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Three Former Mayors Provide Perspective on Malik Evans as Bridge-Builder

Patti Singer

Malik Evans addresses supporters June 22, 2021, after winning the Democratic primary. He campaigned on his ability to build bridges. File photo

Malik Evans ran on the theme of building bridges.

Images of the Frederick Douglass-Susan B. Anthony Bridge decorated his campaign literature for the primary. His opening statement on his website proclaimed, “I am running for mayor because I believe we must bridge the divides in our community.”

In his speech after winning the Democratic primary, he sounded like an engineer as he talked of bridges built on a foundation of trust and transparency.

The theme reflects what three former mayors see as Evans’ potential strength in guiding and healing the city after Rochester made national headlines for incidents such as the death of Daniel Prude and the legal troubles of the current mayor.

“I think his instincts are toward cooperation and toward partnerships,” said Thomas Richards.

“He keeps describing himself as someone who builds coalitions,” said William A. Johnson Jr. “He’s going to have a lot of coalitions to build.”

“His personality, his background, his tenor all comport so well to bringing people together and unifying them,” said Robert Duffy. “That might be the first step.”

In June, Evans won the primary by a 2-to-1 margin over incumbent Lovely Warren. Evans also is on the Working Families Party line in November. Warren’s name is not on the ballot and there is no Republican candidate in the Nov. 2 general election, making Evans the presumptive mayor on Jan. 1, 2022.

The day after his victory in the primary, Evans spoke of working with Warren on a transition and also said he was “blessed to have known and have great relationships” with previous mayors Richards, Duffy and Johnson.

As Evans works on forming his administration, Minority Reporter talked with each of the former mayors about how the self-described and observed ability of the mayor-apparent to bring people together will be needed to manage the city’s challenges.

William A. Johnson, Rochester’s first black mayor, served from January 1994 through December 2005.

William A. Johnson Jr.

Johnson has known Evans since he was a teenager who was involved in starting Rochester Teen Court and doing other community service.

“He’s very thoughtful, he’s very pragmatic,” Johnson said. “He really doesn’t turn people away from him. He has a way to reach out to people to be inclusive, figure out who can help him and bring him into his organization.”

Had he lost the primary, Evans would have had a second chance in November because he is on the Working Family Party line. But his June victory gave him six months instead of six weeks to start work on engineering the bridges and people who will build them.

Johnson said Evans has a lot of people who helped him “pull off a very improbable victory” and some of those people may fit into a new administration. “He’s going to have to put together a very strong team and he’s going to have to mix it up with experience as well as energy. … He should use the time wisely, talking to as many people as possible, but then not just sorting information but discerning it, be able to analyze it, be able to say, ‘here are my options’ because he’s doing to have a lot of people approaching him.”

Still, Evans is not mayor until January, and Warren still has several months in City Hall. Evans did not attack Warren in the primary, focusing on what he would do. Such a strategy could aid the transition.

“I think they need to find ways to work together,” Johnson said. “They should be seen together. … The city is both their No. 1 priority. How do we save the city? How do we change?”

Robert Duffy served from January 2006 through December 2010.

Robert Duffy

Duffy said the issues facing Evans revolve around education, economic development, safety and poverty. Duffy said jobs are available, but sometimes the people in charge of promoting and assuring opportunities work counter to each other.

“There’s been so much infighting going on,” Duffy said. “I think what he can do is bring a sense of teamwork and collaboration.”

Duffy said leaders unite, and Evans’ deliberate nature puts him in a position to do just that.

If he doesn’t?

“If we continue this path of divisiveness, we are never going to accomplish the goals we need to accomplish,” Duffy said. “Nobody’s denying the problems and challenges. It just makes them far harder to address when we’re fighting each other or yelling at each other. We’re working in silos, different directions. I believe Malik Evans’ personality, his background, his tenor all comport so well to bringing people together.”

In his speech on primary night, Evans by quoting ‘God’s Minute’ by Dr. Benjamin Mays, in which he says “I only have a minute … But I know that I must use it … Only a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.”

The words imply purpose infused with urgency. But Duffy said people will have patience with the new administration.

“I will encourage him to look for quick wins and some long-term change so you build momentum.”

Thomas Richards succeeded Duffy on an interim basis from Jan. 1-18 2011, then served from April 11, 2011 through December 2013. In 2013, Warren upset Richards to win the Democratic primary.

Thomas Richards

Richards was mayor when Evans was on the school board and said he has been a supporter of Evans.

“I think his instincts are toward cooperation, toward partnerships,” Richards said. “If you look at where we are right now in this community, we’re not going to make progress unless the principal public agencies are in concert. By that, I mean the city of Rochester, the county and the school district. They’re going to have to work together.”

He said it’s important for the mayor and superintendent to have a working relationship, and for the mayor and county leadership to cooperate. “That’s how you get the private sector to participate, by showing that cooperative effort.”

Richards said he was surprised by Evans’ margin of victory and that it spoke to voters wanting something different, something that seems stabilizing. Richards agree with the analogy of a baseball team changing the manager to bring new chemistry to the clubhouse.

“I think that’s where we are in the cycle of leadership,” he said. “ … My experience with Malik over the years, and it’s been quite a while now, is he’s a pretty straight arrow. What you see is what you get in that regard.”