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Playing in politics to strengthen community

When Melisza Campos was growing up, her mother told her she had the right heart and the right mind for politics. Years later, Campos would find herself following her mother’s advice and running for a position on the Rochester school board.
Campos, vice president of operations and instruction for Dale Carnegie Training’s Rochester office and a 2010 Forty Under 40 alum, is one of many Forty Under 40 honorees who have entered the political arena. Past honorees have chosen to serve their communities by moving into public office, finding civic engagement through work in politics.
Campos has served one four-year term on the school board and is running for re-election. She says her decision to run for the school board was motivated by her desire to make a difference in her community. Campos is keeping her options open for the future but hopes to continue to help the Rochester City School District evolve.
"Our schools are so important, and especially with such a high poverty rate, educational institutions have to be able to break that cycle of poverty because education is a great equalizer," she says. "I feel like if I can make a difference with that, I can make a difference with our city."
She heads the board’s governance and development committee. Campos says she sees her participation in politics as an opportunity to effect change.
"It is one thing to complain about or criticize the system, but you really need to have good people working within and on the system in order to make positive change," she says.
Political cynicism is common and must be resisted, Campos and others say. Brian Sampson, executive director of Unshackle Upstate and a 2008 Forty Under 40 honoree, says he also sees a certain amount of defeatism in his work. Unshackle Upstate is an advocacy group for Upstate New York business concerns.
"Unfortunately, here in New York and really on a national level, voters are not engaged in the decisions that are impacting their lives," Sampson says.
Part of Unshackle Upstate’s goal is to confront voter disinterest, he says, and make it easier for people to make informed decisions at the polls.
"You always hear people say, ‘It is just New York,’" Sampson says. "We have come to accept the fact that we will have a high-business-tax climate …, so from a civic engagement piece, one of the things I decided to do when I took this job almost three years ago was to make sure that we got to the voters more often, that we got them everything they needed, that they have the tools to interact with the government and express their opinion."
Unshackle Upstate created scorecards for the last election that ranked the 212 state Legislature members on a pro-taxpayer and pro-business agenda.
Sampson says he worked on political campaigns in the past before moving to government affairs and relations. Unshackle Upstate later would help him nurture and push that drive further.
Other past Forty Under 40 honorees see their political involvement as more based in civic engagement.
Campos says she sees community involvement as an essential part of being able to succeed in politics.
"You have to be involved in the community in order to make informed decisions, so when you look at politics, you have to have certain outlets and vehicles in order to make informed decisions based on what the community wants," she says.
John Billone Jr., president of Flower City Management Corp. and Flower City Development LLC, finds his political involvement to be closely tied to his career and his work in the city. Billone, a 2004 honoree, has worked with city government on historical preservation tax credit projects and with the Southeast Area Coalition.
"If, at the end of the day, we are all talking about creating jobs and getting more people into Rochester, then we need to create an environment that allows us to do that," he says. "If you have programs or legislation that prohibits that, then as a developer I say if you are serious about increasing jobs and getting people into our city, then we have to look at programs that enable us to do that."
Scott Odorisi, a judge in East Rochester, says he also sees his work, while technically political, as more a feature of civic engagement. Odorisi is an attorney with Odorisi Law Firm and was part of the Forty Under 40 class in 2007. Like Campos, he says family influence was important in getting him involved. Odorisi’s father, Frank, also served as a judge in East Rochester.
"I figured that coming out of law school and studying really hard and getting educated in the law and then understanding that my father had held that position many years earlier, I felt that I could be a good judge," he says.
First elected in 1997, Odorisi has served four consecutive four-year terms and also serves as an acting City Court judge. He says he is considering other judgeships outside of East Rochester in the future.
Odorisi says he often encounters people whose lives have been affected by his judgeship.
"There are people who I have put in jail in the past that a few years later will stop me in Wegmans and say, ‘You know, Judge, I just want you to know that you put me in jail three years ago during a dark point in my life. I’ve been clean since then, I met someone new, I started a family,’" he says. "They got their life back together and they thank me, which is really sort of strange, and they thank me for giving them a wake-up call to really change their life."
For Sampson, political involvement is about the ability to improve the place he calls home.
"We all have a responsibility to take care of the place where we live, not just our home but our community and our state," he says. "I believe in it; I want others to have the same passion so that we can again have a state that we’re proud to call home."       

Christine Loman is a freelance writer and a former Rochester Business Journal intern.

11/11/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail


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