Warren: "Aaron Wicks wants me to run? This is a joke, right?"
Rochester, NY (February 4, 2013) -- Travesty: “a debased, distorted or grossly inferior imitation.” Such is New York State Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy’s description of a Rochester mayoral campaign involving Lovely Warren. Never mind that she has twice been elected to City Council or that she is currently the president of that body. To Duffy, the mere thought that Warren would challenge the current mayor is, well, a “grossly inferior imitation” of a dignified political campaign.
Duffy’s dismissal of Warren is curious. It would have sufficed to say that he supports the current mayor. But Duffy went much further. Using language reminiscent of words used by Tea Partiers against President Barack Obama, Duffy not only dismissed a Warren candidacy, he essentially claimed it would be illegitimate.
Here we go again: Smugtown elites telling the rest of us what we can and cannot handle. Rochester voters simply cannot deal with a choice; we must prevent them from having one, lest they do something foolish.
There are several reasons to welcome a Warren campaign. Here are a few:
Years ago, President George H. W. Bush dismissed critics who claimed he did not have a broad, thematic view of politics like his predecessor Ronald Reagan; he referred to it as “the vision thing.” Mayor Thomas Richards suffers from the same myopia. He believes in focusing and finishing, but there is no broader vision for the city’s future. Should we focus on downtown, should we promote commercial corridors? Will the city attract gentrifiers to certain neighborhoods or will it work to provide opportunities for current residents? Where is this city going? Richards is silent on these questions, taking an “focus and finish” approach -- an approach that is the opposite of strategic, it is intended to be present-oriented, not visionary. A young person cannot look at Rochester and have a clear idea why they should make this town their home -- or stay here if it is their birthplace.
[RELATED: Where is the Vision for Downtown?]
By contrast, Warren has been watching recent mayors closely -- and learning from them. “I think Mayor Johnson had it right when he focused on neighborhoods,” she observed, “but I also think Mayors Duffy and Richards have done some good things for downtown. Why not take the strengths of both approaches?” What Warren understands is that mayors need to lay out the vision and the priorities, the guiding principles around which plans get developed. Warren understands that neighborhoods need to be livable, but she also recognizes that one of the key neighborhoods is downtown. And, unlike Richards, she might also recognize that nightlife and a sense of vitality is critical to a successful downtown (see Richards and RBTL, 2011-2012). Warren knows neighborhoods do not always grow organically; strategic investments and focus by city hall help promote neighborhood leaders and they, in turn, fight for the little, street level things that make neighborhoods unique and livable. Given the chance, Warren could provide a vision of what the city and its many neighborhoods could be, a vision that is sorely missed. Let’s hear her speak to these issues.
Richards and Warren both have interesting personal stories. Richards was the son of a clergyman -- as such, he was exposed at an early age to the Civil Rights movement and was shaped by its ideals. He has made his home in the city, raised his family here and continues to live here. Asked to come out of retirement to serve in the Duffy administration, Richards agreed. He is a decent man -- it is unlikely one could find a person with a bad word to say about Richards’ personal character.
Warren’s history is slightly different. She had the ups and downs of any young person -- but was called to pursue an active role in her community when her grandfather was the victim of a shooting. While she has certainly benefited from the mentorship of Assemblymember David Gantt (an asset to some observers, a liability to others), she has also demonstrated that she is a dutiful politician and hard-working public servant -- contributing to a variety of efforts across the city. Most recently she lent her support to Operation Transformation, an effort to mentor young African American males to support them obtaining their GEDs and ultimately secure employment. After narrowly losing during her first run for office, Warren, admittedly humbled, dusted herself off and ran a smarter campaign when her next opportunity arose.
Both Richards and Warren are decent people, hard working politicians and dedicated public servants. But Warren’s story is probably one personally familiar to more residents. Richards spent most of his career in the private sector, including several years in the quasi-public Rochester Gas & Electric. But his departure during its sale -- and his generous retirement package -- left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Warren went to school and came home to serve her community. That storyline is one that most of us would like to see our own children follow. Advantage Warren.
Related to personal histories are the people that Richards and Warren could potentially engage to build Rochester’s future. Leadership, particularly in a small community such as Rochester, largely depends on a person’s ability to engage voters. Richards’ record on this front is less than solid.
Consider the 2011 special election: Richards ran as the Democratic party’s nominee (with, it should be noted, the endorsement of Warren). He had the party label and the party machine behind him in a city that is overwhelmingly Democratic. He also had an enormous advantage among institutional elites: the “Who’s Who” of Rochester endorsed Richards -- echoing some of Duffy’s misplaced concerns: not doing so would plunge the city into chaos. And yet, despite all these advantages, and despite a truncated campaign period, Richards narrowly defeated former Mayor Bill Johnson, winning less than 50% of the vote. Worse, the returns showed Richards rolling to huge margins in the more affluent and white parts of the city and losing badly in the lower-income and African American and Latino areas.
Would a Warren-Richards campaign change this pattern? It is too early to say. But Warren is articulate, passionate and young. She could potentially reach voters that sat out the 2011 election and could probably replicate and build on Johnson’s performance. Without a primary, however, it is unclear what will motivate voters of any type. A primary would provide an opportunity for both Richards and Warren to speak directly to Rochester’s many constituencies. Warren is advantaged in that activity -- she enjoys politics more than Richards. But more important, a Warren candidacy would provide the home of Susan B. Anthony with another opportunity -- perhaps its best yet -- to elect its first female mayor. A Mayor Warren could be a powerful role model for countless young people who simply do not see themselves occupying the halls of power.
[READ: Rochester Democrats’ Political Landscape: 2013]
Perhaps the most important reason I would like to see a Richards-Warren contest is that this is why we have elections. Contrary to some Smugtown elites (Duffy clearly is an example), I do not believe that I or any other person, has the authority to determine who should run for office, whose “time has come,” or anything of that nature. Politics is designed to be competitive -- it works best when politicians test one another and when voters are confronted with choices. Debate does not weaken the voters, it strengthens them and informs their choices.
If Mayor Richards decides to run for re-election and there is no significant opposition, who will force him to state his vision? Who will nail down his position on mayoral control of schools? Who will hold his feet to the fire for sluggish economic growth and for the dwindling job opportunities for Rochester residents in particular?
Will Lovely Warren be a better mayor than Thomas Richards? This writer does not know -- no one can know without the community first having the opportunity to see and hear the candidates engage in a vigorous debate.
It is interesting that so many Americans are burning up Facebook with concerns about their Second Amendment rights and their belief that owning a gun is their most powerful check on tyranny. In fact, the First Amendment is much more powerful. And here in Rochester, some of our own leaders believe that less debate, less discussion about the future of our city, is better for us. Forget about government coming to take your guns, I get nervous when so-called elites like Assemblyman Joe Morelle and Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy try to tamp down democracy because it might produce an inconvenient result for them and their personal political agendas.
A Lovely Warren candidacy is needed by this community. And a Lovely Warren mayoralty might actually be the type of change City Hall needs. I, for one, am open to learning more about such a vision of the future. Councilmember Warren is mulling the contingencies of a run; city residents who want -- and deserve -- a quality debate about our future should encourage her to run.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Tom Richards declared his candidacy for Mayor at a news conference on Wednesday February 6th. Tell us if you think there will be a race among Democrats, in the Opinion Box below.
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