The outsider

True tales from the 2017 Rochester mayor’s race



Lissa Mathis

Hang on, Rochester; this year’s woolly, tough-to-predict mayor’s race is hurtling toward at least one probable conclusion: a sitting mayor/former City Council president running for re-election as an “outsider.”

It all started when Lovely Warren, then head of Council, decided to challenge Mayor Tom Richards for the Democratic endorsement in 2013. Richards rose to the surface after Mayor Bob Duffy’s decision to run for lieutenant governor set off a burlesque that gave the city a fistful of mayors over a period of weeks. 

Warren’s decision and the decision by some Dems to defy tradition and keep pushing Richards even after Warren won the primary election were like twin comets striking and fracturing the party. Her victory led to upheaval on some of the designating committees—the people who choose the party’s nominee—which will make it difficult, many people say, for Warren to get the endorsement this time. At the time of this writing, former Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard was dominating the designating committees’ votes, all culminating in the May 18 Democratic convention, when the endorsement is officially awarded; one of Warren’s opponents, former Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard, won the support of the committees in the city’s Northwest Quadrant in early March. 

But maybe the designation doesn’t matter. Being chosen by the committees is a badge of honor but isn’t necessary to win. There is plenty of precedent in Rochester for candidates winning without the party’s endorsement or losing with it. So let’s take a look at the mayoral candidates and their advantages and disadvantages in this election season. (Since the city is dominated by Democrats, whoever wins the September primary is almost certainly the next mayor of Rochester.) 

    

Lovely Warren 

Warren got off to a rocky start as mayor and some still savor the schadenfreude. Unmayor-like behavior on social media—Warren said her account was hacked—charges of nepotism, and scandal at the Rochester Housing Authority may still haunt. Warren has also accomplished little on the major issue of her first mayoral campaign: education. She made a curious proposal centered around struggling city schools, but it was quickly shot down by the State Education Department. 

Warren’s administration settled in eventually, and the mayor is known for showing up at events big and small around the city. She stood up to President Donald Trump’s attack on sanctuary cities, and protections for LGBTQ people have increased on her watch. The downtown housing boom continues unabated and high-profile projects are on tap, including development of the filled-in stretch of the Inner Loop and redevelopment of a prime Midtown parcel.  

Warren also cites a declining crime rate—though homicides were up significantly in 2016—the police reorganization, and the institution of police body cameras. She’s sure to get big points, too, from many people, for getting rid of the red-light cameras. 

Warren has a strong get-out-the-vote effort, too, which could be the difference in this race. 

 

James Sheppard

Sheppard, the former police chief, is arguably the opponent that Warren should worry the most about. He’s affable, has administrative experience, and for those who believe that public safety is the city’s top issue, Sheppard is probably their guy. And Sheppard’s vows of transparency and cooperation will be well received by Warren critics who say that the mayor often acts like an autocrat and can be heavy-handed and difficult to work with. 

Sheppard’s camp has been slow to reveal specifics, though. They say it’s because they’re being thoughtful and deliberate, but critics say it’s because they’re starved for ideas. (Sheppard did roll out a comprehensive plan to assist Rochester’s many refugees, and he talks about replicating successful city schools.) 

Sheppard will have to deal with the perception, however, that he favored cops over the community when it came to accusations of police overreach and aggression. 

 

Rachel Barnhart 

Barnhart has the advantage of a built-in following thanks to her time on Rochester’s television screens—she’s a former reporter/anchor for WROC—and her massive social media presence. She’s smart, she certainly knows the city, and she’s talking about critical modern issues, including transit and fiber Internet. 

The downside is that many are wary of Barnhart’s plan to cut property taxes in half while also proposing neighborhood police precincts and daycare subsidies. She says she’ll demand more money from the state—good luck with that—and that people and businesses will flock to the city because of her tax cut. 

People also question Barnhart’s lack of political and administrative experience. Barnhart has not done well in the designating process, but she probably didn’t expect to. She’s undoubtedly banking on the backing of rank-and-file Dems in the actual primary election over the so-called party “elites” in the designating process. 

 

Alex White 

White is a small business owner in the city and once dressed as Dr. Horrible for Roc Con—which counts as an advantage in my book. He ticked off the Green Party—his home base—by trying to get the Democratic endorsement to run for mayor, but the Dems let him play. He can continue on to the November general election as a Green, however. (Other candidates will likely seek third-party endorsements, too, so that they can compete in the general election despite the results of the primary.)

White’s stance against tax breaks and other assistance for wealthy developers is popular with many, though practical progressives often see them as a necessary evil and a way to get affordable units into otherwise cost-prohibitive housing. White also “walks the talk” by working with community groups on issues such as police body cameras and job training for city school students. 

Working against White, though, is that he’s a member of a third party, and third parties haven’t gotten much traction locally or anywhere else. 

 

Lori Thomas 

Thomas, a retired teacher for the Rochester City School District, announced her candidacy in early April. She says that she will run as an independent candidate. Thomas ran an unsuccessful bid for Rochester school board on the Green Party line in 2013. She is a longtime education advocate, urging change in local, state, and national education policies, and a frequent critic of the Rochester school board and school district, particularly of what she says is a lack of accountability. 

Thomas spent eighteen years as an environmental services operator for the City of Rochester. She told a local news station that, as mayor, she would focus on growing the city’s tax base and increasing homeownership. 

Thomas doesn’t appear to have much of a chance, but it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, she has on the race. If you believe that the mayor’s race is a referendum on Warren, then Thomas could conceivably split the anti-Warren vote with Sheppard and Barnhart, making it more difficult for any of the three to defeat the sitting mayor.  

 

Christine Carrie Fien is a writer who lives in Chili with her husband and son.

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