Warren vs. Richards: One city, two visions 

Rochester Democratic Primary Elections 2013

The Lovely Warren who walked to the front of the room in early May to ask her fellow Democrats to support her bid for mayor is not the same Lovely Warren who's on the campaign trail today. There has been an observable transformation. Those first rough, nervous steps have been replaced by confident strides. Candidate Warren says she knows what the City of Rochester needs, and that she's in the singular position to deliver it.

Warren's opponent, incumbent Mayor Tom Richards, is a steady hand. His deliberate demeanor and formidable intellect immediately put you at ease. To his supporters, his message isn't flashy, but there's a reassuring sense that the city is in good hands and that everything is going to be OK.

Warren and Richards will face off in a September 10 Democratic primary election. Richards, the party's endorsed candidate, also has the endorsements of the Independence and Working Families parties, so he goes on to the November general election even if he loses the primary. Warren has no other endorsements. Also in the general election will be mayoral hopeful Alex White, who's running on the Green Party line.

click to enlarge Lovely Warren. - FILE PHOTO
  • Lovely Warren.

Warren surprised a lot of people when she announced her bid. This could be the last election for the 70-year-old Richards, so Warren, who is president of City Council, might've had an easier race if she waited four years. But, she says, Rochester can't wait that long; the needs are too great. The gap between the city's haves and its have-nothings grows every day, she says.

Warren speaks of two Rochesters, one with exciting projects like College Town on Mount Hope and the 19th Ward's Brooks Landing. And then, she says, there's the other Rochester, which is seventh in the nation for child poverty and first in the state for incarcerating young African-American males.

"Technically, we have a third-world country right here in our city," Warren says. "This race is not about me, and it's not about Tom. This race, for me, is about our community. I believe that at this point in our city, we need a mayor who can lift all tides. Who can function in both worlds. Who has the skills and the background and the education to manage the city and to work with companies and businesses. But we also need a mayor who understands what's happening in that other city, and who can relate to those people and uplift them."

Warren's actions to improve the predicament of residents of that other Rochester include insisting that affordable housing be part of College Town, making sure the Midtown developer lives up to promises regarding the employment of women and minorities on the project, reaching out to minority residents to help diversify the Rochester Police Department, and founding Operation Transformation, a program that helps African-American males who have dropped out of school by providing GED preparation and career training.

click to enlarge Tom Richards. - FILE PHOTO
  • Tom Richards.

Richards is lower key and cautious about making sweeping statements, even if it would be politically advantageous, because, he says, quick fixes are an illusion. The reality, though lacking sex appeal, is that no one person can turn around the failing city school district or stop gang shootings. The city faces a long road of incremental improvement, Richards says, through hard work, community commitment, forward thinking, and investment.

"Everybody talks about all those things that they want to do, as do I, but the assumption is that we're going to be able to do it," he says. "And I know it's boring and people don't want to start there, but [finances] is what will do you in. And so that problem has to be solved."

"I think we have to start from the proposition that Lovely and I come from different circumstances, and I don't deny that," Richards says. "I don't think it's true that she's in a better position to reach both populations. In fact, I think what you will see in this campaign is I will have a much broader base of support than she does, across the spectrum. I don't deny there is a difference there, but I don't feel that has kept me from doing what I need to do. What I don't do and won't do is pander, and sometimes people don't like that. People have to make a judgment about who brings to this particular point in time in Rochester the ability to do the most for the city."

People often point out that Rochester is faring better financially than other upstate cities, and Richards' actions have certainly played a key role. Richards and the city's four employee unions agreed to a self-funded health insurance program that is expected to save the city up to $13.4 million over three years. He offered a one-time early retirement incentive that reportedly saved the city millions and avoided layoffs, and adjusted the borrowing for capital projects to take advantage of low interest rates, which should save the city millions of dollars.

Richards has also significantly improved City Hall's relationship with the school district, even accompanying district officials on outings to round up truant students. And his leadership was critical to achieving unprecedented diversity in the police and fire departments.

Richards points to his endorsements by the Working Families Party and the Empire State Pride Agenda as examples of his expansive base.

Extensive interviews with both candidates recently covered some of the most pressing issues facing the City of Rochester, including the state of the city school district, the city's financial stability, economic development, and public safety. What follows is an edited version of those discussions.

Warren on education

Warren has made schools, specifically the dismal state of the Rochester school district, the cornerstone of her campaign. She rolled out a comprehensive education plan that includes bringing more high-quality charter schools to Rochester, expanding access to high-quality early education, and launching a "beacon schools" program that re-imagines schools as neighborhood centers.

Warren's critics point out that the mayor runs the city, not the school district, and that more charters are coming and will keep coming to Rochester, with or without the city's help. Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas is already planning to substantially expand instructional time in the school district, and the district has free, universal pre-kindergarten offered at 56 locations around the city.

And the worry about charters is that they cherry-pick students while simultaneously draining resources from the city school district, which critics say could potentially lead to a school system that serves only the most disadvantaged, most challenged students, without the means to do so.

In Warren's words: I want charters to complement the system, and not take it over. I see charter schools as being helpers. It is my hope that we protect children, and not a system. What we're doing by not educating our children is we're feeding the criminal justice system. That's a heartbreaker. And we've accepted that as the norm.

How many years have we been trying to fix a broken system? Things haven't gotten better. They've gotten worse. And to be honest with you, like in anything, the best way to fix something is to introduce some competition.

Let me be clear: some charters are bad. But the difference is, if you don't get it right, you're able to shut them down. Every four to five years, they have to re-certify.

So it's OK for us to say, "Middle-class families, you can put your house up for sale and move to the suburbs. And you can give your child a quality education. But poor families who can't afford to that? You have to function and stay in this broken system and make it work." That's what we're telling them.

Income should not decide whether your child gets a quality education or not. And by protecting a system and saying, "Oh, we're not going to introduce charter schools because it's going to take out the good children...," well, what do you say to middle-class families who are putting their houses for sale? "Oh, you can't leave. If you put up your house for sale and move your child to the suburbs to a better school system, it leaves all the other poor children behind?"

Richards on education

Richards has the unenviable task of, if not defending, at least speaking up for the Rochester school district. Charters are a reality, Richards says, and he's not opposed to them. But the Rochester school district will continue to serve thousands of students into the foreseeable future, he says, and the city can't just forget about it.

Richards supports Superintendent Vargas's efforts to focus on basics like attendance and making sure that students are reading at grade level. He also supports Vargas's plan to extend the school day, and says that the city's recreation centers and libraries can be aligned with the extended-day model.

The counter arguments here almost write themselves. How can Richards argue for stability, critics ask, in a system that has performed so poorly for so long? A graduation rate consistently below 50 percent and a college readiness rate around 5 percent for black males calls for a revolution, they say, not stability.

And the entire community is understandably frustrated. Rochester gives more money to its school district than Buffalo, which is a larger city with a larger school district, and it spends more than many other cities in New York to educate each child. Yet Rochester's results are consistently among the worst in the state. But the city also has one of the highest child poverty rates in the country.

In Richards' words: We're not going to succeed if we keep changing superintendents every two years, change the program every two years, moving these kids around all the time. We've got to get some stability in the system, and as mayor of the city, I didn't pick the superintendent, but I think it's my job to, as best I can, support that system.

That doesn't mean I agree with everybody. This is a big, complicated system. You don't bail out on them as soon as you have a disagreement. What I've tried to do is pick those things that as mayor and as the city, we can do to influence the outcome.

We've helped to get the facilities modernization [a construction project to update the district's school buildings] going. We're in the process of changing a lot of the ways the rec centers operate in order to align them with that.

We need to get people into universal pre-k. We can help with that. We need to extend the school day. That doesn't mean twice as much time sitting in your seat. It means putting back into the system more academic time but also the rest of the things that got squeezed out of the system.

It's a tragedy what's happened there. The school day got shorter and shorter for various reasons. And requirements got bigger and bigger because [state officials are dissatisfied with the performance of the school districts.] We can fix that, and I can help them fix that.

Warren on jobs and economic development

The centerpiece of Warren's economic and community development plan is to get permission from the state to create a Rochester-based Industrial Development Agency. For too long, city residents have watched their money given away in the form of incentives to developers, Warren says, while being all but shut out of the jobs that the projects create.

Those incentives are currently awarded — some would say too freely — by COMIDA, which requires people seeking incentives to exclusively use local labor on construction jobs, though applicants can get a waiver. The problem, Warren says, is that COMIDA defines local labor as workers from the nine-county region. A Rochester IDA would tie incentives to the employment of Rochester residents. For a developer to receive incentives, Warren says, an established percentage of workers would have to live in the city.

Warren's plan also calls for the implementation of a Rochester Opportunity Agenda. The agenda would "build a coordinated, citywide work force system aimed at both providing city residents with the skills they need for gainful employment, and employers with a pool of well-qualified and motivated employees," the plan says.

Other components of the plan include supporting minority and women-owned businesses, and encouraging small business and entrepreneurship.

In Warren's words: I believe that the focus has been on trying to attract large companies instead of helping small companies grow here.

One of the things in my economic development is rapid financing. You have these small businesses that want to grow, and just because of their inability to finance that new development, are holding back. So we could assist them.

We have businesses that want to build. We may not get a company that comes in and gives us 500 jobs. But you may have 50 companies that give 10. You accomplish the same thing. We need to say, "We're here to support you, and we're willing to train the people," working with MCC to train people to fill that skill-set void that we have.

Community colleges across the country are doing something called stacking, where you don't necessarily have to do an associate's program. But you can get into a skilled trade or develop some skills — a certificate program where you stack the certificates until you get an associate's degree.

Say, in optics: you need certain types of skills to be employed in that. And in Rochester, optics is a really big thing. We could train people to go into that field, put them into some businesses, and then help those businesses grow.

If you're able to give people an opportunity at a good, quality job, you're able to open up the market for residents to purchase homes and live in the city.

Richards on jobs and economic development

Richards does not support a Rochester IDA. The economics of Rochester are tied to the economics of the region, Richards says, so to focus exclusively inward would doom the city to failure.

Richards says he wants to position Rochester as one of the good choices for business and developers, and to encourage people with the wherewithal to invest in the city. His strategy is built around diversity, development and job growth, and opportunities for city residents.

College Town, Midtown, the Flats at Brooks Landing, and the numerous housing projects around the city have created hundreds of construction jobs, Richards says, and millions in investment. The workers on those first three projects are largely city residents, Richards says, and at least 20 percent are women and minorities.

A lot of people are taking credit for the recently achieved diversity in the police and fire departments. But the truth is, if one person alone could've fixed that, the problem would've been solved long ago. It took the efforts of Richards, Warren, City Council member Adam McFadden, other members of City Council, and the departments themselves to finally boost minority participation in public safety jobs.

Responding to critics who say that the city gives away too much to rich developers, such as the recent sale of Midtown tower to high-profile local developers for $2, Richards says that the decision to award incentives is not based on the personal wealth of individual developers, but on the benefits the projects would bring to the city. And without incentives, he says, many of these projects wouldn't get done.

In Richards' words: We totally have forgotten the fact that Midtown has gone through a bankruptcy, has gone through three owners, was owned by a distressed-debt hedge fund in New York City, was 80 percent vacant. The tower had been closed for five years; was full of asbestos.

Now that we've cleaned it up, all of a sudden: "We're in nirvana." But we're not. The value of the City of Rochester is not in the dirt. It's what you do with the dirt.

The Midtown tower project is a $54 million project to which we've attracted $44 million worth of private money. And even the money the city puts into it is loans that have to be paid back. So what's important here is not whether you get a dollar or for that matter $500,000 for the dirt. What matters is what you get in terms of development.

So you get hundreds of people downtown, you get the downtown area cleaned up and made attractive for others to invest around it and participate in it. That's what you're looking for. And it's the multiplier that counts. If you focus on the dirt, we're dead. Quite frankly, the dirt isn't worth anything if you can't do something with it. And that's a particularly urban issue, because the cost of development in the city is much more intense than in the suburbs.

The premise [of critics] is that something will be done if we don't do anything; that $54 million will emerge from someplace, they'll pay all their taxes, and life will be good. Where the hell have you been for the last two decades? It's not going to happen.

Warren on finances

Everyone is looking at Detroit these days and wondering whether Rochester might someday find itself in a similar situation. Warren says that Detroit's bankruptcy is the legacy of decades of mismanagement and corruption, and that none of that applies to Rochester, which has an excellent bond rating and a balanced budget. What Rochester can learn from Detroit, she says, is that you can't put off dealing with your problems.

Rochester also can't rely on the state for assistance to fill its yearly budget gap. Pleas to increase state aid to achieve parity with Syracuse and Buffalo have consistently fallen on deaf ears.

Warren says that Rochester needs to think about things differently. It needs to attract new businesses, she says, and she will go across the country to recruit businesses and to promote the city. It needs to work with small businesses to help them grow, she says. And Rochester also needs to create an alternative education system so families stay in the city, Warren says.

In Warren's words: The Number 1 reason why people leave our city is because of our school district. They're just not going to pay property taxes and private school tuition. You can't blame them.

The property-tax system is antiquated because we have failed to do what needs to be done for the children in our city in providing alternatives to education. I believe that Rochester is a great city to live in for families, but when you have suburbs that are just as great as the city, people who have the ability to live out there will do that.

But overall, it's a state issue that I think the governor and the legislature need to look at and see how we are really going to finance these cities in the future. But we can't wait until they figure out what they want to do.

I'm going to go after businesses. I'm going to go after trying to stop the skill-set deficiency in our city. I'm going to travel across this country and be very active as the mayor and say, "Come to my city. I'm going to give you the opportunity to grow here." And do things that ordinarily a mayor would not necessarily do.

Richards on finances

Richards says that there are similarities between Rochester and Detroit in that each city has seen a serious depletion of its financial bedrock. For Detroit, it's the automobile industry. In Rochester, it's manufacturing.

Richards has taken steps such as spreading out a portion of the city's pension costs in order to avoid cutting services. That's important, he says, because before a city crumbles economically, its social and cultural fabric begins to tear. Example: By the time Detroit declared bankruptcy, 40 percent of its streetlights weren't working.

Richards says that settling union contracts as they come up and maintaining a good credit rating so the city can continue to borrow money at low interest rates are important to Rochester's financial health, and he has done both.

Richards says he expects the budget deficit to be smaller in the upcoming fiscal year, thanks to a number of factors including higher sales tax receipts and increased hiring in the fire department to reduce overtime. The self-funded health care program also kicks in, Richards says, which will save millions.

But there's no doubt, he says, that cities can no longer survive using property tax as their main source of revenue. And sooner or later, Richards says, Albany is going to have to face up to that fact.

In Richards' words: First of all, we need to accept responsibility for managing a certain amount of this ourselves. What we don't want to do is get in a situation where [Albany] can excuse not doing something with us because we didn't take care of ourselves.

An example is the agreement we made with the unions with respect to health care. And we just financed $34 million between rolling over some debt and taking some new debt in, and we were able to do it for less than a percent. If we can keep that up, then we have the capacity here to invest in our city. Detroit, when they went bad, was paying about 8 percent on some of this stuff they financed. That's nuts.

A couple of things could help us. One is to bring some balance into the state aid so that the state recognizes its obligation to urban areas through some kind of even per-capita distribution. They do that for school districts now. The same thing could be true in the way in which municipalities like ours are expected to aid schools. We give the school district $119 million. I'm not begrudging that. It's just the impact that's the problem, because it takes 60 percent of our real estate property tax, and it's tough to manage everything else without it.

The way in which we provide policing services, fire services, recreation services, library services: you could change the mechanism by which you funded that.

Along the way, we'll have to make value judgments about where we put our money. But I don't subscribe to the process that it's simply a matter of "we're going to cut our way to success." We're not.

When you make these judgments, you forget that there's a cost to anything you do. If I don't replace 20 policemen or I close a firehouse, there's a cost there. It's harder to calculate.

So when people give these lectures in Albany about what you should do, I'm saying: "Wait a minute. You're only looking at half the proposition here. I'm not in business to make money. I'm in business to provide services to people." So that calculus has to get into our conversation at our level, and at the state level as well.

Warren on public safety

Policing is a perpetual issue in urban areas. In Rochester, one of the liveliest discussions is around the organization of the police department. Many people, including Warren, want the city to expand the current structure from two full sections and a smaller downtown station to something more closely resembling Rochester's old seven-section police operation.

The reorganization was supposed to save money, but the savings are hard to document because the RPD has also expanded its ranks since the reorganization. Critics say the change also hurt the RPD's relationship with the neighborhoods, literally and symbolically. Many speak of a time when beat officers would stop and play basketball, for example, with neighborhood children. But it can be difficult to separate nostalgia from the official record.

Warren says that needs vary in every sector of the city, and customized policing models are needed. You can't do that, she says, with the current structure.

Warren is one of three Council members who voted against the downtown police substation, which opened in July. Some neighborhoods are clamoring for police presence, she says, and are told that the issue must be studied. Yet the downtown station opened without a comprehensive study, she says.

Residents of Rochester's most troubled neighborhoods often say that everyone knows the location of the drug houses, the open-air drug markets, and the corners where dealers hustle. Yet these illegal enterprises continue to thrive. Warren says that the residents of these communities are perceived as powerless and voiceless; therefore their needs aren't given high priority.

In Warren's words: You take those issues on, as mayor. You say: "Listen, I want law and order in my city. If there's a drug house or if there are open-air drug markets going on, I'm telling you upfront that we're going to be aggressive. We're going to be law-abiding, but we're going to be aggressive." Not, "I'm going to bust down your door and knock you upside the head." But "I'm going to go after the criminals in our city."

You're going to have some complaints about it, but once you start to deal with the problem legally and efficiently and effectively, the neighborhoods and neighbors start to feel empowered. And they start to want to take back their community. And they start to want to work with you.

The way our system works now, because they have to just respond to 911 calls, it's hard for police to have any down time to walk the beat and say "hi." Some of our neighborhoods never see a police officer. Some people see police officers all the time; other places never see a police officer until something happens.

If you go to more of a quadrant model, you're still going to be responding to 911 calls, but I think that you'll be able to get officers into situations where they can have some down time to get out of the car.

Richards on public safety

Richards has resisted calls to add police sections. More sections would be expensive, he says, and technology has reduced the need for actual buildings. Every squad car is essentially a mobile command center.

Richards also says that people tend to romanticize the old way of doing things, and that crime in the city was at its highest under the seven-section model. And, he says, police-community relations were worse back then, too.

Nevertheless, Richards has agreed to study the organization of the police department because, he says, the issue of how people perceive their relationship with the police is important. Money for the study is included in this year's budget, though at last check, a company hadn't yet been hired.

A great deal of thought and planning went into the new downtown police substation, Richards says. Fifty-thousand people come downtown each day, he says, and the city must put its resources where the people are.

And the city shouldn't rush into a situation that would take tens of millions of dollars to establish and many years and much anguish to dismantle if it didn't accomplish what it was supposed to accomplish, Richards says.

The situation around drug houses and drug sales in the neighborhoods is complex, he says, and partly a consequence of the changes in the drug culture. Ten years ago, dealers were selling heroin on the corner. If you get caught for that, Richards says, you're going to jail. Today, the people on the corner are selling marijuana, which can be a misdemeanor, depending on the amount. So the consequences and the impact of those arrests are low.

In Richards' words: We have this goofy system in New York where we've pretty much decriminalized marijuana for a lot of good reasons. But if it's OK to have it, but it's not OK to sell it, what's the system? The police are in this impossible situation.

The other thing in this issue is the knife edge we have to walk between moving people along and civil liberties. And for that matter, racial profiling.

So how do we deal with that problem? It seems to me what we're trying to do — and there's a pretty intense effort under way — is to see if we can't use the tools we have today that are better than they used to be in terms of identifying who the bad guys really are. If we can use our information process to focus more narrowly on the people who are in fact violent or willing to be violent, rather than stop everybody on the corner, we can act in a way that begins to focus on the real source of the problem.

But it's not against the law to stand on the corner.

And the same people — I understand why; I'm not being critical — but the same people saying, "We all know where it is," you ask, "Well, where is it? And are you willing to say so?" "Well, no."

The economics are underneath it. Why are those young men on the corner? They're not getting rich. They're doing it because they don't have other opportunities. Either they don't have them or they're not conditioned to take advantage of them. Whatever it is, this seems to them to be the best opportunity.

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