News & Opinion » Columns

Duffy’s strong words

Urban journal


During his campaign for mayor, Bob Duffy indulged in a good bit of happy talk. "Some choose to focus on our failures," he said when he announced his candidacy. "I choose to focus on our successes and build upon them for the future."

There was a bit of that during his inaugural address on Sunday, too. ("Our city's best days are ahead of us.") But this was no sugary speech, no mindless, partying-while-Rome-burns celebration. Duffy, for all of his fresh-faced optimism, laid out the city's problems in stark terms:

The highest poverty level in the state. "The only upstate city showing no signs of coming out of the recession." The highest job loss of any Upstate city. High crime rate. High school drop-out rate. A looming budget gap.

Duffy sprinkled his talk with phrases of hope and promises. But the speech was one of pragmatism. And it is the pragmatism, not the promises, that all of us need to embrace.

From the first day of his campaign, Duffy has focused on three issues: public safety, education, and economic development. And he has insisted that the three are, in his words, "inextricably linked." "You can not fix one without the others," he said on Sunday.

Duffy, like his predecessor, believes in that link absolutely. The question, however, is whether the public believes in it. The popular approach to rising crime is to put more cops on the street. Our police-chief-turned-mayor is looking in another direction. "Jobs," he said, "are the greatest way to fight poverty and crime." And: "the best deterrent to jail is a high-school diploma and a college degree."

Equally important is Duffy's insistence on the link between the city and the suburbs. The greatest mayor in the world can't solve the problems of crime, economic development, and education by himself. The greatest City Hall in the world --- the greatest police force, the greatest economic-development team --- can't solve those problems by itself.

Greater Rochester is being crippled by artificial city-suburban boundaries. There is no other way to put it. We don't have to obliterate the formal lines that define our neighborhoods, villages, and towns. But we do have to know when we need to act as a larger community.

Until then, we can't solve the problems facing all of us in public safety, education, and economic development. And there is no indication that we have taken even the smallest step in the right direction.

Duffy seems to want to lead in that area, but he can not lead by himself. The county executive and the leaders of the CountyLegislature will have to join him.

Duffy's inauguration offered a glimmer of hope. County Exec Maggie Brooks was sitting on the stage with other dignitaries, and early into his inaugural speech, Duffy noted that at Brooks' own inauguration, she had walked over and embraced Mayor Bill Johnson. It had been a touching move, popular with a public tired of the disagreements between Johnson and Brooks' predecessor, Jack Doyle.

On Sunday, Duffy thanked Brooks for her presence at the event, and then walked over and embraced her. She hugged him back, and the crowd stood and cheered.

Duffy said during his campaign that he was certain he could get along with Brooks. No doubt, he can. And Brooks gives every indication that she intends to have a cordial relationship with him.

But the county holds all the cards. It can help the city address its problems, or it can stand in the way. CountyLej leaders can join Duffy in preaching the message of one community --- or they can let him deliver it alone.

I'm not optimistic. For starters, there was Brooks' 2004 campaign for county executive, harshly anti-city and anti-regional-cooperation. If Brooks wants to go beyond an inaugural embrace and stand with Duffy to build one community, she could start by rising above partisan politics and renouncing the tactics of that campaign. And she could urge the Republicans in the CountyLegislature to recognize that some good ideas might come from Democratic legislators.

Instead, I'm afraid it'll be business as usual in the CountyOfficeBuilding, where no Democratic initiative ever, ever makes it to the floor of the legislature. As it happens, city residents are represented in the CountyLegislature by Democrats. City residents' voices, in other words, are shut out of county government.

On Monday, as the community was celebrating the coming of a new administration in Rochester, there was this ominous little insight in the Democrat and Chronicle. Reporter James Goodman, writing about new members of the CountyLegislature, interviewed new Democratic Lej leader Carla Polumbo, who said she hopes her caucus can get more cooperation from Republicans in the new year.

The response from Republican leader Bill Smith: not a chance. Smith, wrote Goodman, "feels under no obligation to make sure Democratic proposals reach the floor of the legislature." If Democrats want to get their views heard, Smith said, they should get themselves elected as a majority.

The minority, in other words, has no rights at all.

I know that Smith didn't mean it this way, but facts are facts: in shutting out Democratic legislators, the Republicans are shutting out most of the county's African-American and Latino residents.

That is the reality of the Republicans' actions.

That is the reality of the Community of Monroe. And unless that changes, Bob Duffy will end his first term with his biggest promises unfulfilled.