This year's City Council Democratic primary is a high-stakes contest at a time when the city is evolving, for better or worse.
Downtown's redevelopment is continuing, but big decisions remain about Parcel 5 and a proposed performing arts center there. Some neighborhoods are thriving, while others are struggling. Too many of the city's residents are stuck in poverty, due to both invisible and physical barriers. And some employers struggle with finding qualified workers for jobs that have decent pay and don't require a college degree.
The city is changing, and it's time to bring new blood into its government and its politics. The City Council primary on September 12 provides an opportunity to do just that. (While the winners that day will still face several candidates in the November general election, Democrats are usually heavy favorites given the party's domination among the city's registered voters.)
City Council's five at-large seats will be on the ballot, two of which are wide open; incumbents Matt Haag and Carolee Conklin aren't running for reelection. And 13 Democrats are running. That's a lot of people, but it presents voters with a good problem: there are more qualified and exciting candidates than there are seats, and some of them are people who have fresh perspectives and aren't caught up in the party's internecine squabbles.
CITY is endorsing five candidates for City Council: newcomers Mitch Gruber, Matt Juda, and Mary Lupien, and veterans Jackie Ortiz and Loretta Scott.
These were not easy choices. Each of these five has unique experience, background, skills, and perspective that would be valuable on Council, but each choice meant knocking off another qualified, promising candidate.
Ortiz and Scott are experienced, effective councilmembers who are known for their responsiveness, their willingness to listen to people, and their grasp of key issues. The newcomers – Lupien, Juda, and Gruber – are a group of analytical thinkers, problem solvers, and organizers who demand a well-articulated vision of Rochester: what the city and the neighborhoods that make it up should or could be.
And while we assume that all five will be willing to work with the mayor and Council members who take office in January – regardless of who they are – Lupien and Gruber in particular aren't affiliated with either of the warring factions in the local Democratic Party. That independence will be valuable.
- PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER
- Mitch Gruber
Vacant lots can be a neighborhood scourge. At best, they go unmaintained and collect litter or debris. At worst, they darken the psyche of entire blocks or neighborhoods.
But Gruber says Rochester can look to Rust Belt cities such as Detroit and Cleveland, which have dealt with the same problem, for potential solutions. Those two cities, and others, have found creative uses for empty lots, including vegetable gardens or neighborhood play spaces, he says.
Urban agriculture can give people in stressed neighborhoods something to be proud of, and it can provide some economic benefits, Gruber says. But for it to develop in Rochester, City Council will need to revise some zoning laws. Gruber, who lives in the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood, wants those fixes and would take an active role in the process.
This is one of Gruber's biggest strengths: He has experience identifying practical solutions to practical problems and then putting them in place. That's what he's done as program director at Foodlink, where he launched the Curbside Market. The service has become an important tool for putting fresh produce in the hands of low-income people across the region.
Gruber also believes Council should play a role in helping build up neighborhood associations, which in turn will help strengthen city communities. His job takes him to neighborhoods across the city, and he regularly meets with neighborhood associations. He'd like to see more groups that resemble the Beechwood and 19th Ward associations: democratic, diverse groups that include owners, renters, and landlords, and that have solid bylaws.
He sees an opportunity for the city to bolster the various neighborhood associations by setting benchmarks. He proposes providing $1,000 or $2,000 capacity-building grants to associations that adopt a democratic structure and some key bylaws.
Gruber's interest in connecting city residents with middle-skills jobs or the training that will qualify them for the decent-paying positions is also valuable. The city operates and participates in several job-training initiatives.
- PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER
- Matt Juda
For more than 30 years, City Council has had an openly gay member. Candidate Matt Juda, who is gay, wants to make sure that legacy continues, and he sees some important actions that Council should take to protect LGBTQ rights in Rochester. Council should ban conversion therapy, he says, and it should pass legislation requiring any company that contracts with the city to provide its employees with health benefits that cover transition-related care, for example.
His focus on LGBTQ representation and issues, in fact, sometimes undersells what he has to offer Council as a whole. A teacher at Edison Career and Technical High School, Juda is a deep candidate who sees opportunity for the city and school district to work closer together to save money and offer better services to neighborhoods. For example, recreation programs, adult and senior education programs, or even health programs could be tied into school buildings.
He's a member and former executive board member of the Charlotte Community Association. He saw residents of his community fight with city officials about a hotel project at the Port of Rochester, and he says he sees similar friction coming out of the Cobbs Hill Village and Colgate Divinity School projects.
People don't want to stop development, he says, but they want projects that fit with their neighborhood. And he sees community-level planning – charrettes for neighborhoods, as an example – as a good start. If each community has a clearly stated vision, that will allow the city and developers to advance better projects, he says.
He'd like to see the city hold neighborhood charrettes before it puts out proposal requests for big projects.
Juda has the Monroe County Democratic Committee's designation.
- PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER
- Mary Lupien
Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign energized progressive Democrats across the country and served as a testament to the power of grassroots organizing. In many cases, the local committees that formed to support Sanders have continued on, post-election, to advocate for the same principles of economic fairness and social just that he did.
That is where Lupien comes from. She was a core member of Monroe County for Bernie Sanders, and is an active member of its successor group, ROCitizen, which has endorsed her.
Lupien, who lives in the Beechwood neighborhood, has a solid grasp of the issues facing the city and is realistic about what Council can actually do. As an organizer with the climate-action advocacy group Mothers Out Front, she’s reached out to Council members to advocate for community choice aggregation, CCA, in which the city could help secure renewable electricity for residents and small businesses to purchase.
Lupien and other CCA proponents say that the arrangement would lower the city's carbon footprint and would most likely lower electricity bills for residents and small businesses.
She also has a welcome focus on transportation and wants the city to develop and execute a more aggressive, more comprehensive plan for adding bike infrastructure such as lanes and racks. Council, she says, should be requiring developers to add things such as bike racks and trees, which would make biking and walking more attractive.
She wants the city to stop providing incentives to high-end residential developments. That's money that could instead be used to help small businesses or to invest in neighborhoods, she says.
The city needs to do a better job engaging with residents and neighborhoods, and it should be encouraging development that matches their wants and needs, she says.
- PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER
- Jackie Ortiz
As the only Latinx currently on City Council, Ortiz provides crucial representation for a growing community. If she's reelected, she'll be the only Latinx officeholder in city government – or in county government.
Ortiz has served on Council since 2010 so, like Scott, she brings experience to the job. And increasingly, she's been taking on an important task: she frequently asks Warren administration officials detailed questions about proposals, whether legislative or budgetary.
She also continues to push the city on vacant and abandoned properties. She advocated for a city-formed land bank, which can take properties under tax foreclosure to speed up their reuse. The Rochester land bank turns over some of the most promising properties to a non-profit that rehabs them and sells them to first-time low- to moderate-income buyers.
Recently, Ortiz appeared with Mayor Lovely Warren to announce legislation creating a citywide landlord registry. The idea is to make sure city staff can track down rental property owners if there's a problem with one of their buildings.
Ortiz, who lives in the Charlotte neighborhood, has the Monroe County Democratic Committee's designation.
- PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER
- Loretta Scott
Scott has been around City Hall for a long time. She spent 30 years working for the city, including a stint as its parks, recreation, and human services commissioner. She's served on Council since 2010 and has been its president since 2014.
Her experience is valuable to Council, and so is her leadership. She routinely works with Mayor Lovely Warren's administration – she's a Warren supporter and ally – to shape legislation and get policy passed. She has a solid grasp of Council procedure and the city's budget, which, though not terribly excting, is crucial.
Currently, she's leading Council through two police oversight-related matters. She sought and received her fellow Council members' approval to issue a subpoena to the city police department after a citizen filed a formal complaint about his treatment by officers. The city's charter allows the Council president to issue such a subpoena with approval from City Council.
She also worked with City Council member Adam McFadden to draft legislation initiating a review of the city's police oversight approach. The legislation passed, and the city has since hired the Center for Governmental Research to do an initial study of the existing system.
Scott has a reputation as someone who is accessible and who is receptive to people's comments and ideas. Her efforts on police accountability reflect that. So does legislation she drafted years ago – before she was president – to ban fracking and related activities in the City of Rochester. This all happened before New York officials banned fracking statewide, and her proposal passed Council.
Scott, who lives in the Browncroft neighborhood, has the Monroe County Democratic Committee's designation.
Some of the candidates CITY isn't endorsing are experienced, qualified, and would, in all likelihood, perform well on Council.
City school board member Malik Evans and incumbent Council member Dana Miller both have years of governing experience to their credit. And both are analytical thinkers. But voters have the chance to put some promising new talent into local government, and this year, and that makes the new candidates a stronger choice than these solid, experienced ones.
City firefighter Willie Joe Lightfoot spent 10 years on the County Legislature, so he also has a lot of valuable experience as a lawmaker. He's also a business owner and has done a lot of good in the neighborhood around his Jefferson Avenue barbershop and his Lightfoot Square development.
But toward the end of the party's designation process, he referred to Juda's sexual orientation as a lifestyle choice. Lightfoot apologized for the remarks, but they were troubling, especially considering that during his time as a legislator, Lightfoot declined to sign on to several referrals urging the state to pass marriage equality legislation.
Well-known local artist Shawn Dunwoody is making his first run for office. He's a big-picture thinker who wants more job and mentorship opportunities for city youth, better social connections between the different parts of the city, and a strong focus on entrepreneurship. But the other newcomers presented clearer approaches to the issues facing the city.
Tom Hasman and Dorian Hall, who are running as a slate, focus largely on neighborhood and development issues. Both have been extremely active in their own neighborhoods, Hasman in the ABC Streets Neighborhood in the southeast and Hall in the Plymouth-Exchange Neighborhood in the southwest. But they aren't as strong as the other candidates.
Ann Lewis has run for office several times now and hasn't surfaced as a viable or strong candidate in those campaigns. The same is true this time around.
And Marcus Williams, whose top issue is filling in the city's potholes, doesn't present as a serious candidate, although he is actively campaigning.