Eugene Welch has a theory.
Good musicians, he believes, make good lawyers.
As head of the state attorney general’s Rochester office, Welch says, he never failed to quiz applicants for assistant slots on their musical interests and abilities.
It has something to do with harmony, he thinks. An individual with a good ear should also be attuned to the harmonies involved in putting a case together.
“I can’t really explain it,” says Welch, who sings in the choir of St. John the Evangelist Church on Humboldt Street.
It is an off-center sort of revelation for an underdog political candidate to make to a reporter. But Welch throws it out without thinking.
The Democrats’ late entrant in the Monroe County executive race, Welch, 50, is not politically streetwise.
A virtual stranger to the stump, he was constrained from political activity for most of his 15-year career as an assistant attorney general by order of his boss, former state Attorney General Robert Abrams.
Welch’s unfamiliarity with the glad-handing mechanics of the campaign trail was painfully evident in a low-key opening salvo as he declared his candidacy on the County Office Building steps a few weeks ago.
Apologizing for his lack of polish and halting delivery to a crowd of supporters, TV crews and a few mildly curious onlookers drawn by the cameras, he laid out an unsurprising platform, promising to eschew a raise and to provide good government and safe streets.
Against the $500,000 war chest and aura of incumbency amassed by his opponent, County Executive John Doyle, Welch’s declaration seemed quixotic.
Doyle is a former city and county attorney, and state Supreme Court justice. Like Welch, he had limited campaign experience and, until recently, had a relatively low public profile.
Unlike Welch, however, he is a born campaigner who lusts to do battle on the hustings.
Political observers also generally concede that Doyle–who was appointed in January to fill the balance of Robert King’s term after King quit to take a high-level state job–enjoys some residual glow of King’s voter approval.
Welch plans to counter whatever edge Doyle now enjoys with a frontal attack on an issue Doyle inherited from King, and an attempt to show that King and Doyle have failed to deliver on King’s campaign promise to shrink county government.
Faced with a growing budget gap, King in 1991 pushed through a 1 percent add-on to the county’s sales tax. So far, public reaction has been more positive than negative. King accurately read that voters prefer the sales tax to the roughly 30 percent property-tax hike that would have been needed to balance the county’s books without it.
Welch says county government has expanded rather than shrunk over the last four years, and believes he can convince voters that they have bought a more odious burden in accepting a sales-tax hike over higher property taxes.
How such a message will sit with the electorate remains to be seen.
As Doyle himself points out, the GOP tax position is based on polls showing that voters overwhelmingly put property-tax increases on a par with a bout of ebola.
Welch’s plan of attack runs counter to current campaigning wisdom, which prescribes feeding the electorate’s own mood–divined through polls and focus groups–back to the voters.
The Democrats’ hope is that Welch’s lack of political savvy will work to his advantage, connecting him and his message to voters more readily than Doyle’s does.
“Gene is unassuming and personable,” says Robert Cook, chairman of the Monroe County Democratic Committee. “He likes people and people like him. That he is not a traditional politician is definitely a plus.”
Though born and bred in Rochester’s 19th ward, Welch projects the boyish enthusiasm and aw-shucks, corn-fed earnestness of an Iowa eagle scout.
While Doyle speaks of eagerness for the fray and the ego boost of trouncing an opponent, Welch sees the campaign as a sort of social mixer.
“I’m probably more interested in talking to the woman who’s serving the snacks at a political rally than in meeting some congressmen,” he says. “That’s what appeals to me about it: The chance to meet ordinary people.”
In the context of a political campaign, such statements can appear to be studied attempts to woo voters with an I’m-just-plain-folks image.
A story of how his father had to drop out of school in the third grade, but worked himself up from janitor to supervisor at Rochester Gas and Electric Corp. bears all the marks of the politician’s standard born-in-a-log-cabin myth.
But when Welch talks about watching the old man hitting the books nights at the dining room table, it lacks the polished sheen of Mario Cuomo trotting out tales of his humble, immigrant parents’ grocery store.
The youngest of four brothers and first in the family to complete college, Welch by his own account nearly muffed his escape from the working class, dropping out of St. John Fisher College after his second year because of poor grades. He says a year spent working as a cleaner at Eastman Kodak Co. motivated him to return and try harder.
Although Welch was chastened enough by his Kodak moment to complete work on a bachelor’s degree in English, which he received in 1967, he had to be pushed into law school.
Shortly after graduating from St. John Fisher, Welch had married the former Nancy Markowski. (They now have been married 28 years and are the parents of a daughter, 22, and son, 17.)
Believing that postgraduate work was financially out of reach, he planned to look for a teaching job. However, a professor urged him to meet with a recruiter from Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C.
Under the mistaken impression that he was supposed to interview for the pricey Columbia University School of Law, Welch did not bother to sign up.
The interview finally took place–thanks to the professor’s insistence–and Welch won a partial scholarship, graduating in 1970.
After clerking for federal Judge Aubrey Robinson in the District of Columbia, he was recruited to the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington by an up-and-coming young prosecutor named Earl Silbert.
Welch says Silbert beguiled him with visions of hitching his wagon to a rising star. But Silbert himself soon fell into disgrace as the man who initially treated the Watergate break-in as nothing more than botched, second-rate burglary.
In 1971, Welch transferred to the U.S. attorney’s office in Syracuse–a move, he says, that was motivated more by a desire to return to Western New York than by a wish to distance himself from Silbert.
As an assistant in Syracuse and later in the U.S. attorney’s Buffalo office, Welch prosecuted several high-profile cases, including a well-publicized, Rochester- based insurance scam and one in which he nailed Olin Corp. for lying to the federal government about its role in polluting the Niagara River.
In 1979, Abrams recruited Welch to the state attorney general’s office, tapping him to head the Rochester office.
Vincent Barone, head of the office’s consumer protection bureau under Welch, credits his former boss with transforming the office from a four- attorney operation largely focused on defending the state against the odd lawsuit to an 11-attorney, activist office that looked for opportunities to enforce a broad range of state regulations.
In May, Welch and Barone–the Rochester office’s two most visible Democrats–were shown the door by Dennis Vacco, the new Republican attorney general.
Despite the political housecleaning GOP Gov. George Pataki had been conducting since January, Welch maintains that he expected Vacco to retain him.
Barone says Vacco met with him and Welch in January, asking both to reapply for their jobs.
Regardless, Welch insists, their sacking came as a shock.
“We’d been passed over in the first round of firings in April,” he notes. “I really thought we were safe.”
The day after his termination, Welch joined Harris & Chesworth, an 11-attorney Rochester firm headed by Wayne Harris, a Republican environmentalist, and Donald Chesworth, a Democrat and former Monroe County district attorney and superintendent of state police.
Harris & Chesworth partner Edward O’Brien says he had held discussions about putting Welch on a partner track at the firm for some weeks before Vacco lowered the boom.
Welch, he says, was frank about the possibility of a county executive candidacy.
“We really have mixed feelings about it,” O’Brien says. “We know he wants it, and we’d like to see him win. But I think we’d be just as happy if he lost.”
Welch, now on a schedule of half-days at Harris & Chesworth, is supervising a number of cases and already bringing business in, O’Brien says.
Despite his insistence that he did not believe himself to be on shaky ground at the attorney general’s office, Welch admits that he had further hedged his bets by putting in an application–now withdrawn–for a vacant Western District federal magistrate’s slot.
Coincidentally, the position opened up after Magistrate Kenneth Fisher left to sit on the state Supreme Court bench Doyle vacated when he was appointed county executive.
Now that he has come off the fence, Welch says, he will do his best to unseat Doyle.
Both Welch and Cook discount Doyle’s apparent edge.
Cook believes the Democrats can raise enough money to offset Doyle’s overflowing war chest. All they need, he says, is $250,000 or $300,000.
King and Frey each defeated better- funded incumbents. Money is not the key, Cook says.
Besides, he maintains, “Nobody knows who Doyle is.”
“(Doyle’s) not a shoo-in,” Welch says.
“I’ve been a leader of a major government operation. I’ve done it right, and I’ve done well.”
Eugene Welch: A novice
in politics out to make his case
Eugene Welch has a theory.