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John Doyle: Ready to do battle for county executive

“I have stood on Patton’s grave,” John Doyle announces with a passion that few know him by.
Balding, bespectacled and portly, Doyle has the dark-suited, lawyerly appearance of a man in the background when the photo of the bill signing is snapped.
Indeed, such was his role for most of his career.
Now, finding himself in the highly visible Monroe County executive’s seat, Doyle–a military-history buff–displays a warrior’s streak.
He was appointed to the office in January after predecessor Robert King’s hurried departure to take a top post in new Gov. George Pataki’s administration.
As an appointee, Doyle faces a general election in November. Some expect him to be a shoo-in, but an easy electoral ride does not sit well with Doyle.
He longs for a worthy opponent. Although he has vied in only one election to date–a relatively sedate judicial race–Doyle is like a warhorse longing for the chariot’s traces and the zing of arrows around his head.
In a recent interview before the Democrats named a candidate, he voices frustration that the opposing party’s two likeliest suspects–Irondequoit Assemblyman Joseph Morelle and Kevin Murray, county Legislature minority leader– have nixed candidacies. Doyle wants to win, but he wants a fair fight.
“It puts an edge on things,” he says. “I like debate, and if you beat out the other guy, it gives your ego a boost.”
A few days later, Eugene Welch, who for 15 years headed the state attorney general’s Rochester office, announces that he will run for county executive.
Welch, Doyle decides, will do.
Whether the campaign will satisfy Doyle’s battle lust remains to be seen. But his conduct in the office so far suggests Doyle is saving his combative instincts for the race.
What interests him about military history, he says, is not the battles. It is the psychology of the men who waged them. Doyle wants to know what made a Gen. George Patton or a Field Marshall Ervin Rommel tick.
As county executive, Doyle, 53, has shown an inclination to compromise rather than fight. That quality has enabled him to capitalize on the good will left by his predecessor while calming waters that King had roiled.
A former Rochester corporation counsel, county attorney and state Supreme Court justice, Doyle epitomizes the old-line, establishment wing of the county’s Republican Party.
When the GOP sought a challenger to former County Executive Thomas Frey, the Democrat who ended some 16 years of Republican rule with his 1988 defeat of Lucien Morin, Doyle was on the short list, says Stephen Minarik, county Republican chairman.
Doyle says he declined the opportunity because it would have meant leaving his state Supreme Court seat and he could not afford the financial uncertainty a loss would bring.
The chance to snap up the job three years later was like a free pass-go ticket.
“It just came out of the blue,” Doyle says.
In January, it looked like King had left Doyle with a turnkey operation. But the supposedly well-oiled machine threw a rod shortly after Doyle took office.
King had shepherded through a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike that solved a looming multimillion-dollar budget deficit with no property tax hike. He also had ridden out a controversy-plagued battle over siting of a downtown stadium.
Such accomplishments in his three-year tenure had earned King high approval ratings among voters.
But days after King was installed in Albany, Pataki shot down Rochester’s stadium funding.
The move put Doyle in an awkward position, but he proved able in negotiating the crisis.
Later, the Assembly unexpectedly killed a scheduled extension of the sales tax hike, forcing a hastily drawn reformulation of the county’s revenue-distribution deal with the city, towns and school districts.
Again Doyle was nimble, within a week announcing a new deal with Rochester Mayor William Johnson Jr. at his side.
Popular among voters, the sometimes acerbic King also made enemies. Former Gannett Rochester Newspapers cartoonist Bill Mitchell used to picture an imperious King with a crown on his head. King fed the image, often referring to himself in the third person.
King riled downtown stadium backers with a proposal to locate the facility in Greece. And his hard-line insistence that the county keep all of the extra revenue generated by the additional 1 percent sales tax did not endear him to school and municipal officials.
According to Doyle, one normally courtly public official opened a session in the recent tax talks by reminding Doyle, in words not suitable to appear in print, that a number of people would be more than happy to see King emasculated, and would queue up for the chance to perform the operation.
Under the deal Doyle announced, the county will give up a portion of the extra sales tax take, ceding 25 percent of the increase to towns, villages, school districts and the city.
The hard line is not Doyle’s style, attorney Vincent Buzard says.
Buzard inherited Doyle as an assistant when he became Rochester corporation counsel in the early 1970s.
Doyle was a holdover from the previous, Democratic administration.
A onetime Democrat, Doyle says he already had switched parties when the City Hall power balance changed, but Buzard says that political affiliation had nothing to do with his decision to keep Doyle on.
“We needed him,” Buzard recalls. “We were new to the job, and Jack knew the law.”
Doyle’s placid exterior, he says, conceals an agile mind as capable with detail work as with broad-brush, global strategy.
For Doyle, Buzard believes, the county executive’s job is like a gift from God.
“He seems to have been born for this job. He’s always been involved in politics, but behind the scenes. I think he was itching for a chance to get out in front.”
In a way, Doyle was born to politics. His father, Emmett Doyle, was a Roosevelt Democrat who as a state senator was instrumental in passing the pro-labor “Little Wagner Act.”
Doyle believes he has not departed from his father’s politics; only the times have changed, he says, moving Rooseveltian ideals to the right.
A framed commemorative certificate of the Little Wagner Act can be found in his office, and Doyle says he trotted it out to show to duly impressed Civil Service Employees Association negotiators during recent contract talks.
The union signed a contract that had been in impasse through much of King’s tenure.
While most of his career has been spent in low-profile or behind-the-scenes jobs, Doyle’s entire working life has been in the public sector.
He studied economics at Boston College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1963, and immediately went into the U.S. Army.
After a two-year stint in Germany, where he toured World War II battle sites in his free time, Doyle earned a law degree from the University of Buffalo (now SUNY at Buffalo) in 1968.
That same year he married. The union produced two daughters, now ages 17 and 15, but ended in divorce in 1986. Doyle wed a second time in April, marrying the former Mary Gehl.
His first job out of UB was in the Rochester corporation counsel’s office.
After Buzard left the office, Doyle became corporation counsel in 1973.
He briefly continued even after Democrats retook City Hall in 1974, but that June he left to work for the Republican- controlled county as an assistant county attorney.
Doyle was named county attorney in 1978, and continued in the post until he was elected to a state Supreme Court seat in 1984.
Despite a background in municipal law, Doyle ended up on the criminal-court bench.
“I felt it was a learning experience, and at first I made some mistakes. I had a few reversals,” he admits, “nothing major.”
By 1986, when he handled the high-profile Malia-brothers cocaine case, Doyle felt he had hit his stride in criminal law.
The two brothers had appropriated their parents’ Irondequoit home as a drug warehouse. The parents, who were frail and in their 80s, stood trial alongside the wayward sons.
Doyle is particularly proud of his Solomonic sentencing in the case. The parents never saw the inside of prison. The older brother, whom Doyle believed to have been “the leader,” got 25 years to life, while the younger received a 20-year sentence.
Doyle says that he found the bench satisfying and probably would have continued had the county executive’s post not fallen in his lap.
A source highly placed in the Seventh Judicial District who asked to remain anonymous, however, says Doyle was increasingly at odds with what he saw as the pinheadedness of the downstate-dominated team that runs the state’s court administration.
“Doyle got along well with everybody, and did the job well,” the source says, “but he had frustrations.”
Doyle admits to dissatisfactions with court administration but declines to elaborate.
For now at least, the courts are in his past, Doyle says.
And after November, he hopes, the county executive’s office still will be in his future.


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