What Inspired You to Run for Local Office?
Initially what inspired me to run was that we had a white supremacist group that was building its membership in the Rochester area, and its members targeted my town Pittsford and neighboring town Brighton. They dropped flyers off at 3 o’clock in the morning to solicit folks to join their group, and their goal was ultimately to make our town white again. It kind of scared us, so that was the spark, if you will, or the shove off the cliff that got me involved in my town. It got me really involved with a grassroots group created by Kendra & Andrew Evans called “Pittsforward,” which was a nonpartisan group. Basically, the main focus was to make sure that the white supremacists knew that we (Pittsford) felt diversity made us stronger, and that we had no place in our town for people that were looking to make Pittsford less diverse.
Why did you want to run for that position?
When I took a look at what citizens were doing in the Pittsforward group, what I noticed was we were doing some things that were bringing people out from across the aisle, from different political backgrounds, and their goal was simple. They wanted to connect with their neighbors. They wanted to make sure that this white supremacist group knew that Pittsford was not a town that would be receptive to the White Supremacist agenda. At that time, many in PittsForward felt our Town Board needed to reflect a little more diversity of thought and background. We had (at that time) a town board that was 100% in one party rule for over 90 years, and there had never been a person of color on our board in over 220 years. So running for office would provide Pittsford with the opportunity to have a broader mix of thoughts and perspectives; all of which would improve how we serve.
Did you have any political experience prior to running?
Not at all. I spent the last 28 years in increasing levels of leadership roles; 18 years in the manufacturing, IT, Supply Chain, Marketing, and Service Engineer arena and then 10 years within the banking and finance sector. I worked with companies like Eastman Kodak, IBM, Xerox, Bank of America, PIttsburgh Regional Bank and the Bank of Montreal; with responsibility for groups of up to 600 people across 5 states. My underlying strengths are in “Servant Leadership”, so I believe strongly that leaders are here to serve and not to be served. I am taking that concept I honed in the commercial space and bring it to a government role, because ultimately in these town board positions, and in any elected position, the core job description is to be a public servant.
What curveballs came at you on the campaign?
Probably the first thing that hit us was in the middle of petitioning. We believe it was the work of the white supremacist group. Regardless, someone or group hired an expert hacker, according to the police, and they broke into the company who had designed and was hosting my website and my partner’s website. The hacker didn’t touch any other website, not even my partner’s. They only touched mine. The police were unsuccessful in finding the hacker, but the fact that the hacker was targeting me made them suspect that the white supremacist group was really trying to discourage me from running. They totally messed up my website. It took technicians three days to fix it. This act wasn’t strictly politically motivated in the sense that it wasn’t by a party. It was racially motivated because the person I was running with was a white female, and they didn’t touch her website. Nor did they access or disturb any of the hundreds of other company websites this company managed. They only touched mine. So we had to make some changes. We increased security for our home. We had to put our daughter in full week camp, and we no longer parked our cars outside. We had to put them in the garage, and we had to do that right on up until the election. It was a big life change for us
Now that you have held the position for a few months, what is it like being in office?
It feels wonderful, because one of the very first things that I was able to influence, or two things actually. One actually happened before I got into office. The day after the election, the town board realized that certainly things were changing for the first time. They were going to have board members that were not from their party, so they took one of the things that was part of my platform and they instituted it the next day. I thought that was wonderful. I consider it to be a show of good faith. One of the things I ran on was that we had board meetings that allowed public comments, but only after the meeting had been adjourned. Therefore the people felt they had no opportunity to influence any of the votes because they couldn’t speak until after the meeting was adjourned, and decisions were already made. So a lot of people stopped coming to the meetings because of that because they felt disempowered and disengaged. So one of the first things I was going to do was to make a motion that would allow our residents to speak before and during the meetings so that they could influence change. The next day after the election was our board meeting. I was so happy to see that [the supervisor] made a motion to say “I understand that this is important to the public.” We now have public comments that are inside the meeting and we now have a full house for every meeting—people started coming again.
The next thing I was able to do directly, after being sworn in on the second of January, was to put forth a recommendation that we issue a proclamation celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. Our town was one of the few towns in Monroe County that had never done that. The good news is that when I made the suggestion they were open to it. This was really just a wonderful example that having a seat at the table allows you to change a conversation and put forward change. When I asked: “Have we ever done anything to celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King?” and the answer was no, I said “Well would you be open to doing that this year.” They said, “Well what would you like” and I said “Well let’s start small. Let’s start with a proclamation this year but next year I’d like to do a week of education events and to really celebrate; a program for both kids and adults to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King.
Most people in Pittsford didn’t realize that we were part of the underground railroad lines. There were homes in Pittsford that had basements where slaves could hide until they could get to Canada. We have a wonderful legacy of inclusivity that has really been forgotten over the years. To me, that was one of the things that I’m so proud of. So not only did we get [the proclamation] signed in January less than two weeks after I made the recommendation, I asked for two copies. One to be placed in our town hall permanently, and one to be placed in our library in a high-traffic area so that it was very visible for people to see that we were recognizing the life of Martin Luther King.
After taking office was there anything that surprised you the most? Any type of learning curve that you had to?
Since my background in the commercial space is in transition management, my entire career has been doing that. I actually met with the supervisor last year, before I got sworn. In a transition meeting I was able to outline the things that I wanted to do in year one, and looked for areas where he actually had an interest so that we could start with those first. The things I wanted to get accomplished here are already set into motion. Normally, you would expect that you would run into roadblocks but we really haven’t. One of the biggest things that I am wishing to accomplish this year, amongst the things I have mentioned already, is that I want our meetings to be live-streamed so that people can actually participate and watch our meetings from home on their smartphone or smart device, and participate remotely.
The second thing is that we have a huge deaf community in Pittsford, but today if they just came to a meeting we would not have Interpeter ready for them. I want to make sure that we have that at every meeting so the deaf community feels more included.
The third thing is that I want to start talking about is the lack of socioeconomic diversity in homes in Pittsford. Today we are exclusively building homes that you need to make $150,000 to $200,000 to buy homes in these neighborhoods. So we are creating neighborhoods of sometimes 100 plus homes that will basically be only for people who make over $150,000. In the Rochester area that translates into an exclusively white community. In Rochester, once you get above $100,000 the percentage of people of color drops to less than 3%. Therefore once you get above $125,000 you are really down to half of 1%. Even though that was not the intent, what the town was essentially doing, believe it or not, was fulfilling the dream of the white supremacist group. They exclusively wanted Pittsford to be white again and essentially that was actually happening—they just didn’t realize it. The nice thing about me running for office and getting on the board is that I am pushing very strongly to say that going forward when we have these subdivisions that are coming forward we want to encourage the builders to come in with 40% of their homes in the $270K – $300K category. The next 40% could be mid size, $300K – $375K and the last 20% of these could be McMansions. Note: Socio-economically diverse neighborhoods will lead to a more ethnically diverse neighborhoods. To be able to be on the board and be able to drive that conversation as to how do we get this accomplished in a practical way is a real blessing.
Are there any specific plans you have to address those goals yet?
Absolutely. In fact, his Friday I have a meeting with a large developer in Pittsford that I brokered for this conversation. Before the meeting, I set the stage by saying this is a pretty wealthy individual who owns a lot of the property in Pittsford. I simply said I’d like to meet with you not about making another $million but about making a difference. We are meeting this Friday to at least open up the conversation. To get a project into hopper likely would take several years, but I believe the tide has changed. With the new tax laws that really discourage homeowners with large tax levies, I think less people will look to buy those larger homes. I believe the financial and political framework has changed. This man is a wonderful builder. I love his homes, but I believe over the years contractors have drifted to where they are building these huge homes because they make a lot of money for the developer. They are using up more land and essentially making neighborhoods for affluent only. That’s just not acceptable to me.
You ran on a platform of transparent, honest government. How are you fulfilling that in office?
One of the things I really enjoyed about the whole mission and purpose of Trailblazers is that the folks there encouraged getting to know every voter and to make sure that people felt they could be part of the political process regardless of their financial standing. I had people donate $5 because that was all they could afford. I made sure that the process I had for all donations. Everyone who donated got a handwritten thank you card from me that said, “Thank you for sharing your treasure and I am looking forward to serving you.” Folks got that same personal note whether they donated $5 or $100 or $1.
During the actual campaign, I held coffee hours twice a month, one for retirees and one for people who work from home or had families, one on the weekends and one during the week. I did that throughout the entire campaign. Starting this year — and I will be doing this for the next four years — Stephanie Townsend and I will host a monthly coffee hour the third Saturday of the month from 3:30PM – 4:30PM at the Village Bakery, a local restaurant so it brings some business to the restaurant.
The first one we had in January drew over 30 people, and close to 20 came to the last one. Essentially this hour is non partisan, open to all residents. It’s a way to make sure that the residents stay engaged. They can count on Stephanie, myself from the Town, and sometimes other people from the county legislator like Howard Maffucci, village board and school board members, every month to listen to them.
If you don’t like coming to board meetings because they are too stuffy, come out, get a cup of coffee, sit down and tell Stephanie and I how we are doing. How are we serving you? How can we better serve you? I want to encourage the outreach that I learned from the mission and purpose of Trailblazers, and I’ve committed to doing that every month. What I am finding is that I am getting current, new, and ongoing information on how we’re doing.
Why do you think local government is important and why should people get out and vote in all elections?
It’s extremely important. Think of a pond and the ripple effect on a pond that is totally at peace. If I throw a pebble into that pond, the first ring is your village, that second ring is the town, the next one is the county, the next one is the state, and the next one is the nation. To me, change actually starts right where you are. The problems we are seeing nationally in terms of a parochial style of governing, of no longer listening, the lack of a service based mentality, not trying to solve problems — we were having those same problems locally but we didn’t notice it. People tend to only come out to the larger elections, not realizing that the government that is closest to you is the one you have the greatest impact in influencing. We now have a strong board of five people, two Democrats and three Republicans. We are actually changing how the board operates. We are making sure that we are more transparent, that we explain more of the things that are happening, that we don’t vote without explaining what is going on. In fact even right now, before we vote, we share a little bit more about what we are about to vote on and we allow public comments for some of those significant votes. There is not just one opportunity to speak. If someone has an opinion before we vote they can now for the very first time share that. That level of transparency and functionality had been missing in our town government, and we were able to change that. We were able to do it by running for office and getting involved.
What advice would you give to someone who is new to politics that is interested in running for local office?
Probably the first thing is to have a mission and a purpose in terms of what you are looking to accomplish. I use the term what does success look like? For example, I fast forward to four years out from today. What are some of the things I want to look back on and really regard as an accomplishment? What was I able to accomplish? That gives me the vision. You then have to put together the mission and a plan for how you are going to get there. Having a sense of what are you looking to change and what you are passionate about is step one. Step two is to surround yourself with people who understand and buy into that mission and who would like to be part of helping to get you there. Leverage the gift that each person brings to the table. Some of the key people for me were my treasurer, campaign manager, finance manager, social media manager. I also had a group of folks who managed the house get-togethers we held in each electorate district. Surrounding yourself with people who just really have a deep passion really helps to drive change and allows them to bring their gift to the table in a way that’s meaningful to them and not just to the campaign. It created what I called a symphony. We had a symphony where each person had their own instrument that they played. For some of it was time, for some of it was talent, for some of it was treasure, and for some it was all three.
Did being a father impact your decision to run for office?
Yes. Very simply, it was when the white supremacist flyers came down. I’m in an interracial relationship where my wife is white American and our daughter is mixed. So she looked at me and said: “Daddy what does this group want? Where do they want you to live if you can’t live here?” Just think about that for a second. My daughter is asking me that these people want a world that doesn’t include me and where am I supposed to live? As a father I said to her: “Free speech does not protect us from hateful or mean-spirited speech, it just protects the speaker’s right to speak. Life Lesson: When faced with hateful words or actions we need to respond with love!” For me, the best example I gave my daughter was that when bad things happen in life you don’t sit down and say woe is me. You get up and figure out what is my cup of change. What can I do to change the world around me? Be the change in the world that you want to see, not just hope for it.
Does being a father in any way impact the initiatives you are taking up in office?
Absolutely. One of the things about being on the board of the town, is that I also am indirectly on two other additional boards. I am a liaison back to the board and one is Pittsford Youth Services (PYS). Our school has outsourced most of our counseling for our kids to PYS which is nonprofit. I am a liaison for the board and as a dad one of the things that is really clear to me is that our kids are struggling with some of the challenges that kids are suffering with all over the county. Drug addiction, anxiety, depression, stress, family issues, and so on. It has really helped me to realize to ask what can I do to make sure that that organization is as strong as it can be so that it is able to serve our kids well. Every dollar that we can give PYS means more hours of counseling for kids.
What are the challenges of being a parent and being an elected official?
Probably the biggest challenge is time. In fact that is the main one. Making sure there is a good balance among meeting the needs of the town you are serving and the constituents you are serving and meeting the needs of your family as a husband and as a father. I knew that before deciding to run, it was a family decision. We knew this was going to be a part of our life for the next four years if I won. We make it a family affair. We have a family calendar so that we are able to post things if I have a meeting or board meeting. My wife comes to most of the board meetings. When my daughter is available she comes to the board meetings so we have basically integrated it into our lives. We say that “Daddy is going to be serving the town for the next four years so as a family we are going to be serving the town.”
Why did you want to be supported by Trailblazers? Why would you encourage someone to become part of the Trailblazers PAC movement?
Two key reasons. One that was really powerful to me was that part of not just getting the endorsement, but to be able to get the funds to help you with your campaign, you had to demonstrate that you were running a grassroots, talk to every person campaign. It really took you away from looking at large dollar donations, but rather looking for small dollar donations which immediately broadens the net to a broad group of constituents. I think the grassroots approach that was nonpartisan spoke to me because that’s how I believe governing should be. I believe that some of the big money in politics today is what has corrupted politics. You have politicians who have forgotten who they serve. I feel that Trailblazers, both its mission and its, vision is about getting us back to the basics of front porch politics, where we talk to people, listen to them, and act on their needs and not our own philosophy.