James Sheppard thinks he can unite Rochester.
Over coffee last week, the county-legislator-turned-mayoral-candidate spelled out a vision of a Rochester where residents aren’t divided by race, class or town boundaries- a city that hasn’t existed in decades, if ever.
And he said he sees these separations in Rochester as one of the main reasons the city isn’t more successful.
“You look at this city and we’re divided any number of ways. We’re divided by race, we’re divided by geography, economics,” he said.
It’s not a new observation. In fact, the city-wide discourse on two Rochesters happens frequently and extensively as community experts and activists discuss the need to bridge the gap in experiences many Rochesterians face. Some face some of the highest hunger, poverty and violence rates in the nation. Others view Rochester as one of the best cities to live in. It’s a city on the cusp, they say.
As Mayor Warren once put it, you can go years in this city and never come face to face with the reality of how others live. However Sheppard said he’d be a better leader of these two Rochesters, so much so, they could become one.
Sheppard said he views many of the issues as identical to the ones his family migrated into: “We moved to the Rochester area in 1968…from Atlanta. The same issues exist: poverty, jobs, economic development, white flight, education, segregated schools.”
His family, like many of ours, migrated from southern states seeking economic opportunity. However, they often found little more than thinly veiled racism and discrimination, especially in housing and employment. In the 60s, that tension and division grew so large, members of the community rioted. White families moved to the suburbs, taking businesses with them. Since, the city has begun to sag, so overrun with its own tension and lack of opportunity that separation has cemented-though it’s now being uprooted somewhat by the removal of parts of the Inner Loop and recent expansion in downtown.
“There are a lot of people who don’t spend time in other parts of the city,” said Ravi Mangla of ROCitizen. He said many residents of the southeast quadrant, which includes the South Wedge and Neighborhood of the Arts, stay in that area and there is little crossover in the neighborhoods.
To reduce these barriers, Sheppard said he’d focus on a number of issues he’s identified as the main contributors to these divisions. He said he’d spread out development opportunities, allowing all neighborhoods to partake in the city’s prosperity; he’d work to heal the Democratic party, and would also ensure that everyone is heard, separating himself from Warren on issues like the Black Lives Matter protest.
Sheppard criticized Warren for leaving out certain neighborhoods when developing the city: “You have to take care of all of your babies. You don’t let one starve so others can get fat.”
Others have echoed those sentiments with James Little, a local resident living near Susan B. Anthony’s house, saying he feels the west side of the city has been mostly left out: “We have crime too and I feel like she’s only investing in areas over there because they have the Public Market.”
“If you’re going to say crime is because of poverty, because of this and that, then you can’t invest in some areas because then you’re saying the victims of those crimes, oh, they don’t matter over here,” he continued.
“I was probably on the job twelve years when Bill Johnson was elected and one of his big things was empowering the neighborhood and I think that is key,” explained Sheppard. “It’s not about me deciding. It’s about those communities saying what they need and they’re included. I’ve learned in life people may not always get what they want but the one thing they want is to be heard and so as long as they’re heard they can accept maybe not getting what they think should be, or getting their vision satisfied As long as their part of it and able to add input.”
Sheppard said he’d also focus on uniting the Democratic Party locally through his term, adding that Mayor Warren has only fractured the party more during her time in office. Factions within a party are normal in areas where majorities aren’t really contested. Since Republicans don’t have much of a foothold in Rochester, it allows the blue party to break down on issues, candidates and legislation.
“I am a uniter and I don’t believe she has been,” he said. “We have divisions within the party, candidates she’s run against people delegated by the party. She did not support candidates such as Louise Slaughter or Sandra Frankel. I think in the Sandra Frankel race she said, ‘Well, I have to work with whoever wins.’ Don’t we all?
“I mean, you left your chief because- ,” I interjected, hoping to discuss quickly his resignation from his Chief of Police position when Mayor Warren was elected. He’s stated previously he would’ve left regardless.
“You didn’t hear me, you didn’t hear me,” he continued. “I said, don’t we all? You have to deal with whoever wins. You can always say I don’t support anybody. That’s your position and I don’t believe that. You take a stand. If you’re going to be a democrat, you back democrats. You don’t want to back democrats then don’t be a democrat.”
He added that it’s also the best answer to what Americans are seeing with the election of President Donald Trump, stating his election and decisions made since he’s been in office demonstrate the strength of party politics. Already, a Republican majority has managed to work without Democratic support, the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, for instance, didn’t have a single vote from the blue side and Vice President Mike Pence broke the tie to confirm her. However he said unlike Republicans, he’d ensure legislation passed is focused on people.
“Look at the national level, what’s happened in this country,” he said. “That’s party politics because they’re in control of everything…What do you think will happen? Their agenda will get passed and their agenda isn’t about people. Thats the reality of it.”
Finally, he said he would be a better listener to what is keeping the city divided, allowing the conversations necessary to break them down. For example, he said he would have “let protestors chill” in this past summer’s Black Lives Matter protest because they “weren’t doing anything” and chastised Warren for passing the reigns to RPD Chief Michael Ciminelli. That night, there were about 73 arrests- the highest rate in the nation for BLM protests that week.
“It bothered me because they made arrests not because they were smashing stuff, breaking windows,” he said. “They made arrests because at 10:00 at night the East End was abut to turn into a business district and they didn’t want to clash and that’s the wrong reasons. I look at it as your job is OK, you got them protesting and sitting in the street? Lock the street [down] and let them chill. That would have been my position…What were they doing? They weren’t doing anything. They were just there.”
And in response to a question about whether this could be seen as taking sides and ultimately further divisive, he said, “People would’ve wanted leadership” and then added that he wouldn’t have cared about any backlash and would rather do what’s right.
It’s an interesting difference from the Sheppard who was chief. Just a few years ago City Councilmember Adam McFadden was calling him James “Stop and Frisk” Sheppard for his enforcement of a policy he inherited and then for the rollout of Operation Cool Down, a crack-down on all criminals, even those without bells on their bike. And Rochester has made national headlines multiple times both under Warren and under Mayor Tom Richards (while Sheppard was chief) for controversially brutal and/or unjust arrests.
However, Sheppard said he began “Policing in the Spirit of Service,” a community-oriented approach to policing that prioritizes relationships and communications. According to his website, he “encouraged officers to provide service to members of the Rochester community in a manner consistent with what they would want a member of their own family to receive.”
He also oversaw the arrests at Occupy, a protest that took place in Washington Square Park in 2011. That protest was criticized for the heavy-handed approach RPD took. He said Thursday that he was involved in every arrest, as chief, to ensure they were done fairly and this hands-on approach would be utilized as mayor also.
“I’d be there,” he said. “That’s something I don’t think this administration has done well. I’d be involved, I’d listen and I’d work on working together.”
Ultimately the goal is to unite Rochester in a way it almost never has been and Sheppard, like mayors before him, thinks he can undertake the task. We’re a city that both saw the creation of the North Star and the bombing of Frederick Douglass’ home. Divisions run almost as deep and as far through the city as the Genesee River.