Another week. Another major step toward real change in the Rochester City School District.
It is now clear that something has really shifted. After many years of handwringing and stagnation on the issue of improving city schools, we seem to have hit a tipping point. Moreover, Mayor Lovely Warren’s call for a November referendum on whether city residents support a temporary (at least five years) state takeover of the city school board was the ideal counterpunch against opponents of the takeover.
Such opponents—like Assemblyman Harry Bronson, D-Rochester—argue that a state takeover would be undemocratic. After all, they contend, the city school board is an elected body and thus represents the wishes and values of city residents.
This is of course a specious argument, since so few city residents actually vote in the Democratic primary election that largely determines who will be on the board. But, superficially, arguments about “respecting democracy” make for a good soundbite.
By putting forth a citywide referendum on the November election ballot, Warren will be able to create a much stronger—and accurate—soundbite about what city residents actually support in terms of the state takeover proposal.
It may not be enough for legislators like Bronson, but having city residents approve a state takeover referendum will give cover to other Democrats in the state Legislature to vote in favor of the state takeover (and against the wishes of school union leaders). This is critical since a state takeover of the city school board cannot happen without legislative approval in Albany.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the November referendum will be won by Warren and her allies. Opponents of the takeover are highly motivated and have the financial and organizational resources to distort the real issues and mobilize their voters. Warren and others who care about this issue need to be prepared to dedicate considerable resources to educate voters and get out the vote. Since—if the November referendum fails—it may be another decade until a tipping point on city school reform comes around again.
Will Warren’s referendum also affect the county executive race?
The other reason why Warren’s call for a referendum matters is the impact it may have on other local races—most notably, the race for county executive. By placing such a critical, unique and deeply-felt issue on the November ballot, Warren may have turned a typically sleepy off-year election into one where city voters feel highly motivated to show up in much larger numbers.
A look at past voter turnout numbers is informative. The last time a county executive race was on the ballot, in 2015, total voter turnout countywide was 130,812. Cheryl Dinolfo beat Sandy Frankel by 19,315 votes.
That same year, 21,738 votes were cast in the city of Rochester (17 percent of the total voter turnout in the county). However, when a year later we had the 2016 presidential election—which typically draws a much higher voter turnout—349,851 people voted in the Monroe County clerk election and 70,007 of those were in the city (more than three times as many city residents as voted in 2015).
All of this means that local voter turnout can vary by orders of magnitude depending on how motivated voters are by what is on the ballot. If this election cycle plays out like a typical off-year election in the Monroe County suburbs while, in the city, voters are energized to turn out to vote on a historic referendum (much like they are motivated to vote a typical presidential election year), the effect on the county executive race could be dramatic.
Given the dominance of Democrats in the city, even a modest turnout increase from the referendum could result in Bello receiving thousands of additional votes from city voters who otherwise would have stayed home. And if the voter turnout increase in the city is even half of what we see in presidential years, it will likely propel Bello to a solid victory.
The additional turnout would also help out other Democrats seeking countywide offices, namely District Attorney candidate Shani Curry Mitchell (though she still has a pretty tough path to victory) and County Court Judge candidates Karen Bailey Turner and Michael Dollinger.
I don’t know if Warren’s call for a citywide referendum was intended as a Machiavellian maneuver to finally bring about city school reform and wrest control of county government from Republicans in one fell swoop, but—if it works—it may soon look like a truly inspired political strategy.