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Theories and questions for a post-Richards race


He's still on the November ballot, on the Working Families and Independence lines, but Mayor Tom Richards ended his campaign for re-election on Tuesday, citing serious health issues of a family member.

Presumably if he had won last week's Democratic primary, Richards would have continued to the general election, facing the Green Party's Alex White. But he lost the primary to City Council President Lovely Warren, and running now against Warren and White would require a much more intense campaign. Richards said yesterday that the family member's health problems had "recently evolved to the point where continuing my campaign is no longer appropriate."

Speculation will continue about how we got to this stage: how, a much-publicized poll to the contrary, Warren won the primary so handily. Turnout was way down, and Richards supporters seem to assume he lost because voters thought he would win easily. But maybe voters simply didn't care about the election.

Or maybe they like Richards but also found Warren's message compelling. Maybe Warren's "two Rochesters" message resonated with the white liberal Democrats living in the city's southeast, where the turnout was especially low. Maybe a lot of them couldn't make up their mind, decided they'd be happy with either one, and stayed home.

But frankly, it's demeaning to Warren and her campaign to assume that she won because of something Tom Richards didn't do. It's more likely due to a lot of things Warren did better.

Now we can start thinking about November, so let's pass on some questions we've been raising in our newsroom. We're not writing off the Greens' Alex White; we'll have extensive coverage of him and other Green candidates next month. But Warren's win brings some issues to the fore. For instance:

1) Who'll be in her administration? Richards has a strong, experienced group of top administrators (some, of course, appointed by his predecessor, Bob Duffy). Warren may keep some or all of them. But given her disagreements with Richards in some key areas, she's likely to assemble her own team. And she has also said that Richards' top administrative group isn't diverse enough.

2) What will be the effect on City Council? Council has a history of being a fairly cohesive group inclined to go along with the mayor – sometimes too much so. But a slim majority of Council sided with Richards in the primary campaign. Councilmembers say they'll kiss and make up. That may be harder to do if a majority strongly opposes some of Warren's initiatives.

3) What's ahead for Police Chief James Sheppard? During the primary campaign, Warren criticized the police department for its response to such things as calls about drug sales. She wants to expand the number of RPD sections to better serve the needs of individual neighborhoods. And she wants the police department to be more aggressive in dealing with drug sales.

4) What will be the effect on investment and development in the city – particularly downtown?

Many people in the Rochester business community have been strong supporters of Richards. Warren hasn't opposed development. In fact, she wants to create a city Industrial Development Agency, to provide incentives for new development. But her focus there is to increase the number of construction jobs that go to city residents, particularly minority residents.

And Warren says Richards has paid too much attention to downtown, and to large businesses, to the detriment of neighborhoods and small businesses. Will her election put a damper on the fragile growth in private investment downtown?

5) How much influence will State Assembly member David Gantt have in City Hall? Both Warren and Gantt have insisted that there'll be none, but Gantt has been Warren's mentor, and his critics worry that he will help call the shots in City Hall. On the other hand, many people will consider Warren's closeness to Gantt a good thing. Gantt has been a powerful presence in Albany, where Rochester's influence often seems weak. Gantt and Warren both care deeply about the needs of Rochester's inner-city residents, and Gantt is likely to push for state funding to support Warren's initiatives.

6) What will be the effect on the Rochester school district? Warren has been a strong critic of the district, but in a post-election interview with 13WHAM, she said she wants to give Superintendent Bolgen Vargas a chance to improve student achievement. During the campaign, however, she said her administration would help provide students with more choices outside of the schools operated by the Rochester district.

She promised to support charter schools – helping recruit "high-performing charter operators with proven results serving urban students," for instance. And her Beacons School Program would give "startup funds and technical support" not only to traditional public schools but also to private and charter schools, to encourage partnerships with community agencies to help students and their families.

That, as Warren says, will give students more alternatives to Rochester school district schools – a chance, Warren believes, for a better education. That will also undoubtedly weaken the district and its schools, which may end up serving the city's most vulnerable, most disadvantaged children. The first families turning to those alternatives are likely to be those already most engaged in their children's education. And the district will have less money to serve the remaining children, as state funding follows the students who head to charter schools.

Would Warren try to cut funding to the district? She hasn't shown any signs that she would. Besides, cutting funding for schools is no easy matter. It's one thing to try to get more money for schools when budgets are tight or the public is unhappy with the schools' achievement. It's quite another to try to take money away from them.

We could also see a return to the adversarial relationship between City Hall and the school district. Richards has worked hard to lessen that, to be supportive of the district and its efforts without excusing the poor student achievement. Given her past statements, Warren may not be as empathetic.

And then, of course, there's mayoral control.

David Gantt has pushed for it in the Assembly. Richards supported it when Bob Duffy was mayor, but he has since said that it caused so much community tension that he wouldn't bring it up. Green candidate Alex White opposes it. The state legislature would have to approve the change, and it's unlikely that it would approve mayoral control for Rochester if the mayor didn't want it.

Like Richards, Warren has supported mayoral control in the past. In the 13WHAM interview last week, Warren didn't embrace it. Instead, she said this: "Right now, the superintendent has been working at improving our outcomes. He's a new superintendent, and I want to be able to support him."

She said she wants to see what next year's test scores show, but "at this point," she said, "I'm going to look to support the superintendent and the school board."

7) What will be Warren's budget priorities? Several of Warren's initiatives will be expensive, and while she says she's confident that she'll get money from such sources as grants and private investment, presumably some funding will come from the city's operating and capital budgets.

And that aside, she will likely have different priorities than Richards, whether in providing funding for such events as the Jazz Festival or in shifting money and focus in neighborhood programs and services. That, of course, is true any time a new mayor is elected. (As mayor, Bill Johnson was willing to invest in support for the ferry to Toronto; his successor quickly shut the ferry down.)

Campaign statements don't give us a clear picture of what political candidates will do, once they face the realities of governing. In addition, many of Warren's initiatives will need City Council approval. If the incumbents on the ballot are re-elected in November, Council will still have a slim majority who supported Richards in the primary. That doesn't mean that the election caused an irreparable split. And for some initiatives, Warren may find easy support. Some of the Richards backers, for instance, have been as critical of the school district as Warren has been. But Council could block some of her initiatives.

We may also see some changes on Council – and some pretty heated Democratic primaries for City Council seats in future elections. It's possible that some of Warren's supporters on Council could get appointments in her administration. In addition, some Councilmembers may decide to retire. At-large member Carolee Conklin has said that if she wins re-election to a four-year term in November, that will be her last.

If City Council resists initiatives that are important to Warren, she and her supporters may work hard to put more sympathetic Democrats on Council in the next two elections.

Richards' withdrawal turns the focus to the changes ahead under a Warren or White administration – in schools and development.