article by: MARIA STRINNI
If Stephanie Townsend is a “newcomer” to Pittsford, Pittsford might want to do whatever it takes to lure a lot more transplants to town.
She’s been a resident of the suburban Rochester town of 29,500 for 10 years but she’s combating the notion of “newcomer” as she’s campaigning for the Pittsford town board. It’s hard to imagine anyone more ingrained and invested in her community than Stephanie.
Stephanie moved to Pittsford from Chicago, where she was faculty at Dominican University, with her husband Barney Ricca, also a university professor. The couple has a 12-year-old son, Joseph.
Pittsford has a reputation as a rather affluent community, but the stereotypes about who lives in Pittsford that are just not accurate, Stephanie says. The community has grown more diverse than many people expect.
“Twenty percent (of residents) are senior citizens. Twenty percent have an income of under $50,000,” she notes. “When a middle-income family asks, ‘Why don’t we have a municipal pool or a library that is open on weekends in the summer?’ the response has been, ‘We don’t need that.’”
But not everyone in Pittsford is able to provide a luxury lifestyle for their family. “It often gets forgotten that not everyone can afford (private) memberships,” she says.
A community psychologist, Stephanie has unique a perspective and insight into her beloved adopted hometown. Through her consulting firm, Stephanie helps non-profit and educational organizations create healthier communities through strategic planning and evaluating the effectiveness of programs.
Stephanie has done a lot of work in public policy at the federal level, and had long toyed with the idea of running for local office. The November presidential election gave her a sense of urgency.
“It was the day after this last election I decided it was time to step up,” she says. “We may not be able to direct what happens in Washington, but we can direct what’s happening in our town.”
By December, Stephanie connected with her town Democratic party and garnered support for her candidacy. By March, she formed an election committee and filed paperwork to run and on April 1st she self-selected to attend one of the first Trailblazers PAC candidate and supporter trainings held in Monroe County. That training encouraged her to begin growing her campaign and grassroots fundraising operation.
Her support team started with a small circle of friends and she pitched her first stump speech to six friends in her living room. She met with community leaders over coffee. From there, she began talking to everyone about the town, even in grocery checkout lanes.
“I found myself just striking up conversations with people. Really engaging with anyone and everyone about what they like about the town and what they’d like to see different … The more I’ve been talking to people and the more I’ve been learning, I really believe we can make a significant different at the local level,” Stephanie says.
“It’s about more that pot holes and snow plows. If you come with a different perspective about what local government can do, there is a lot of direct impact we can make on people’s lives. I want to bring that kind of engagement with our community and making sure that our town government is serving the diverse needs within the community.”
Stephanie has four main concentration areas in her campaign:
- Ensuring the needs of seniors, millennials and young families are met, particularly in the areas of affordable housing, recreation and amenities that draw them to reside in town.
- Clean, sustainable energy.
- Support for small businesses. “We need a more stable and vibrant base of retail and services,” she says.
- Planning for the town’s future with zoning practices that encourage residential living in the town while maintaining green spaces and keeping taxes low.
Stephanie is challenging for one of two four year terms, along with fellow Democrat Kevin Beckford, against two incumbent Republican candidates. Stephanie says Pittsford hasn’t seen such involvement in local races during her time in town.
“Most of these seats have been unopposed. This is a very big change for our town,” Stephanie says. “This is me- as part of a groundswell of people- saying we are looking for some kind of change and we want to start locally.”
She’s hoping to ride the tide of political engagement to victory in November. Stephanie says town politics are less partisan than the national level. But, historically, the predominantly-Republican board make-up does say something about lack of representation in a diverse community.
“It’s been a very one-party board. And it has been for about 80+ years. But one-third (of Pittsford residents) are Republican, one-third are Democrat and one-third are Independent. That is a very different story than what the stereotype leads you to believe,” Stephanie says.
And Stephanie says her focus areas are not partisan issues at all. “Our town is not planning for the future, and that is affecting all of us,” she says.
Stephanie calls her campaign thus far “the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
“What I’m finding is an incredibly positive reception,” she says. “In our town, there has been a lack of engagement between the board and residents. As we are knocking on doors, there is an excitement of ‘Wow! Thank you so much for stepping up and running!’ It’s really fed the energy of the campaign.”