Both Democrats and Republicans in Monroe County have offices on the ballot in the September primary elections – which are on a Thursday this year, because of the Jewish holiday. But the vast majority are in the Democratic Party, for elected positions affecting residents of the City of Rochester.
In New York, voters have to be registered in a particular party in order to vote in that party's primary. And for this year's primary, it's too late to register: the deadline for in-person registration was August 14; for mail-in, August 15.
Our endorsements in some key races follow. Next week: profiles of many of the candidates.
Rochester school board
Any year in the Rochester school district is a critical year. Multiple challenges in the city's high-poverty schools have resulted in decades of low student achievement. That is a tragedy for the children and their families. And it is a tragedy for the metropolitan area, which could benefit immensely if Rochester students' potential were realized.
Next year will be a particularly important one for the district, however. The school board members who take office in January will have to make one of the most important decisions any board makes: who will lead the district as superintendent. Superintendent Bolgen Vargas's contract expires in June 2016, and given the disagreements between him and the board, his future in the district isn't guaranteed. One of the first things the board will do in the new year will be grappling with that issue.
The people of the Rochester school district – the superintendent and other administrators, the staff, and the school board – have been the target of public hostility and distrust for years, often unfairly, for matters well beyond their control. That's certainly been the case for the current board. But this is a particularly strong board, and while there continue to be divisions – including over the issue of the superintendent's future – the board has worked well together, despite strong personalities and diverse opinions.
We are concerned about the board's tendency to get involved in matters that clearly should be handled by the superintendent – insisting on being able to oversee some of his senior administrators, for instance. That will continue to cause conflict with the current superintendent and his staff, and if Vargas's contract isn't renewed, the conflict and the perception that board members want to micromanage will hurt their ability to attract a strong, competent person.
That said, Rochester is fortunate to have this many smart people willing to take on what is often a thankless, extremely difficult public-service job.
Three of the four incumbents whose terms expire this year are seeking re-election: Mary Adams, Malik Evans, and Willa Powell. We are endorsing all three, plus newcomer Liz Hallmark. All four are exceptionally capable Rochesterians.
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- Mary Adams
Mary Adams is completing her first four-year term on the school board. A research nurse in the Aids Clinic at the University of Rochester Medical Center, the detail-oriented Adams chairs the school board's audit committee. She is knowledgeable about the challenges facing disadvantaged Rochesterians and is deeply empathetic, and she is heavily involved in the community outside of her career and board responsibilities.
- MARK CHAMBERLIN
- Malik Evans
Malik Evans, who is completing his third term on the board, is an experienced, likable board member who was board president from 2008 through 2013. He has a broad knowledge of the school district, urban education, and the city, and, like Adams, he is heavily involved in community work, serving on key boards and initiatives. Elected in 2003 as the youngest board member in the district's history, Evans has become not only an eloquent spokesperson for the district and its students' needs but also a seasoned, effective politician.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Liz Hallmark
Liz Hallmark ran unsuccessfully for school board in 2013, and there is a noticeable difference in maturity as a candidate now. She has used those two years diligently to understand the school district, the needs of students and teachers, and the board's role. She has the potential to be a strong, knowledgeable board member at an important time.
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- Willa Powell
Willa Powell is the only one of the three incumbents seeking re-election who was not endorsed by her party, and she can be off-putting, a bit school-marmish in temperament. But she has incredible strengths, which you're apt to see more in one-on-one discussions. She is a director of the "Big 5" conference of school boards, which represents most of the state's largest urban districts. She is knowledgeable not only about the challenges of the Rochester district but also about state education issues and the state's relationship to urban school boards and school district governance.
As for the candidates we're not endorsing: All four are people who want to try to improve the lives of Rochester's children. But none have the strengths that Adams, Evans, Hallmark, and Powell have.
As we do every school board election, we pass over Howard Eagle with great regret. Few people interested in urban education issues could match his understanding of the needs of black American students – or his dedication to meeting those needs and his advocacy on behalf of those students. That advocacy has included concrete action, not just words.
One on one, Eagle is an eloquent advocate. And we join him in his anger, at systemic racism and governmental inaction. But as an elected official, his anger would get in the way of effective action.
Matt McDermott: is knowledgeable, and he's particularly strong talking about the need to reform the district's school choice program. But the four candidates we are endorsing have more depth, and their experience is a plus as we head into an important year.
Mia Hodgins has sought election to the school board twice previously. She clearly has a deep concern about children, but she lacks the depth of understanding, both about the district and about the board's operations, that the four candidates we're endorsing have.
Lorenzo Williams, a substitute teacher with the Rochester school district, is concerned about improving academic performance – particularly that of male students of color – and helping students develop vocational skills. But he lacks experience and depth of understanding about how a board works and how to effectively change things.
The four district seats are up on Rochester City Council this year, and there are primaries in every race. The city is facing major challenges right now, including high poverty and a tax base that has been hit by the loss of manufacturing and retail businesses. But the city also has enormous opportunities, with a growing number of technology businesses and the possibilities the photonics institute may offer. In addition, there's a growing interest – particularly among empty-nesters and young professionals – in urban living.
In meeting those challenges, City Council members serve both as partners of Mayor Lovely Warren and as watchdog. And the district council members also serve the vital role of representing the constituents of their individual sections of the city.
In the four district races, we're endorsing three candidates.
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- Elaine Spaull
East District: Elaine Spaull. Spaull, who is running for her third term on Council, is executive director of the Center for Youth. She seems to be everywhere and is very knowledgeable about the challenges in her district and in the city. She's also responsive, and extremely energetic.
Challenger Lisa Jacques, the owner of Park Ave. Pets, is facing tough odds in this race against a popular incumbent. Jacques is eloquent in her concerns about corporate welfare and the city's nuisance-points system, and as a small-business owner, she has been active on issues related to neighborhood retailers for several years. But Spaull is a dynamic, intelligent, committed representative. You'd have to make a compelling case to unseat her, and Jacques hasn't done that.
In addition, Jacques' positions are sometimes naïve. For example, her assertion that Council knowingly passes unconstitutional laws to reap the benefit while the inevitable lawsuits play out is far-fetched.
- PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
- Adam McFadden
South District: Adam McFadden. McFadden is being challenged by Ann Lewis, an earnest candidate who says McFadden isn't as approachable or responsive as he should be. But she's not well known. And although it seems like Lewis would make a decent, honest representative, she's green, and it's difficult to make a case for losing the knowledge and experience that McFadden has gained from his years working in city government and the nonprofit community.
McFadden was caught up in the Rochester Housing Authority scandal when he became RHA's interim and possible permanent head, then lost that job after a HUD ruling. He says he was treated unfairly. Regardless, he has continued to serve as a vocal, eloquent advocate for his district and its needs.
He is a provocateur and sometimes seems to speak without having all the facts. But he's also frank and much more knowledgeable and engaged than some people give him credit for. And he speaks out passionately on behalf of the most disadvantaged residents of the city.
- PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
- Molly Clifford
Northwest District: Molly Clifford. Clifford, who has a long history in city government and Democratic politics, is being challenged by LaShana Boose, an adjunct faculty member at Monroe Community College, for this open seat. Incumbent Carla Palumbo is not seeking re-election.
Boose's campaign did not follow through on requests to set up an interview with the candidate.
Clifford is sometimes knocked because she's held several different jobs with the city, but she has been impressive in those posts. She knows the city, she certainly knows politics, and she's a worker. And given her background, she would need very little time to get up to speed on Council.
Clifford also sees the bigger picture in the northwest. MCC's Damon Campus is moving into the quadrant, and Eastman Business Park is there, and Clifford sees opportunity in possible partnerships. That's the progressive thinking that the city needs.
Northeast District: No endorsement. In this primary, incumbent Mike Patterson is running against Eugenio Cotto Jr., former executive director of the Group 14621 Community Association.
Patterson did not respond to a request for an interview, and has never spoken with City. Patterson does seem engaged on Council and asks pertinent questions. Cotto is enthusiastic, and he certainly knows the 14621 neighborhood. He talks a lot about the need for investment in the northeast quadrant and the need to attack issues systemically based on a well-considered plan. But he seems better suited for working directly with residents at the street level than as an elected official.
Democrats have been in the Monroe County Legislature's minority since the 1990's, and none of this year's primaries are going to tip that balance.
The GOP majority generally blocks Democratic legislation; the number of caucus proposals that have passed in the past decade can be counted on one hand. But there are plenty of issues the legislature needs to address, from social services funding to the consecutive administrations' use of local development corporations to outsource some operations.
And over the years, the caucus has taken on the roles of watchdog, inquisitor, foil, and advocate. The members have held up bonding for projects where they see too many unresolved logistical or funding issues, and they've made a righteous fuss about county spending on child-care subsidies.
Whoever emerges as the victor in each of the four Democratic primaries, barring some big gains during the November general election, will have a role in those efforts.
One race is particularly crucial, and that's the 28th District contest between endorsed candidate Cynthia Kaleh and challenger Ricky Frazier. Kaleh has served in the legislature for eight years, has a great deal of knowledge about how the legislature works, has a genuine desire to find common ground with her Republican colleagues, and has been a passionate advocate for restoring child-care subsidy cuts.
Frazier has depth, and he has some good ideas, particularly vout gearing local economic development incentives towards start-ups and emerging tech businesses. The next county executive and legislature should follow through on his suggestion to hold town hall meetings where people can meet with officials to voice concerns or learn about civil service job opportunities. But Kaleh's experience and her deep connections to neighborhood groups in the district make her the better choice.
City is also endorsing Mark Muoio, who's running in the 21st District against challenger Bobbi Mitchell. Muoio's background as an attorney working on housing issues will be very valuable in the legislature. He already has some thoughts about how small changes in county policies could prevent some unnecessary evictions. He's also interested in finding ways for the county to better address hazards in subsidized housing.
As for Mitchell, City was unable to find even basic information about her campaign or platform or a way to contact her. Constituents should be able to easily contact their representatives and those seeking to represent them.
We are not making endorsements in the two remaining legislature Democratic primaries.
In the 23rd District, former Rochester police chief James Sheppard faces a challenge from city Buildings and Parks Director Mitch Rowe, who has a vast amount of political and administrative experience. Both candidates are outstanding, and either would be a good fit in the legislature. Sheppard brings experience working with troubled youth and wants to be an advocate for working families. And Rowe believes he can help the caucus continue to be effective an effective budget watchdog.
The 29th District covers one of the poorest parts of the county. Ernest Flagler, a city firefighter and the incumbent legislator, faces a challenge from Leslie Rivera, an East High School vice principal. The district covers one of the poorest parts of Monroe County, and both candidates are passionate about improving the lives of people in the district. Both are also heavily involved in various community groups, programs, and events, and each would be good representatives of this district in the legislature.