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Democratic primary debates: What did we learn?

Mayor Lovely Warren.

Mayor Lovely Warren.

Running on the tail-end of two weeks which saw a cancelled debate due to Mayor Lovely Warren’s hospitalization, harsh words from Democratic candidate James Sheppard and a campaign finance scandal surrounding Democratic candidate Rachel Barnhart, the long-awaited debate between the candidates finally took place Thursday night.

Just five days ahead of the primary vote, the debate, presented by WROC and sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Rochester Metropolitan Area, placed the candidates in the spotlight, presenting their views while not shying away from the personal barbs city residents have become accustomed to this election cycle. However, the differences did not just lie in personal vendettas. Rather, the candidates differed on some key issues, from education, to policing to drug rehabilitation.

Starting on the subject of desegregation of city school districts, Barnhart pleaded for better integration and mixing of economic classes. In the past, Barnhart has been a vocal proponent of a centralized, county-wide school district. Barnhart argued that students benefit from an environment that is a healthy mix of economic classes, something currently not happening in the Rochester City School District (RCSD).

Candidate profiles

Aug. 25: Rachel Barnhart

Sept. 1: James Sheppard

Sept. 8: Mayor Lovely Warren

“People with means have abandoned the Rochester Central School District,” Barnhart said.

According to the New York State Department of Education’s 2016 report, a total of 91 percent of RCSD students are economically disadvantaged, with a graduation rate of 48 percent. That rate is up 2 percent from the previous year, and though a far cry from nearby suburbs, such as Webster-Schroeder High School, which has a 20 percent disadvantaged student rate and a 92 percent graduation rate, Warren sees that uptick as evidence of her programs in action. She touts the hiring of Barbara Deane-Williams as new RCSD superintendent as a win, along with the money she’s secured for education programs.

“I know firsthand that what I want for my child is what I want for every child in this city,” Warren said. “That is why I’ve invested so much in early education.”

In backing up this claim, Warren points to one of her bedrock policies; the three to three initiative. Referring to from age three to third grade, three to three aims to increase literacy among children by the third grade through resource funding and outreach. Warren also made it a point in her first year in office to establish an Early Learning Council, meant to utilize resources and funding to maximize early education. By the following year, the program had secured $500,000 in grant funding.

Democratic Mayoral candidate James Sheppard.

Democratic Mayoral candidate James Sheppard.

Sheppard, meanwhile, responded in a manner similar to Barnhart. Rather than rehabilitating the RCSD, he promoted reforming altogether into a county-wide district.

“Having a county-wide school system will allow us to have children see other children who are successful, see others who have different vision, see others who are going to be successful,” Sheppard said.

The debate shifted to the subject of the job market, where Warren’s claims that it has consistently risen with 30,000 jobs added are at odds with the Department of Labor. According to the Department’s monthly report, the unemployment rate in Rochester has risen slightly over the past year; from 7 percent in July 2016 to 7.3  percent in July 2017.

In refuting this, Warren argued that the developments and construction under her administration are proof that the job market is, indeed, expanding.

“I would ask our citizens to look around them,” Warren said. “When you look at downtown, you see construction happening. When you go to Hudson Avenue, you see a $50 million housing development going up in a neighborhood that hasn’t had investment in over 40 years, you go just over to East Main Street and you see Warfield Square going up. These are jobs that are happening.”

In fact, the unemployment rate did drop significantly when Warren took office; falling from 10.8 percent in January 2013 to 9 percent in January 2014. Since then, the numbers have consistently been lower than when she started.

Sheppard called the construction work happening throughout the city an illusion, hiding the reality of the declining Rochester job market.

“When we talk about what we’re doing all this work, road work, construction, it’s a facade to make it appear that things are great,” Sheppard said. “Look at unemployment in the minority community, it’s at 20 percent. When we look back to when we had the riots, unemployment was only at 16 percent. This is a fact that tells us we are not dealing with reality.”

Rochester Democratic mayoral candidate Rachel Barnhart.

Rochester Democratic mayoral candidate Rachel Barnhart.

On the issue of police accountability, Sheppard and Barnhart did not differ much on the need for a police accountability board as policy. Rather, Barnhart pointed to Sheppard himself and his time as police chief as an exemplification of the problem.

“Jim Sheppard has spent the last few years doing good work in the community, but it can not erase some very troubling things that happened when he was police chief,” Barnhart said. “He has a record of not doing the right thing, not holding people accountable, making very insensitive remarks and having controversial situations put Rochester on the national news.”

Warren criticized the bickering and personal attacks among candidates several times throughout the debate as Barnhart kept referring to alleged felonious activity from the Warren campaign.

“This is the same thing Trump did to Hillary,” Warren said. “And I’m telling you, do not be bamboozled.”

Ironically, during a heated exchange where Warren attempted to dismantle Barnhart’s campaign against Warren’s personal integrity, Warren stole the show with arguably lowest blow of the debate.

“By the way, you owe the city a delinquent water bill, why don’t you write me a check and I’ll drop it off in the morning?” Warren said.

Ultimately, the debate itself appeared to be an embodiment of one of the final questions asked of the candidates on the splintering and the uniting of the local Democratic party. The retorts became a circle of pointed fingers; from Barnhart to Warren, from Warren to Sheppard and Barnhart.

“Jim Sheppard’s campaign is run by the same people who stabbed Lovely Warren in the back when she won fair and square in 2013,” Barnhart said.

Warren, meanwhile, deflected any blame for the current state of the local Democratic party.

“The fact of the matter is I’m a designated candidate, these two are running a primary against me,” Warren said. “So, I ask, who is destroying the party?”

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