs of black Rochesterians against those of whites.

Dissension is good. Primaries are healthy. An election campaign with racial or class overtones is an entirely different matter. I'm confident that neither Warren nor Richards wants that and that neither one will encourage or condone it. But some of their supporters might. That would cause serious damage to this community – to the city and its surrounding suburbs – that would last well beyond the tenure of either candidate as mayor.