In a packed conference room in the downtown Rochester Radisson, a former three-term mayor, Bill Johnson, addressed the party faithful. “Fellow Democrats, today I ask you to support my candidacy for mayor,” his amplified voice told the room. But in the caucus vote that followed, they didn’t. The Democrats assembled on Saturday, Jan. 5, instead nominated former deputy mayor Tom Richards to bear their party’s standard.
RIT moved a scant eight miles away from downtown when the current campus was built in the 1960’s, but, to students struggling through winter quarter, Flower City politics can seem a million miles away. Still, however much RIT students like to forget it exists, Rochester politics doesn’t forget RIT.
In a poignant reminder to this fact, a special election on March 29 will pick a successor to Mayor Bob Duffy, an RIT alum who left the mayor’s office to serve as lieutenant governor. The most viable candidates are Richards, an RIT trustee and Duffy’s handpicked successor, and Johnson, currently an RIT professor of Public Policy.
Though acknowledging he faces “daunting odds” running as a third party candidate in a city used to punching the Democratic ticket, Johnson offers the most serious challenge to Richards’ inevitability. His biggest asset is name recognition, gained from serving three terms as mayor from 1994-2006. “I’m a Democrat; most people know I’m a Democrat,” he says. The main challenge, he hopes, will be educating voters to look farther down the ballot.
In 2006, when Johnson chose not to seek re-election for a fourth term amid a controversy surrounding the failed Fast Ferry project, he started teaching in RIT’s Public Policy department, which was happy to have him. That cleared the way for Duffy, the city’s chief of police, who served from 2006-2010.
In November 2010, New York voters elected Duffy to lieutenant governor. City Council had a choice: it could hold a special election in March, or appoint an interim mayor and then hold a September primary and a November general election. The special election’s shortened campaign period, critics said, would essentially hand the job to Richards. In a decision that sparked controversy, the council chose to hold the special election.
“We started out protesting the decision of City Council to forego the general election in the fall and to create this disadvantageous situation by having a winter election,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “And when those protests fell on deaf ears, and when I couldn’t persuade other people to run, I was almost put in a position by a group of supporters, that said, ‘Well, we’ve gone this far, somebody’s got to step forward.’”
And so, reluctantly, the mayor-turned-professor sought to turn mayor again. “I’ve been teaching this stuff on a theoretical basis, so it was time to really get out there, [get] back into the saddle, and see if we could make something happen,” he said.
But, in theory or reality, this city is no picnic. Johnson teaches a community economic development course focused on Rochester, where students try to tackle the challenges of declining cities. Since the 1950’s, residents have streamed to the suburbs and businesses have gone with them, leaving vacant housing, abandoned stores and less tax money to deal with those problems. “We’re looking at cities that have matured, that are essentially beyond their prime, but have the built environment already there, and they’ve got to contend with it,” Johnson said.
It sounds intractable: a downward spiral that has inspired a movement to shrink or downsize cities. In an interview, Johnson laid out a familiar battle plan: sprinkle business incentives here, revitalize nightlife there, and try to retain what’s left. These are tactics he tried during his 12 years as mayor. But in his speech at the Democratic convention, four days earlier, he endorsed something grander: a partnership between area colleges and citizens. RIT, he said, could now help transform the city.