Progressive incumbent Mary Lupien faces Paul Conrow, an ‘extreme moderate’ in city council race
The City Council East District race is a battle of schoolteachers.
Mary Lupien, a social and emotional educator at Henry Hudson School No. 28, is vying for a second term in office after first being elected in 2019. Her challenger is Paul Conrow, a science teacher at East High School who is running on a platform of youth job creation.
Lupien is an avowed progressive who has distinguished herself as a visible and vocal force on City Council. Her tenure has been marked by pushing the city to divert funding for the Rochester Police Department to community resources and mental health services, and shepherding Council to serve as more than a rubberstamp to mayoral legislation. Her leadership on those fronts helped propel her to Council vice president.
Conrow, meanwhile, is a self-proclaimed “jobs guy,” going as far as bolting vanity license plates that read “JOBSGUY” to his 2006 powder blue Dodge Caravan. Conrow was a founder of the highly-publicized optics lab at East High, which trains students for employment in the optics industry in part by churning out eyeglasses for children in need. Conrow touts that 40 graduates have landed full-time jobs at local optics companies since the lab opened in 2012.
Conrow and Lupien face off in the Democratic Primary on June 27.
Mary Lupien: A strong check and balance
Sitting in the living room of her Parsells Avenue home, Lupien speaks in a soft cadence that presents as a mix of elementary school teacher and therapist.
Her calm manner stands in stark contrast to her public persona as an outspoken member of Council who revels in being an adversary to the status quo and sparking heated debates. Philosophically, Lupien believes in a Council that strives to serve as a strong check and balance to the mayoral administration, legislating its own bills, and challenging the plans of the mayor when warranted.
“If our ability to get things done is reliant on a good relationship with the mayor, how can we hold them accountable?” Lupien said.
Lupien’s political battles have shown mixed results. In 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, she led an unsuccessful campaign to cut the Rochester Police Department budget in half. Her colleagues ultimately agreed to a 4% reduction, and Lupien received a public dressing down from Mayor Lovely Warren, who called her a “white savior.”
But Lupien’s dedication to police alternatives found tangible results later that year. In September, following the public learning of Daniel Prude’s death while in the custody of Rochester police, Lupien introduced the notion of creating a mental health crisis response team modeled after the much-lauded Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) program out of Eugene, Oregon.
By December, the city had voted to create its own program, which would become the Person in Crisis (PIC) Team.
“It’s unheard of in government to go from idea to implementation in three months,” Lupien said. “But it was something the community needed, and something the community was demanding.”
In January 2022, Lupien was elected Council vice president. Around the same time, the rules of Council were changed to allow for any member to introduce their own legislation. Lupien found fast allies in new Council members Stanley Martin and Kim Smith, who worked with her on introducing their first, and so far only, bill. The law would have implemented so-called “Good Cause” eviction protections for renters.
The bill failed by a vote of 6-3. Similar municipal laws have been struck down by courts across New York for being in conflict with state law, where such protections do not exist. Lupien feels the bill was rushed out of committee hastily.
“We asked for it not to be sent out so we could deliberate, we could talk about it, we could work with our other councilmembers to make it something we were all proud of, but unfortunately that wasn’t able to happen,” Lupien said. “I think as you see Council really step into its power, we’re going to do more of that. Real legislating.”
Paul Conrow: An ‘extreme moderate’
Paul Conrow seems to always be smiling. He speaks in an earnest, passionate manner and that smile grows ever so wider when he speaks about his favorite subject: jobs.
Conrow, who bills himself as an “extreme moderate,” believes fixing issues the city’s most persistent problems of poverty, housing, and public safety lies in access to good paying jobs for city residents, particularly young people. His refrain is an echo of Mayor Malik Evans, who during his 2021 campaign touted his Youth2Work platform, arguing that kids who are too tired from working won’t pick up a gun.
“In parallel we’ve both developed this notion, and mine is definitely skewed towards STEM, science and engineering, because I’m a science teacher,” Conrow said.
The precision optics lab at East High is a first-of-its-kind endeavor in Rochester. There, Conrow gives students hands-on experience and, in turn, sets them up for careers in a booming industry valued locally at around $3 billion.
Conrow’s platform is, at its core, to broaden the concept behind the optics lab — job training — to all Rochesterians and all careers. His plan is to aggressively promote job openings, pay people to get training, and secure state funding and federal funding for job training programs.
“It’s a simple proposition: unfilled jobs can solve poverty,” Conrow said.
Conrow has the distinction of having one of the largest war chests in City Council election history.
As of his most recent campaign finance disclosure filing, he has a coffer of $32,000. By contrast, Lupien, an incumbent, has raised about $11,300 in this election cycle. While Lupien boasts more individual donors, Conrow has received substantial support from people with deeper pockets. His backers include developer Andy Gallina and his family, and members of the political establishment, like former Mayor Tom Richards.
Conrow, an East High graduate, has deep roots in Rochester, and particularly the East District. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father all had careers at the University Avenue machinery manufacturer Gleason Works.
A father of five, Conrow and his family became the center of a community fundraising drive in May 2015 for Golisano Children’s Hospital. More than 100 people walked draped in purple in remembrance of Conrow’s daughter Amanda, who died earlier that year from a form of brain cancer. She was 6 years old.
In running for Council, Conrow sees a chance to harness a Rochester that he says is ripe with opportunity for young people to build generational wealth. He believes the path is there, but that the community needs to be steered in the right direction.
He said it starts with mending fences in Council and finding compromise.
“We all want the same thing, but how we get there is where there is open division,” Conrow said. “And I don’t think anybody can look at the effectiveness of this Council and say that’s what we want more of.”
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