Bookmark and Share

Smith talks purpose as he preps for mayoral post

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle USA TODAY NETWORK

Incoming mayor for a month James Smith will, among his first duties, need to appoint a deputy mayor to replace himself.

That is necessary for operations — if the mayor is the CEO, the deputy mayor is the COO, keeping tabs on the day-to-day functions. And it’s good practice for what former Mayor Thomas Richards used to refer to as the “Tom gets hit by a bus” scenario.

Far from perfunctory, however, Smith sees a clear purpose in his 30 days at the helm.

“I don’t intend to put my feet up and just ride it out,” he said Wednesday in his first interview since news broke of Warren’s early departure.

Smith is expected to take the reins at midnight Dec. 2, after Mayor Lovely Warren resigns.

Warren’s early exodus was a condition of a plea agreement reached Monday resolving campaign finance and other criminal charges against her. Less than 48 hours later, interim Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan went on the radio and announced she will step down next week.

Word of the chief’s impending departure leaked days before the mayor’s plea but, taken together, made the lame-duck administration appear even more ineffectual.

Smith, who will become the city’s first openly gay mayor, isn’t envisaging any major announcements or policy changes. Rather, he said, his purpose is twofold: “Act and make sure that city government is continuing to operate and continuing to serve the citizens of Rochester,” he said. And? “To do anything and everything I can to make sure the transition for (Malik Evans) to become the next mayor is smooth.”

City Councilman Malik Evans defeated Warren in a June primary and is the only mayoral candidate on the November ballot.

“It’s very important for him to succeed,” Smith said. “Because that means that we as a city succeed.”

Two-fold focus If Smith sounds the part of a bureaucrat it’s because he is one, and he expects those credentials — having worked at various levels of city and county government, as well as a stint at the Monroe County Water Authority — to serve him well.

He has been deputy mayor since 2019, and served as city communi-

Rochester City Deputy Mayor James Smith, shown in file photo, is expected to take the reins at midnight Dec. 2, after Mayor Lovely Warren resigns. SHAWN DOWD/DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE

Continued from Page 1A

cations director the four years prior.

He changed parties from Republican to Democrat when he joined the Warren administration, and quite likely marks another first in serving atop a Republican administration (as deputy Monroe County executive but also Seneca County manager) and a Democratic one in the city.

He will take over a city government with interim heads of the police, fire and law departments. That list no doubt could grow. But it already is quite extraordinary.

As for the history being made with the first LGBTQ+ Rochester mayor: “It’s very much overdue,” he said. “Rochester has always had a very active LGBTQ+ community, and very visible LGBTQ+ community.”

But it has been some time since that was prominently represented in city government.

“I hope it sends a strong message that that’s what Rochester is all about.”

Smith has a dual role as liaison to the LGBTQ community, and said Warren “has never equivocated” on matters he relayed to her. That wasn’t always the case.

When Warren kicked off her first campaign for mayor back in 2013, it was at a meeting of Democratic loyalists on the city’s east side. Asked about marriage equality that night, then-Mayor Richards said he supported it, and did so before New York state made it law. He called it a civil rights and personal issue. Warren answered: “As an attorney I support the state’s laws . ... Since that is a law that the state passed, I support it.”

The response was panned by many in the audience.

In office, however, she has lobbied for LGBTQ rights, added transgender medical services to the city’s health benefits and joined the national bipartisan coalition Mayors Against LGBT Discrimination.

“I’m struck by the weight of it,” Smith said of finishing out Warren’s term.

Three mayors, three months

The city has been through this mayoral carousel before, after then-Mayor Robert Duffy was elected lieutenant governor in 2010.

Duffy’s deputy mayor, Patty Malgieri, resigned. That ushered in Richards, moving first from corporation counsel to deputy mayor, then mayor, until he stepped aside after three weeks over questions of whether he could hold the office in an acting capacity and run for the office at the same time. Federal law bars some government employees from political activity. Carlos Carballada, who was the city’s commissioner of neigborhood and business development, stepped in under the city’s emergency provisions, until Richards returned after winning a special election three months later. This time, the city will have three mayors in as many months. “Stay focused on the job,” Evans said, seemingly speaking directly to city staffers when asked about perceptions of a potentially rudderless City Hall. “It is their work that really keeps City Hall moving. If they do that, we’ll be OK.”

Warren isn’t done yet, of course. There are still items on the to-do list. Now with one month less to get things done.

“What the city needs now, more than ever, is stability — and a renewed sense of confidence,” said Duffy, now president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce.

“You don’t want government to stop.”

But, he continued, every significant decision through the end of the year should be run through Evans and have his support. Duffy pointed particularly to any large expenditures or investments impacting the city’s fiscal health — speaking generally, he said, not specifically calling out the spending plan for $200 million in federal recovery dollars that Warren laid out last week.

City Council has been asked to appropriate some of those funds, and possibly to endorse the mayor’s overall plan later this month. Whether that moves forward is unclear.

“There’s no good reason for us to appropriate that money now there is nothing that indicates we even should be appropriating it now. “There’s no reason why we should be making any major decisions around those dollars in the last three months of this administration,” City Councilman Mitch Gruber said, with the exception of projects previously vetted in anticipation of these dollars. “There’s no reason to rush it.”

Contact reporter Brian Sharp at bdsharp@gannett.com or at 585-258-2275. Follow him on Twitter @sharproc. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers.

Bookmark and Share