Veteran journalist of 18 years, Rachel Barnhart is one of four democratic candidates running for Rochester’s mayor. Her long reporting career which she describes as a “public service,” is her main qualification for being mayor, leaving many wondering if she can hold her own in the upcoming year.
However, she stated that not only does she think her career has set her up to be a great representative, she thinks it even gives her leverage.
“Journalists uphold democracy by holding the government and officials accountable and by keeping them honest,” Barnhart said, referring to the long-standing tradition of journalists being watchdogs. She said her many years covering local politicians and policy has made her ready to not only make politics more honest but join the fray.
“I’m independent, willing to take risks and I’m not beholden to anyone,” she said. “I don’t have a bunch of people lined up to get jobs at the City Hall or keep jobs at City Hall.”
If you remember Barnhart’s name from something other than Channel 8 news, you may be remembering her last political campaign which took place just last year against Assemblyman Harry Bronson. Last year, Barnhart quit her job at WROC to run for the 138th District. However, she lost in the Democratic primaries against incumbent Harry Bronson 54% to 45%. After her first political run and defeat, Barnhart claims to have learned a lot about the unfairness of politics, particularly the emphasis on big dollars, even publishing book BroadCasted.
In her mayoral announcement speech, Barnhart announced she’d read every single city and school budget, city council legislation, city’s request for proposals and environmental impact statement on big projects dating back to 1999. As a result, she said, her platform is designed to reflect her focus on economic growth and diversity.
Barnhart’s “number one” initiative has gotten a lot of criticism.
“We are proposing to cut property taxes in half for everyone,” Barnhart said during her announcement speech, which since, has garnered a number of discussions. “Everyone” includes all homeowners, renters, businesses and developers in Rochester regardless of economic standing. And much of Barnhart’s plans for development is highly reliant on this property tax proposal. According to Barnhart’s campaign, 27% of homeowner’s and 60% of renter’s income goes toward paying housing, giving Rochester some of the highest property taxes in the region. Barnhart claims these payments are not only burdensome for residents but discourages businesses to develop in the city. In theory, by significantly cutting taxes residents can invest more in their homes, thus raising property value, and businesses will become attracted to Rochester, thus creating more jobs.
That’s the argument anyway.
However, the already underfunded city will then lose half its revenue from property taxes. Barnhart concedes that paying for a proposal of this magnitude will require “long range planning.” Barnhart suggests the plan will be implemented in three years after a full reassessment while putting money into a dedicated fund. Once again, her payment method relies on the possible deals she can negotiate with the water companies, state and a hypothetical new tax base from incoming businesses and homeowners. Nevertheless, Barnhart is confident that once her tax plan is approved it will immediately attract new development in the city.
“Revenue will start to come right away. We don’t have to wait three years,” Barnhart said.
Another major platform are local schools. Barnhart said diversity is very important to her as well as providing more educational opportunities to lower income and inner city students. She believes the “ethical,” albeit unrealistic, position would to have a county-wide school district. Instead, Barnhart proposes an indirect method to diversify Rochester’s school systems.
“Nobody wants to go first but what I’m going to do is gather a whole bunch of families in a room and say, ‘Look. I know you don’t want to go as individuals but what if went to the school together… Your children will benefit, other children will benefit and you wouldn’t have to sell your home,” Barnhart said.
The practicality of just asking people to move glosses over the long history of racial tension, socioeconomic divisions and exaggerated fear of violence between the city and suburbs. And in Rochester, this has cemented into a city with serious economic and racial divides.
Barnhart said herself: “We have some of the most segregated schools in the country.” And if Brown v the Board of Education is any indicator, the process of desegregation, even when it’s de facto segregation, is a long, strenuous and offstandish process.
Diversity is a major emphasis as well as crux on Barnhart’s campaign. On one hand, she says she lives in a “truly diverse” neighborhood, has a diverse group of friends and even attended school in the city (she graduated from Marshall High School). As a resident of Beechwood, Barnhart is able to see firsthand some of the first effects of gentrification in the city.
On the other hand, Barnhart’s racial sensitivity has been a topic of discussion in the past. For instance, a 2009 news story went viral of two Popeye’s in Rochester, one in Penfield and the other in the city, that ran out of chicken shortly after introducing a promotional special. The story only covered the Popeye’s in the city with all black customers agitated about the business running out of fried chicken. For many, it was a clear indicator of problematic racial undertones. Barnhart characterizes the incident as a “mistake” but still has to answer to it repeatedly over the years.
“Diversity is very important to me. Social justice is very important to me. But it doesn’t mean I can’t make a mistake and apologize for it,” Barnhart said.
Barnhart has also been called into question with her affiliation to Robert Scott Gaddy. Gaddy is a well-known lobbyist from Albany who has close ties to assemblyman David Gantt, sometimes referred to as his “son.” Barnhart describes Gaddy as a friend as well as an adviser and supporter of her bid to assembly last year. Gaddy has been on the wrong side of the news as of late for unpaid taxes to the IRS and accusations of striking journalists. Barnhart stated that Gaddy is not involved with her mayoral campaign and that “[Gaddy’s] problems are not my campaign’s problems”.
“I didn’t see someone who was unethical or saw any unethical behavior, especially on my campaign. The media coverage continued last week where his side didn’t really get out there. I’m not defending him but I’m just saying,” Barnhart said.
She adds she was not aware of any financial issues either. Barnhart states that she hopes this campaign is about the issues. As she continually said she is the only candidate to come up with a plan to reduce poverty and grow the economy. Of course, those plans are not without their flaws, often ranging on too optimistic for a real political climate. Barnhart is definitely passionate about the Rochester community and has years of experience in asking the right questions to solve Rochester’s problems. Whether she has the right answers to those questions or the know-how to implement change in Rochester is still up for debate.