You might have assumed that the competition for the seats on City Council was locked up in the Democratic Primary in June. Rochester's such a heavily Democratic city that the party's primaries are considered the real election. But Green Party candidates Alex White, Chris Edes, and David Sutliff-Atias strongly disagree. White in particular bristles at the idea that he's running as a third-party candidate.
"Who's the second party in Rochester?" White says. "Aren't we the second party?"
In Rochester, White says, the Greens are the challengers, not the Republicans, who rarely run in city races anymore. (This year is an exception: Marcus Williams switched parties from Democrat to Republican to run for a seat on City Council.)
The Green Party is an advocate for environmental stewardship, social justice, and economic justice, particularly at the local level. And White says that locally, the party has been growing since 2010 and now has 700 members. In Monroe County, there are 1,209 registered Green Party voters.
"A fair number of younger people have joined the Greens because of its commitment to serious protections of the environment," White says. "That may be because they're the ones who are going to bear the brunt of our failures."
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Green candidates (from left) Dave Sutliff-Atias, Chris Edes, and Alex White.
White, Edes, and Sutliff-Atias have all run previously, unsuccessfully, in multiple races, for everything from US Senate to city school board. But this time, they say, their chances are better than before. Many Democrats have moved further to the left in recent years, they say, and those voters are looking for more progressive ideas.
The Greens point to Mary Lupien's win in the June Democratic primary as a positive sign. Lupien, a grassroots progressive, easily won the East District seat held by long-time Council member Elaine Spaull, who is retiring.
White, who has run for mayor and City Council in the past, is running for the South District seat against Democrat LaShay Harris, who was appointed to fill Adam McFadden's unexpired term after he resigned in April. White is the owner of Boldo's, a Monroe Avenue gaming store.
Sutliff-Atias, a Rochester school district teacher, is running against Democrat Mary Lupien, winner of the June Democratic primary for the East District Council seat. (Why, if the Greens think Lupien's primary victory was a positive, is Sutliff-Atias running against her? Because he's an alternative to the Democratic candidate, he says. "She has the party machine behind her that she has to deal with, and I don't.")
Edes, who works in tech support for Datto's downtown Rochester office, is running against incumbent and Lovely Warren loyalist Mike Patterson in the Northeast District. Edes has previously run for the US Senate, lieutenant governor, and City Council.
Realistically, Edes says, it's an uphill battle for all three Green candidates. But, he says, the city Dems are not in a great place right now.
"I'm definitely trying to win," Edes says. "I think it's possible. There's an increasing sentiment, not just here in Rochester, but all across the country as a whole: the two-party system, the two big parties, are not serving the interests of the people."
Still, it's not surprising that the three are frequently asked why they're running. White says he's constantly asked whether he's serious about his candidacy or is simply trying to advance the Greens' progressive ideas.
"I often answer by saying, 'Are things better in Rochester?' I mean, poverty has been rising half a percentage point a year for 20 years. Housing prices are rising; the supply of low-income housing is dwindling."
All three Green candidates say Mayor Warren and most City Council members are not focused on the city's most detrimental problems. Instead, they're operating under the false belief that rebuilding downtown will eventually make Rochester a vibrant city. Warren and Council, the Greens say, have become virtually beholden to the wants of developers – one of whom, Morgan Management's CEO Robert Morgan, has been indicted on multiple federal charges.
THE GREENS' ISSUES
Poverty is the underlying and undermining issue facing the city, says Sutliff-Atias. In his view, poverty is like an octopus, with its whirling arms latching onto a multitude of other issues – housing, education, crime, addiction, and unemployment, interrelated problems that are exacerbated by the city's deeply entrenched poverty. It's the "overarching thing," he says.
Decades of systemic racism and public policies, shaped by trickle-down economics, have been particularly hard on poor communities, especially poor communities of color, Sutliff-Atias says. These issues have made it extremely hard to create wealth that can be passed on generationally, he says.
One solution, Sutliff-Atias says, is to cultivate self-reliance. "I want to create opportunities for people to be able to run their own businesses," he says. Entrepreneurship, whether it's starting a neighborhood barber shop or a homegrown small tech company, does more than create jobs; it helps build personal wealth, Sutliff-Atias says.
Eliminating Rochester's poverty will take a bold, comprehensive approach, White says. And that will require state and county support, such as providing an immediate boost in the minimum wage and offering more affordable child care.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Alex White: Poverty has been rising, housing prices are up, and the supply of low-income housing is dwindling.
And if the city stopped giving away so much tax benefits to developers, White says, it could expand library hours and provide more after school programs, recreational activities, and summer jobs for city youth.
Mass transit will also have to be improved if we're serious about tackling poverty, White says. Poor people without access to a car are virtually locked out of many retail jobs, since most are located in the suburban malls where mass transit is limited, he says.
And the city could do more to create stable households and reduce housing insecurity, Sutliff-Atias and White say. There are plenty of neighborhoods where housing is either vacant or available for $30,000 to $60,000, which lower-income families could buy and improve, they say.
"The mortgage on a house that's worth $30,000, even if you need $10,000 to fix it up, mortgage and taxes are about $500," White says. That's still cheaper than most rentals, but there are two problems. One is that banks don't like to write mortgages for $50,000 and under.
In addition, while many low-income families can afford a mortgage, their jobs may be insecure or unpredictable, and they may occasionally miss a payment.
"We need to look at the way we're doing lending and come up with instruments of lending that actually make it possible for low-income people to buy the houses, lower their housing costs dramatically, and build wealth," Sutliff-Atias says. "We need a city bank."
Another option, White says: a more creative use of the land bank, which acquires and disposes of mostly foreclosed properties. White suggests focusing the bank's mission on making foreclosed properties more available to low-income first-time buyers and owner-occupants and limit their resale to out-of-town investors.
The city's real estate auctions involve quick-cash sales, he says. "Whenever you buy a property, in four or five days you've got to pay totally in cash." Most people buying a first home at this income level may not have $8,000 or $9,000 sitting around, he says, and may need more time to raise the money needed to close on a foreclosed property.
To White, ending the city's penchant for tax incentives and other forms of corporate welfare is a major concern because it's directing resources away from the city's seniors and low-income families. They need help far more than developers, he says.
The city has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on unnecessary development since 2007, Sutliff-Atias and White argue, and that money would have been better spent addressing poverty-related problems.
Much of the new housing development built in the last 10 years should be providing the city with millions in tax revenue, White says, but the developers have gotten sweet deals. And the people renting apartments in these buildings can't offset that tax loss by spending their money downtown because there aren't enough of those new residents and not enough businesses downtown to spend their money on.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Chris Edes: “We definitely need police accountability, because the police department is not capable of policing itself.”
Downtown, the Greens say, has been gentrified into an enclave for the upper middle class, mostly white people. "When they build these housing projects, they're pricing out the majority of city residents," Edes says. "So they're using public money for white people in a majority black city."
"We're cutting services, and simultaneously we're giving away millions to build housing that we don't need because the population in Rochester isn't growing," White says.
The Greens say they aren't against development; they're against bad development. They don't support building a new performing arts theater downtown, for instance, arguing that Rochester already has one and there's no need for a new one that will almost certainly require financial help from the city.
City officials also ignore city residents' concerns about neighborhood development, White says, and he cites the pending redevelopment of Cobbs Hill Village Apartments. White suggests that every development project should have a "community benefit agreement" that serves as a contract between the developer and residents.
The contract could include things like requiring the developer to allow nearby residents free use of some of the space, White says, or requiring the developer to mitigate sound or install certain kinds of lighting, or be responsible for street repair.
Another area where White, Edes, and Sutliff-Atias disagree with City Council and the administration: the battle between the city and Rochester school district. Mayor Warren's push for a state take-over of the school district was completely misguided, they say, and it's an example of how City Council and the administration fail to focus on their own areas of responsibility.
City officials aren't dealing with the neighborhood problems that many city families face and that cause students so much trauma, Sutliff-Atias says.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Dave Sutliff-Atias: City officials aren’t dealing with the neighborhood problems that many city families face.
"There's nothing a teacher can do if you've got a student who comes in with so much trauma," Sutliff-Atias says.
All three candidates question the mayor's rationale for bringing Albany lawmakers into the mix. The state's frequent changes in direction and protracted fights over teacher evaluations, the Common Core curriculum, and standardized testing have left many teachers and parents wary of the state's leadership in education, they say.
"We're not just nay-saying or saying, 'No, just keep it the way it is," Sutliff-Atias says. "But really dealing with the issues that City Council members are supposed to be focused on will help the schools."
Children and families living in poverty are often overwhelmed by instability and uncertainty, Sutliff-Atias says. If his students' parents didn't have to worry about basic needs – finding affordable housing, paying for utilities, having enough food, and worrying about whether their children will make it to and from school safely – student outcomes would improve, he says.
The city has steadily increased taxes on property owners, White says. But the amount it gives to the district has remained the same since about 2006, he says. While city officials don't seem concerned about giving tax benefits to developers, he says, they complain about giving money to the district. That hurts the children and families they say they care about, White says.
Both Sutliff-Atias and Edes say they would use their voice on City Council to advocate for bold changes. They would support taking steps toward a metro school system, for instance, though they agree that it would be a tough battle.
"I think the fears exist, but they're largely unfounded," Edes says. He imagines something like a county-wide pie-shaped system where all communities would have a share of responsibility and input.
Police and the community
One area where the Greens agree with City Council: the proposed Police Accountability Board. It has taken years for city leaders to address public concerns about police misconduct and the fractured relationship between the police department and communities of color.
And they prefer Council's version of the Accountability Board – the focus of a November referendum – to the mayor's version. Council's version, which gives the board the power to discipline police officers, puts some teeth into the PAB, Edes says. "We definitely need police accountability, because the police department is not capable of policing itself," Edes says. Edes also wants the police chief to be an elected position, similar to the county sheriff, independent of the mayor.
The three disagree, however, about the board's make-up. As currently designed, board members could include a retired law-enforcement officer. Edes and Sutliff-Atias object to that and say the board will have plenty of sources of legal and field experience available for advice. Having a former law-enforcement officer would damage the PAB's credibility, particularly with communities of color, Sutliff-Atias says. The only way to build trust between police and communities of color is through a change in behavior on the part of police, and that will take time, he says.
White says he is less concerned about having a former police officer on the PAB. It's not the PAB that will build a bridge and heal the mistrust that exists between police and Rochester's communities of color, he says.
There needs to be a thorough evaluation of the city's police hiring practices and its screening for people with untreated mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, White says. And he says he thinks training is a concern, too, especially in the area of de-escalation and conflict resolution.
A republican in a sea of demsSome people may think Marcus Williams is a bit like a fish out of water. Voter enrollment in the city doesn’t simply lean toward Democrats; in recent years it’s been so hard for a Republican to win any seat that it doesn’t seem to make sense to run.
But Williams doesn’t accept that view. A young African-American, he’s running for City Council’s South District seat. It’s not his first campaign; in 2017 he ran, unsuccessfully, for an at-large Council seat as a Democrat. Now, though, he’s a Republican.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Republican Marcus Williams
Williams shies away from discussing why he switched parties, saying only that he saw what he calls “some shenanigans” while he was running “that completely turned me off to the Democratic Party.”
He says he likes Mayor Lovely Warren personally. “I just don’t agree with the way she’s done things,” he says.
But Williams says he isn’t much of a fan of Republican County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, and he distances himself from Donald Trump. “I’m not much of a fan of some things or the way they’ve been implemented by this president,” he says.
Williams says he grew up in a challenging home environment, but says he hasn’t let that dampen his ambition or deter him from his personal goals. He says he believes in the Republican message about personal responsibility. Many of the things black families teach their children are also the basic values of the Republican Party, he says: “Keep government out of your business, take care of your family, pay as little taxes as necessary, and teach entrepreneurship.”
City Council members are failing Rochesterians, Williams says. He’s against downtown development that’s focused too much on luxury housing, he says. And, he says, “We’re having an issue with gentrification.” The PLEX neighborhood where he lives is undergoing a transition. In recent years, the University of Rochester has built dorms in the neighborhood for its students, and some neighborhood leaders are concerned about future development that may displace PLEX residents.
He says Mayor Warren’s push for a referendum calling for elimination of the Rochester school board was “political theater.” The referendum wouldn’t have been binding and was “manipulative,” he says. But that doesn’t mean he supports the status quo for city schools, he says. The school district doesn’t work as it should, he says.
Williams says City Council is too reactive and isn’t forward thinking and he wants to change that. If he’s elected, he says, he’ll push for better repairs to city streets, stemming the flow of illegal guns into the city, opening another grocery store downtown, and improving police relations. He wants new legislation related to police conduct; existing laws, he says, don’t go far enough to punish officers who abuse their power.
And he says he’ll push for more protection for the city’s water system, electrical grid, and data systems before these systems are compromised.
Election Day is Tuesday, November 5, and if you aren’t registered you have until October 11 to do so. Monroe County residents can check their registration status, find their polling places, or see sample ballots at monroecounty.gov/etc/voter.
This year is the first time when New York State is offering early voting. If you’re registered before October 11, you can vote at select locations from Saturday, October 26, through Sunday, November 3. For early voting, you won’t go to your usual polling place; there will be only seven early-voting locations, six in the suburbs and one in the city (at MCC’s downtown campus, 321 State Street).
The Monroe County Board of Elections’ early voting web page, monroecounty.gov/elections-earlyvoting, includes a list of polling sites and the hours they’ll be open.
And the League of Women Voters of New York State has put together a website, nyearlyvoting.org, that provides answers to lots of questions about early voting.