What Happened (in Rochester)
I knocked on the door of a woman in Charlotte. She listened to my pitch politely and said, “Sometimes change is scary, you know?”
“No matter who is mayor, the streets will be plowed and the trash will be picked up,” I responded. “This election is about moving our city into the future. It’s about enacting ethics reform at City Hall. It’s about tackling poverty and growing our economy.”
As I walked away, I knew my arguments didn’t resonate with this voter. She believed the city was running just fine. There was no need to rock the boat.
It turns out, a large majority of voters agreed with her.
James Sheppard and I ran campaigns based on the assumption that voters were fed up with Lovely Warren’s well-documented ethical lapses and leadership stumbles. Several polls showed her approval ratings among city Democrats below 50 percent. She was vulnerable.
Sheppard and I were terribly wrong.
A couple things happened during the campaign that helped Warren tremendously.
Local media coverage was severely lacking. It focused largely on controversies, not issues and record.
Reporters gave Warren a pass on her history of ethical problems. My ethics complaint regarding Warren’s use of city property to help friends and corporations did get decent coverage. The media also rightly lambasted her for falsely claiming she created and retained 30,000 jobs.
But Warren’s ethical lapses are much more extensive. The Democrat and Chronicle never did a story on Warren’s overall record, which would have mentioned the Rochester Housing Authority scandal, bulldozing of a homeless tent village and security detail fiasco. It’s also part of the record that Warren hates media scrutiny, most recently accusing a radio host of having an agenda.
Reporters didn’t grasp the seriousness of Warren’s campaign finance violations, which included using her political action committee as a piggy bank. The D&C has refused to report on the PAC’s spending or quote experts saying she could face criminal charges. A downstate media organization reported on the problems, which worsened with a subsequent filing. I believe there’s a possibility Warren will not finish her second term as a result of this conduct.
The media largely didn’t cover issues. Coverage of the Parcel 5 debacle was decent. My press conferences on childcare and broadband internet got little or no play. The D&C did good stories on education, ethics and the heroin crisis, but not economic development or housing. The paper never produced a chart comparing the candidates’ positions and platforms. Instead, it pushed readers to candidate websites.
There are four television stations. Combined, they only did a few issues-based stories on the mayoral race. That’s astonishing.
The Democrat and Chronicle editorial board opted not to endorse a candidate. The D&C wrote glowing things about all of us, instead of doing a critical analysis. City Newspaper endorsed Warren with only a passing mention of one controversy — Parcel 5. The alternative weekly even put her picture exclusively on the front cover. It played like a huge ad for her candidacy.
When media coverage is lacking, money has more influence over campaigns. Warren spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads, billboards and mailers touting dubious accomplishments. There was very little to counter and balance this information.
Local leaders and institutions stayed out of the mayoral race. The Chamber of Commerce, Rochester Teachers Association and Rochester Police Locust Club didn’t endorse a candidate. Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assemblymen Joe Morelle and Harry Bronson, and Rep. Louise Slaughter said nothing. Silence speaks volumes, but the community deserved to know why Warren didn’t get their backing. They turned their back on a sitting mayor for a reason.
Warren’s illness canceled the first two debates. We ended up with only one televised debate that wasn’t in primetime and very late in the race. Debates were very important to my campaign, as I tend to outperform my opponents on the stage. (Watch videos of neighborhood forums.) Many people simply didn’t watch the sole debate. That was unfortunate, because Warren refused to answer questions about her campaign finance problems. She also made a huge misstep by shaming me over a $35 unpaid water bill. It was a window into her character.
From the start, my campaign suffered from the perception we were not viable. We struggled to raise funds. Hundreds of people gave us small donations, but the big money stayed away. Some potential donors said Warren would retaliate if they gave us cash. Meanwhile, Sheppard was raking in money, benefiting from the perception he could beat Warren. He also had access to the Tom Richards establishment crowd and union funds.
As the progressive reformer, I was all alone.
I told Councilwoman Molly Clifford last November that Sheppard wasn’t a viable candidate. I told her his negatives among African Americans were sky high because of his policing record. She told me she was committed to him. I told her I was likely running for mayor, anyway. I never heard from her again.
We had data to back up our assertion that Sheppard couldn’t win. Polling showed Warren and I clobbering him in one-on-one scenarios. Things looked ugly for me in a three-way scenario. I was generally the second choice for Sheppard voters and Warren voters, which put me in last place. We felt a three-way race could be doable, if Warren’s numbers went down further. The bar I needed to clear would be lower.
In order to damage Warren, we needed a couple things to happen. We needed Sheppard to get the Democratic designation, which would have allowed people to abandon Warren. We also needed Sheppard and Warren to beat each other up.
Neither of those things happened, because Sheppard was a terrible candidate. We needed him to perform better than he did. Despite spending $300,000, Sheppard started and ended his campaign below 25 percent. He wasn’t able to take any votes from Warren. Sheppard was so ineffective, he may have bolstered Warren’s support.
We did a poll a few weeks ago that showed Sheppard and I would lose by double digits, even if all of the undecided voters went to us. But Warren was still below 50 percent. There was a chance to defeat her if we combined forces. We reached out to his campaign. We felt I was the more effective candidate, as I’d spent so little money and still had a base of support. I also didn’t have Sheppard’s baggage and handily beat him in a one-on-one scenario. Let me have a clear shot now and let Sheppard have one in November. After all, don’t we agree Warren is a bigger problem than either of us winning? They refused to even meet with us.
I would have loved a heads-up race between me and Warren.
Voters had no idea Sheppard was dead on arrival. Polling data was never released. The media barely reported on his policing record and his problems in the African American community. His base wanted Warren gone, and believed only he was capable of achieving that goal.
Sheppard pushed this notion, even declaring me not a “legitimate candidate.”
Sheppard’s voters started to get a clue after the televised debate. They told me I won the debate. But they were worried a vote for me was a vote for Warren.
There were also people terrified Sheppard would win. They thought a vote for me was a vote for Sheppard.
In the final days, I asked people to vote their conscience. I knew it didn’t matter anymore.
Don’t Knock Voters
There’s no question Sheppard and I had problems with our campaigns. Sheppard had no message and a bad record. I had problems with fundraising and organizing. My proposal on property taxes fell flat. Critics could say my lack of experience doomed my candidacy, but the results show I held my own with Sheppard, who ran on his management skills. Polling also showed I would have destroyed him in a heads-up race.
My opponents were advertising on TV and bombing mailboxes all summer. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. We raised about $50,000 and sent out only a few targeted mailers the final week. I got 3,100 votes by primarily making calls and knocking on doors, meaning I was an effective candidate. (Aside: We need campaign finance reform. All candidates should get the same amount of money.)
Even if everything would have gone my way or Sheppard’s way, Warren would have won. She may not have won with such a huge margin, but she would have won. She sounded very impressive and projected a positive, accomplished image. The prospect of change was scarier than another Warren term filled with poor judgment and ethical problems.
Voters knew what they were doing. They wanted stability. They saw progress downtown. Warren has a passionate base that views her as a role model and excellent leader. Many white voters valued her level of support among African Americans. Nearly two-thirds of those who cast ballots felt Warren was at least doing a capable job.
All of our mayors have kept the city running. I wanted to do more.
After I cast my ballot on Tuesday, I walked home. I looked at my phone and saw a tweet from a supporter, “First local election where I believe there’s hope.” I fought back tears and smiled. I loved this campaign. I loved fighting for this city’s future. I won’t stop.