We still don't know whether Bill Johnson is going to run for county executive or fill out his term as mayor. But if he jumps ship, one thing is certain: City Councilmember Wade Norwood wants to be mayor. And he thinks he's got a decent shot.
"I will be a successful candidate for mayor in the event that Mayor Johnson becomes the next county executive," says Norwood.
While submitting to a battery of questions this past week on the state of the city, Norwood made official what many political observers have assumed for a long time.
Now serving his fourth term on City Council and working full-time as an aide to State Assemblyman David Gantt, Norwood's practically been raised on local and state politics. He's amassed nearly 20 years of political experience while growing up and living in Rochester.
"I have been instilled with a real sense of obligation to serve the public," he says, "and that's something I intend to do for the balance of my adult life."
Anyone who's worked with Norwood, or been within earshot of his excited laughter, knows he seems to operate on endless reserves of energy. When City caught up with him last week, he was neck-deep in state budget minutia. In his free time he's usually carting his two kids all around the county for their various commitments, reading up on the Buffalo Bills' off-season moves, or feeding his jones for science-fantasy novels.
But the really fun stuff, he says, is politics, legislation, dreaming up new ways to solving the city's myriad ills. Folks like Group 14621 Executive Director Joan Roby-Davison talk about coming away from meetings with Norwood feeling "inspired to keep working."
But behind the charismatic surface lies a pile of innovative approaches to the problems that dog the city, and ways to, as Norwood puts it, "deconstruct the silos in which we as a government operate and in which we engage the community."
To deal with poverty and vacant property in the "crescent" neighborhoods, Norwood stresses a need for city government to shift its focus to dealing with "the individual or personal side of what challenges neighborhoods."
He calls for "non-traditional resources" for dealing with urban problems. "It is quite simply the crisis of our time that city governments do not have the revenue needed to make the investments to deal with problems and deliver needed services."
And then there's metro. Political observers still wonder how much harm Mayor Johnson's very public push for a metropolitan form of government would do him if he were to run for county exec.
Norwood doesn't hide from the metro issue, because he feels that it's something the community will be forced to address, either pro-actively or as a reactive disaster plan. But it's the discussion itself, he says, that could use some retooling.
"We need to have a very clear dollar amount that we're able to say will be shifted off the backs of taxpayers if we're able to reduce, streamline, and normalize how local government operates," he says.
As a city councilmember working full-time for a state assemblyman, Norwood is situated at a unique legislative intersection. His vantage point, he says, allows him to see how "it really is state government that has the heaviest impact on the way we live our daily lives."
"When Genesee Hospital closed," he says, "there was a natural tendency to turn to the mayor and county executive to say, 'What will you do?' Because we are really not aware of the fact that it is state government, and state governmental processes, that impact and control hospital closings, not local government decision making."
"I've benefited from this unique ability to understand how state government actions impact the local community, to really represent local community concerns at the state level," he says. "To have the ability to say to David [Gantt] or members of the state legislature: 'Here's what's going on at the local level. Here's what we're doing in city government. Here's how we intersect with county government.'"
So, will it be Wade Norwood For Mayor in 2004? If Johnson decides to run for county executive, and if he wins, City Council would choose his replacement because he would be leaving his post before his term expires. The only requirement is that the mayor's replacement be from the same political party. Norwood, like all of the councilmembers, is a Democrat.
While Democratic Party chair Molly Clifford says the party hasn't done much digging for potential candidates for the next mayor, she sees Norwood as a "strong candidate." "But," she says, "it's a little premature, given the situation."
Whether or not it's premature will be decided within the next nine months, as candidates for county executive out themselves one by one.