30 minutes with 30-day accidental Mayor James Smith
James Smith, deputy mayor under Mayor Lovely Warren, will be sworn in as mayor on Dec. 2, 2021, and finish out Warren's term through the end of the year.
Rochester has a new mayor. No, not the guy who won the November election. Mayor-elect Malik Evans won’t take office until Jan. 1. The other guy.
James Smith, the former deputy mayor under Mayor Lovely Warren, was sworn in early Thursday, minutes after Warren resigned as part of a plea deal to resolve felony campaign finance and other criminal charges against her.
The city charter requires that a vacancy in the Office of the Mayor be filled by the deputy mayor. Smith will serve out Warren’s term, which lasts until the end of the year, or 30 days.
On a brisk morning a few weeks before he took the oath, Smith sat down with CITY at Café Sasso on Park Avenue, his neighborhood coffeehouse, to talk shop. He said he walked there from his home in the ABC Streets hoping to work out a kink in his back.
It was a national holiday and a day off for Smith, 52, but he was dressed the part of a deputy mayor in a blue suit and pink tie. He had already gotten a haircut and met with the mayor and the police chief regarding escalating violence and what he called a “significant code enforcement problem” that had ballooned into a “major neighborhood nuisance issue.”
Overnight, a pair of slayings in an apartment on Chestnut Street had pushed the city past its annual homicide count record. That afternoon, another person would be beaten and shot to death in broad daylight outside of the downtown Transit Center.
The next day, Warren declared a state of emergency that would last 30 days and extend beyond her departure.
Renewing the declaration, if necessary, will fall to Smith, who is arguably better prepared than anyone to keep the city humming in the short term. He has spent nearly his entire adult life working in various levels of government and politics.
A longtime Republican operative who enrolled as a Democrat to join Warren as her chief spokesperson in 2015, Smith was elevated to deputy mayor in 2019. He authored the Warren administration’s internal report on the arrest of Daniel Prude that became the foundation for the mayor firing La’Ron Singletary as chief of police.
Prior to joining the Warren administration, he had been the manager of Seneca County, head of the Monroe County Water Authority, an aide to Republicans in the Monroe County Legislature, and a constituent manager for Rep. Tom Reed. A native of Greece, he also served eight years on the town board there.
Smith spent four years as deputy Monroe County executive under Maggie Brooks, but stepped down amid an investigation into allegations that county-contracted trades workers did jobs for politically-connected people on the county’s dime. He was charged with misdemeanor crimes and was eventually acquitted of all of them.
But he has not been a mayor, elected or otherwise, until now.
Below are excerpts of our interview, which have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Do you want to be mayor?
You know, I don't. I never wanted to. When I signed up to be the deputy mayor, I knew what the city charter said, I knew there was a possibility that I could be the mayor. But it wasn’t like an ambition or anything. I was very content to be the person working kind of as the chief operating officer behind the scenes. So no, the answer’s no. But luckily, I think I’ve been pretty well prepared to do it given all the things in my journey that have brought me to this point so far.
What do you see as your function?
I have sort of two main tasks here. I don’t believe I need to develop a sweeping social or economic agenda for our city that somehow will get passed in 30 days. That’s not going to happen.
What is going to happen is, first off, there’s a transition to a new mayor. So I need to work really hard with that new mayor, and with the entire team at City Hall, right down from our frontline employees to department heads, to make sure that transition is seamless, as seamless as one can be. Because it’s important for our city, it’s important for our residents. There needs to be continuity there. We need Councilman/Mayor-elect Malik Evans to be a very successful Mayor Malik Evans, because that’s what’s going to lift our city forward.
My second task is a little more straightforward, which is, I’ve got to make sure that when people call 911, somebody answers the phone, right? That the garbage gets picked up. That if and when the snow comes during my tenure that the plows are rolling, and the fire trucks and the Fire Department and the firefighters have everything they need to do their job. Same with our Police Department. I have to make sure that we keep operating city government and citizens can rely on the services that they rely on every day.
Do you think you’ll have an impact on the city?
Well, you know, I think if I don’t step up and do my job, there could be a very negative impact on the city. My mission here is to make sure that at the end of 30 days, everyone says, “Well, you know, nothing really happened or went wrong,” right? I don’t believe that I have the ability in 30 days, as I said, to do any sweeping change or reform. Clearly that’s not in the cards. But I also believe I’ve got a duty to keep on, to finish off for the last month of this mayor’s term.
"I think if I don’t step up and do my job, there could be a very negative impact on the city. My mission here is to make sure that at the end of 30 days, everyone says, 'Well, you know, nothing really happened or went wrong,' right?"Mayor James Smith
You will be the first openly gay mayor. What’s the significance of that, if any?
So, in this city, I think not a lot of people batted an eye when they had a gay deputy mayor. Maybe not a lot of people are going to bat an eye when they have a gay mayor. But people are going to notice, and the people who are going to notice are the ones that it really matters to.
I think having a gay mayor, whether one that’s elected or not, is important, and it’s an event in a community like Rochester that maybe doesn’t raise a lot of eyebrows. But that in and of itself is somewhat of a victory for the LGBTQ+ community. There are folks who will say, “Wow, you know, my city gets me a little bit more than I realize. The mayor is gay, I’m gay or I’m a member of the LGBTQ+ community.” So, I mean, I think that is significant.
How do you look back on your time at City Hall?
I left a sort of very pastoral, serene kind of existence as the county manager in Seneca County. It was certainly an easier slog than some of what we’re dealing with here in the city and that was part of why I wanted to come and do this because I thought, you know, I think I can do more, I have more bandwidth to do more, and I’m up for the challenge.
I don’t regret that. Some days maybe I do, like anything and all of us do. But really, truly, I don’t regret it. Lovely Warren had a very progressive agenda for our city, and in nearly eight years of being mayor, the city has changed dramatically, more than it did in 40 years before. Look at the investment. A lot of folks point at downtown, but drive up North Clinton Avenue and take a look right or left and look at the hundreds of millions of dollars that are being invested now in northeast Rochester.
That hasn’t happened in 50 or 60 years. I feel like we’ve moved the needle in so many ways.
You talk about the Warren administration being progressive. Were you more at home there than in the Republican administrations in which you've worked?
I think we all change and we all grow, right? You know, I took a job out of college (in politics), and I was enrolled Republican and I was largely because that’s what my dad was, you know? I remember in high school, they gave us voter registration forms and I brought it home and I go, “What do I do with this?” And my dad goes, “Let me see that. Oh yeah, mark ‘Republican.’” That’s what I did.
I felt I contributed greatly working in those administrations in government, but I identify more with what is happening in Democratic politics. I think we all change, you know, I’m not alone. For the better part of a decade I’ve been enrolled Democrat, I’ve been working on Democrat campaigns and all of that. You know, Hillary Clinton used to be a Republican. Elizabeth Warren used to be a Republican. It’s not like it’s that crazy. And we all change, right? We all change over time. And I’m glad I’ve had the ability to grow and to change and to see things differently.
Has Mayor Warren given you any advice?
Not specifically, no. I mean, I think she and I have worked together long enough, I think she has a pretty good understanding and we talked a little bit about just what I said my thing is, you know, to put my head down, my shoulder to the wheel and help with the transition and make sure everything operates as it needs to. It’s not a small task.
Will Warren play any role in your administration? I mean, even just behind the scenes as someone you can bounce things off? I have to assume you’re friendly.
We’re very, very much friends. Listen, I feel Lovely Warren is an absolutely wonderful person who committed so much of her life to the city and to making it better. I consider her family. I really do. And she and I will be family forever.
But no, Mayor Warren is leaving. I asked Mayor Warren on her way out if she would hold a Bible while I put my hand on it, and she agreed to do that. I think it’s important that we show there’s continuity, just like I will be there when Mayor Evans is sworn in. I think that’s important. That’s a very American thing. That’s what we do, we have a transfer of power and authority in this country, you know, and that, to me, means something.
Once that happens, though, no. I mean, I’m going to be running city government and working with the incoming Mayor Evans. I hope if she sees something horrible happening, she gives me a call and says something. But, no, she’s going to go on and do what she needs to do for herself. And I’m going to be the mayor for 30 days.
You’ll have to appoint a deputy mayor.
Do you know who that’ll be?
I’m working on that. I think whoever that’ll be, it needs to be someone important to the transition. Because we really need to put resources into making sure that we get that done. I’m comfortable with my past experience dealing with the operational side but I think we need to make sure we’ve got resources for that month.
Do you envision it being a person who’s already in the administration?
Very likely, yeah. And no, it won’t be Lovely Warren.
What advice do you have for Malik Evans?
I think our biggest and our most daunting challenge is to really understand how we go forward with policing. And that’s not just a local issue, right? That’s very much a national issue as well. But, you know, we’ve got to fix it here. Figuring out what we do with police is going to be the biggest issue.
And that’s a two-edged sword, right? We have a system in place right now that we have to make sure continues to function. You call a police officer, you need one, and by God, we need to make sure you get one. That system needs to be in place because it's a critical service, but it needs to be in place so we are afforded the luxury to be able to figure out how we reinvent that.
I don’t envy what Malik Evans has to deal with as it relates to those issues. Because I think they’re very difficult. And we’ve seen around the country, no one has really hit that ball out of the park.
What about on a more practical level? Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City used to say the best advice he ever got from his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, was that if you see a bathroom, don’t miss your chance to go.
I don’t know if I’ve gotten exactly that kind of practical advice yet. But I agree, don’t pass it up.
"I think our biggest and our most daunting challenge is to really understand how we go forward with policing. And that’s not just a local issue, right? That’s very much a national issue as well. But, you know, we’ve got to fix it here. Figuring out what we do with police is going to be the biggest issue."Mayor James Smith
I think one of the things you need to do, and it’s very hard to do, you’ve got to be very careful not to build walls and to insulate yourself. That’s really important, you know, to be accessible to the people you serve. And it’s easy to kind of get insulated and, as a result of being insulated, isolated from our residents, who are ultimately the ones that know best.
You’re trying to figure out how to best serve our residents? My thing is, ask them. You know, I mean, it sounds crazy and simple. But ask them. And I think that gets lost. Sometimes you get so wrapped up in the running of the bureaucracy and the mayoralty, the machine, kind of this organization that is the city of Rochester, and you’ve got no time to say, “Hey, you know, man, what’s going on? What’s happening?” And I think it’s too easy to become kind of insulated from that. And it's tough. It’s tough to do. There’s so much work to be done.
What’s next for you after Jan. 1?
TBD. Trying to figure that out, really. You know, I do love public service, and I would very much like to continue that. But I’m really trying to figure that out. And I’ll figure it out. . . . Unfortunately for me, you know, trying to do some job hunting and stuff, I just have a lot of responsibility on my plate right now. It’s awful hard to look for a job when you got to be the mayor for a month.
I did have someone approach me a few weeks back, and they were like, “We really need someone to start before January.” And I’m like, “You know, I really kind of have an obligation here.”
What would you like to do?
What I would like to do is buy a little beach bar in the Virgin Islands somewhere and, you know, grill shrimp and sell margaritas and rent out snorkel equipment and jet skis. That’s what I would really like to do.
But I have greatly enjoyed public service and what I’ve enjoyed most about it is there’s an ability to actually help somebody. I find some of the national politics daunting. It leaves me very cold. There are issues that have been on the public policy agenda for 30 years, and they’ve never moved the needle once. But I love public service in the sense that if your grandmother on Argyle Street calls me and says that the storm sewer is backing up and she’s getting water in her basement, we can get that handled for her in about an hour. When you figure that stuff out, it has an amazing direct impact and it’s very rewarding.