On Friday, opening an ugly new chapter in the midst of the city’s most serious string of health, economic and political crises in its history, the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office charged Mayor Lovely Warren of Rochester with two felony campaign finance violations related to her 2017 reelection campaign. The two-page criminal complaint also indicted two of her associates, including campaign treasurer, Albert Jones Jr., and treasurer of her political action committee and city financial director, Rosalind Brooks-Harris, on the same charges. Mayor Warren and the others will be arraigned on Oct.5 before a Cayuga County Court Judge, who will preside the case.
Sandra Doorley, the Monroe County district attorney, said in an announcement that Mayor Warren participated in “a scheme to defraud” by “knowingly and willfully” evading contribution limits through “a systemic and ongoing course of conduct with the intent to defraud more than one person.”
The indictment revealed no specific details about the alleged crimes, but the charges stem from transfers of funds between a political action committee (PAC) created by Warren in 2015, called Warren for a Strong Rochester and the mayor’s campaign committee, Friends of Lovely Warren.
New York state law prohibits a PAC from donating more funds to political candidates than individual and other donors. In 2017, that limit was $8,557. Records show that Warren for a Strong Rochester transferred a sum of $30,000 to Friends of Lovely Warren, which violated campaign finance rules.
Mayor Warren acknowledges the transfer took place, but has said there was no attempt to circumvent the law or deceive anyone, pointing out that the errors were a simple mistake resulting from poor bookkeeping.
Elections officials received complaints about irregularities in Mayor Warren’s campaign finances in 2017, after she defeated two Democratic challengers on the road to reelection. In March of this year, the state Board of Elections provided Doorley with a 35-page report “that found considerable evidence” that Warren, Jones and Brooks-Harris may have violated the law, according to a statement by the prosecutor.
Mayor Warren has characterized the pursuit of charges as a “political witch hunt.”
Depending on who you ask, this turn of events could be interpreted either way.
While some believe Mayor Warren could be guilty, it’s not unthinkable that politics is being played as the mayor prepares to seek a third term in office next year, and that she is the victim of an unfair and politically motivated prosecution.
The first question is whether the facts hold up, which is not always the case in our politically-charged nation.
The mere fact that Monroe County prosecutors have handed down charges against Mayor Warren and her associates, does not, in itself, make the charges valid.
Is it inconceivable that after having these accusations against the mayor float around for three years that the powers to be felt it was the ideal time to go after Mayor Warren, hoping the indictment will, ultimately, lead to her downfall?
Political opponents, including those in her own party who never wanted to see her elected in the first place, have been in a running battle with Mayor Warren practically since her first day in office. They have been critical of the mayor’s policies and practices, clashing with her over so-called nepotism, pro-black stances, perceived slights of law enforcement and handling of protests and Daniel Prude’s death, among other issues.
In a city with a historically wide fracture in the local Democratic Party that has made it nearly impossible to collectively tackle fiscal, social and racial challenges, Mayor Warren has had precious few political allies when she needs them most. And watching our embattled mayor face deepening turmoil, one can’t help but think that politics has, indeed, played a role in her current troubles.
Several years ago, District Attorney Sandra Doorley switched parties to become a Republican to avoid being “distracted by political considerations and party politics.” As if partisanship and politicization doesn’t cut across party lines.
Yet, she don’t have a political ax to grind or points to score?
Which brings us to another reality not to be overlooked: the unique challenges Mayor Warren has faced as a powerful Black woman.
She has been described by some as “racist,” “angry” and “corrupt” — hateful and hurtful terms used denigrate her in spite of her many hard-won accomplishments in life.
As the first Black female mayor of Rochester, some have said that Mayor Warren should have remembered her place as a African-American woman.
Just what place is that in the year 2020?
Keep in mind that we live in a country where black women, who account for 7.6 percent of the population, have never been elected as governor of any state, make up just 4.3 percent of the House of Representatives and only hold one out of a hundred Senate seats (Senator Kamala Harris).
When initially running for office in 2013, the mayor vowed to unify Rochester in the face of longstanding political divisions, racial inequality and economic dislocation; her critics contend she didn’t make good on that promise. Other still feel Mayor Warren has also failed to end the cycle of decay and crime in Rochester at a time when “Democratic-run cities” are poster children for urban problems.
The reality is, the state of any city has little, if anything, to do with which political party runs it. In fact, numerous studies show that mayors, including Mayor Warren, have limited power to control the problems that plague their cities, whether crime, fiscal policy, social ills or economic outcomes. For its part, the Republican party has largely given up on and abandoned cities like Rochester, and they have few real-world solutions to address issues like violent crime, poverty, inequality and segregation.
In Rochester, those problems run long and deep, and a mayor of any party would be hard-pressed to solve them, especially in a just a few short years.
Consider all the obstacles Mayor Warren has bravely faced in the Rochester: One-third of the city’s population lives in poverty, with Black city dwellers — who earn less than half of whites in the metro area — being roughly three times as likely to live in poverty and to be unemployed.
The Rochester City School District has some of the state’s worst performance rates, with mismanagement having left the school system mired in debt to the tune of $59.3 this fiscal year. Mayor Warren didn’t cause these problems. In fact, she has actively sought funding and assistance from Albany, which has been reluctant to help unless measures for strict financial oversight and definitive plans are in place to address the reasons for the district being so problematic.
While working to improve and bring prosperity to the city, Mayor Warren has also been left in the difficult position of being forced to straddle the divide between young progressive community leaders and activists who expect her to be the champion of their causes and the largely conservative Rochester power establishment and business community.
Despite facing constraints in her ability to execute her ideological agendas and having limited authority to generate revenue and enact laws to move the city forward, Mayor Warren has done everything she could to help Rochester, the city that she loves and calls home. Even facing calls to resign, the mayor continues to work for all city residents — Black, brown, white and other.
Detractors may point to some high-profile cases, but there has been a 27 percent drop in crime over the past five years on the mayor’s watch, which happens to put crime figures in the city at a 39-year low. She is fiercely dedicated to improving education and people’s lives in the city. And, she has laid out Rochester 2034, a comprehensive 15-year plan for sweeping community improvements coinciding with the approach of the 200th anniversary of the city’s founding.
If you really believe that Rochester would be better off without Mayor Warren, ask yourself who could do a better job, given the hand she’s been dealt.
For everyone who has expected, and wished her, to fail, remember: Mayor Warren is presumed innocent until proven guilty.