THE RACE FOR ROCHESTER MAYOR
When you talk to people about next year’s mayoral election in Rochester, they talk about the math.
And that’s all very interesting.
But cities are about people, and people aren’t about math. They – and their lives – are about ideas and solutions, about leadership and vision and the ability to go forward and upward.
Nowhere is that more true than in Rochester, which is arguably one of the most failed cities in America. If you look at its chronic child poverty rates, its dead-in-the-water job growth, and its miserably unsuccessful school district, you literally find only two or three other hellholes in its league in the entire country.
That’s heartbreaking, and it should inspire a crusade.
But it doesn’t, really.
It only inspires greed.
From a political standpoint, the fight is over which vulture gets to pick the bones. Whose cronies get the patronage and contracts.
And that’s where the math comes in.
The new year will bring a new mayoral campaign, and everybody is talking about the math, but nobody is talking about a plan or a philosophy to truly lift Rochester and its people. The political folks are looking closely at how to win, but nobody is talking about what they will do once they win – other than get themselves and their friends a place at the public trough.
So let’s do the math.
Right after we introduce the players.
There’s the incumbent, Lovely Warren. It turns out she’s not going to get a job in the Clinton Administration after all, so she’s going to want to keep this paycheck. There’s the former police chief and current county legislator, Jim Sheppard, who is the hero of establishment types who dislike Lovely. Rounding out the field – at this point – is former television reporter Rachel Barnhart, who runs for things now.
All three are Democrats.
Now, the math.
The most important number is 40.
That’s the percentage of the city’s population that is black. It’s also the ceiling of Lovely Warren’s public-approval rating.
Lovely Warren, who is black, has the Rochester black vote locked up. As a consequence, the math kind of says that she can be mayor forever if she wants to. Knowing that the only real fight will be in the Democratic primary, and knowing that black voters are a majority of city Democrats, Lovely is sitting pretty.
The Jim Sheppard supporters disagree.
They calculate that if he, a black man himself, could peel away just 15 percent of the black vote, and combine that with strong support from whites, he could win the primary and the mayoralty.
The Rachel Barnhart rationale is that both Lovely Warren and Jim Sheppard are essentially unpopular and that with money she could beat them.
More reasonable thinking on that point might be that in a three-way primary, Rachel Barnhart bleeds away enough of Jim Sheppard’s white and ultra-progressive support to make sure that Lovely Warren’s black bloc remains a winning plurality.
That’s the math.
But what about the candidates.
Lovely Warren sucked her first year as mayor. It was a train wreck only recently upstaged by County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo’s first year. Since the first year, though, Lovely Warren has been a lot more solid. She continues to be surrounded by a very weak staff, including those brought in to shore her up. Her plan for the deputy mayor position – which seems to really run the city – is anybody’s guess. Not only does she not have a plan for elevating the city and saving its residents, she doesn’t very often seem to notice that there’s a problem.
But she is not a person without ability, and she is not an idiot. Her personal story has great potential to inspire and show a pattern of success. She sometimes says things that are not only right, but very wise, and demonstrate true leadership. She has grown in the office, and she seems to learn from the flubs along the way.
I admire Jim Sheppard and Rachel Barnhart a great deal.
He was a great cop and she was a great reporter.
But the election isn’t for cop and reporter, it’s for mayor. So the question is: Would either of them make a good mayor?
The answer is easier for her: No.
Barnhart is intelligent and gifted. But being the executive of a large governmental organization, like the city of Rochester, with its hundreds of employees, is a skill set that her background and temperament don’t suggest she has. Lovely Warren and Jim Sheppard both have big-league executive experience; Rachel Barnhart has none. She also lacks the cadre of supporters necessary to build an administration around.
The answer is harder for him: I don’t know.
I admire Jim Sheppard’s career and character. I see the disciplined, values-based upbringing of his childhood home in almost everything he does. He is the sort of man I would seek advice from, or ask to pray for me. And when he was police chief he seemed to engage people in all situations very well.
But since going to the county Legislature, a move which was orchestrated to prep him for the mayor’s race, he has kind of disappeared. Instead of heightening his profile as a community leader, it has let him drift into obscurity.
That worries me, and makes me wonder.
And that gets around to the dynamic of the race.
When Lovely Warren won a surprise victory in the Democratic primary and grabbed the mayoralty, and then followed it up with such a miserable first year, the conventional wisdom was that she was a fluke who would be shown the door at the end of her first term, that she would be beaten by whoever ran against her. In the two years since, in fairness, she has shown herself to be neither miserable nor a fluke.
And so the dynamic changes.
Now it is: What’s the argument for replacing Lovely Warren?
A challenger will have to show why the mayor should be replaced, and why he or she is a better choice.
I hope that focuses on this city and its needs, and not just the mathematics of victory.
Thus far, nobody has announced – not even Lovely Warren.
But in the absence of a truly dynamic challenge, it’s almost a lock. Lovely will get the black vote, Lovely will win the primary, and Lovely will be the mayor.
And whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, only time will tell.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2016