If Rochester Mayor Thomas Richards wins re-election this year, it won’t be because he has become a slick politician. His unwillingness to gloss over difficult facts is entirely too rare among elected officials.
This quality was evident in the State of the City address he delivered Monday. While clearly upbeat about the city’s progress and future prospects, the mayor was refreshingly blunt about the challenges it faces.
"This is a unique time in the history of our city," he said. "We are seeing a fundamental change in our circumstances. The old politics of making promises and ignoring obvious realities are over. We need a new politics of governing for our city, and we need to begin to remake our city…"
Mr. Richards titled his speech, "Rochester, a City Transformed." But those who imagine he delivered a self-congratulatory litany of achievements in office should take the time to read his remarks.
Many of the changes he describes were not widely welcomed. Rochester, a city built for 330,000 people, now has 210,000 residents. Eastman Kodak Co., once the employer of more than 60,000 people here, now has fewer than 3,500 on its local payroll.
Meanwhile, the city struggles with one of the highest rates of childhood poverty anywhere in the country and a school system unable to graduate even half of its students. These and other local factors, combined with the burden of state mandates, have produced year after year of staggering budget gaps.
"So there is no doubt that we are a city being transformed," Mr. Richards told his listeners. "I say these things, some of which are hard to hear, not to scare or discourage you, but in the firm belief that if we are to take charge of our future, we need to understand and be honest about our present."
A willingness to speak plainly about hard facts is necessary but not sufficient to lead the city. The ability to plan for the future and get things done is essential too. The mayor demonstrates these qualities as well-and contrary to what some believe, his focus is not limited to downtown.
Many people who look at what Rochester is up against fall into despair. Not the mayor. He has a different view: "We decide-you and I-which way (the city’s) transformation will go from here."
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