Taking on City Hall

By John Addyman

Alex White first got involved with Rochester City Council politics over an issue of displaying a business certificate. “After all their years of not making things better in Rochester, the council approved a certificate of use for businesses,” said White. “Among many problems with this idea was that the certificate had to be visible within eight feet of the doorway, with a picture of the owner, the owner’s home address, phone number and Social Security number. That was really an identity theft permit or rape permit. In 2004, I organized a group of business owners to stop this. We refused to get the permits and were threatened with $10,000 fines.

“The city could not see the problem. They also wanted a full inspection of a building — even if the business occupied only a part of it. It was a bad piece of legislation. There were 30 small businesses really active in fighting it, all my size. The city was targeting barbershops, strangely. The whole law was inconceivable; it was an excuse to do an unwarranted search.”

White began faithfully attending city council meetings.

“I started to notice the incredible nonsense going on, how the city was funneling money to developers, creating an unfair environment for investors,” he said. He gave an example of the Erie Harbor Apartments, where rentals were at least $1,700 a month, an initiative that was supported by council.

To White, it was public money making wealthy people wealthier.

“Nobody was talking about it,” he said. “No one understood what was going on. No one wrote a news item about it.”

“Now they’re cutting services in schools where they haven’t raised school taxes in 15 years. Council approves $100 million in tax breaks yearly to big developers, with loans and grants and other business subsidies. It just seems to me to be criminal,” he said.

Some friends of his in the Green Party urged him to run for mayor in 2009, but he couldn’t qualify when too many of his petition signatures were challenged.

In 2011, he made the ballot and got 9 percent of the vote and some eyes opened. He ran on a platform of reducing crime, working to deal with poverty in the city, and improving the city budget.

By the 2013 election, when two Democrats were running for mayor, Lovely Warren and Tom Richards, White had honed his message, gotten more help, and launched a better campaign.

He told anyone who would listen he wanted to create jobs for local people, get police out of their cars and on foot patrol, stop handouts to wealthy landlords and developers, “and start to take education seriously,” he said.

White tirelessly participated in 37 public forums. “I did very well in these discussions. I had studied for two years,” he said.

Although White came in a distant third in the election, his campaign manager, Dave Sutliff-Atias, said, “The numbers don’t really tell the story. This was a unique election with Tom Richards and Lovely Warren splitting the vote.”

And Alex White was an unusual candidate.

“He’s one of the smartest guys I know,” said Sutliff-Atias, “But he’s also one of quirkiest — in a good way. He’s not afraid to take on something or work with others who aren’t going in the same direction. He’ll do things that aren’t mainstream, that don’t go along with what everybody is doing.

“The type of business he’s involved in, the places he volunteers his time for like OACES [Office of Adult Career Education Services, which places 400-600 people in jobs every year], whether he gets anything out of it or not, he will help small business owners because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. Almost everything he does is toward making the community a better place.”

Sutliff-Atias said White’s presence in 2013 opened a dialogue that caused change after the votes were tallied. “We had talked about cooperative business prospects and all of a sudden, city hall started to do co-ops. It was a step,” he said.

White was on the ballot again in 2017, in a wider election that featured Republican Tony Micciche, Working Families candidate Jim Sheppard and the winner, again, Warren. He got about the same number of votes, but with all those candidates, total votes were a bit higher.

Ray Lairmore was active in that 2017 campaign. “I helped him talk to the right people; I helped him write speeches,” he said. “As a speaker, Alex is very technical, not exactly dramatic with hand gestures. Not political. He knew everything about everything. I’d watch him when he spoke to a group and ask questions of him to provide a little more context.”

Checks and balances

White liked to tell a story in those speeches about the city council trying to sell a parking garage with a huge tax break involved. White told council in a meeting that selling the garage that way would be illegal, and he was right. “Apparently you didn’t read the law and I did,” White told councilors.

Lairmore said White doesn’t have a politician’s heart; he has an activist’s heart.

“What’s driving him is that he really cares about these issues; they’re wrong because they’re wrong. He doesn’t like the illogicalness of it all. For instance, how can they cut city programs for after-school classes when they are cutting taxes for big companies? He tells the council, ‘You’re not trying.’”

“Every city council member knows Alex well,” said Sutliff-Atias.

“Alex is very sincere and very genuine,” said Knappen. “He will take time to, when you get to him as a person, get to know you and what your interests are. He tries to engage you. He will try to connect you with the community. He’s is also so very sincere in his political voice: He takes on projects in his community where he can raise public awareness.”

Lairmore and Knappen point to White’s teaching experience as part of his persona as an organizer and would-be politician.

“He’s an educator,” said Knappen. He said White takes time in those personal connections, time to engage people, time to really work through teaching a game or talking to people to really help them understand why something is important.

“It’s a more professorial kind of approach which is unique. He cares about people understanding.”

Sitting in his shop on a quiet Saturday morning before customers wander in, White talks about the things that get under his skin — the amount of poverty in Rochester, a lack of positive interactions with police, the lack of jobs paying above minimum wage in the city, no programs for kids after school, library hours and services cutbacks.

“We could make a substantial investment in Rochester if we stopped giving money away to developers,” he said. “If we work with smaller businesses, we’ll have more connections with more people, and older people, and we could start to make some real changes,” White said.

Spending money on training people gets them off the streets, into jobs, and paying taxes. “You don’t need a high school education to hold a job. We could be doing this on a bigger level,” he said.

“I feel like I’m living in a game sometimes, where the comic book villain, the evil leader of the library, closed the libraries and gave everything to rich people, and is ruining the schools. I’m living in that world right now. There’s been a 40 percent reduction in recreation spending. No libraries are open on Sundays and just a few are open in evenings.

“More than half of Rochester households do not have internet access in the home. How do you do a job application today? We have made a world that will trap people in the lowest economic situation.”

Boldo’s Armory makes a profit. White and his two partners have enjoyed a steady income and faithful returning customers. “People come in here and want to have a good time and I help them,” he said.

He sells tickets to events — $12 for five hours of activity, at least, and the games themselves, which line the walls. He also deals in expensive miniature armies.

And when he finally decided to step from the sidelines into the political arena, what prompted him was the feeling that he should use his privilege to help others.

The store doesn’t have to look like much because so much of what happens inside is in the minds of some very creative, knowledgeable people. They don’t care that the carpeting is uneven or dirty or that the back room is filled with empty soda cans. They create the scenes, the scenarios and the players in their minds.

And owning the shop has transformed White, who left the stress and migraines of prior jobs working for someone else.

“I’m very fortunate, health-wise,” he said. But he does walk a mile in radius from his shop every day, “and I do a lot of biking — everywhere. I attend a lot of meetings and I like to bike because then I don’t have to park. It’s two miles downtown to community meetings. I try to bike more times than I drive. I walk to the store at least 25 times a month for six months.”

Socially, his partner, Noel, adds to his life and helps keep him centered.

“I met her at the store 20 years ago,” he said.

They have friends they visit and invite over to — what else? — play games. “More like ‘Settlers of Catan’ than some of the elaborate battles run at the store,” he noted.

His political career isn’t over, and he comfortably enjoys the game shop business.

So he is recharging for the next election cycle and has a brief message he believes in.

”We need to reinvigorate the spirit of democracy,” he said.

Part of that starts with connecting to others. White wants to work with House of Mercy and St. Joseph’s to get people out of homeless shelters and into housing units. “That’s a project that keeps going back and forth in my mind. Every night in Rochester we have more homeless people than we have beds and it’s a growing problem. There are people at House of Mercy now who would move into transition housing, but there isn’t any,” he said.

Wistful, he believes he and others showed common folks how to organize and change things in 2004 and the lessons from then are still driving efforts for change.

And he knows he has been a messenger.

“I’ve gone from no one talking about tax breaks and corporate welfare, to now everyone talking about those issues,” he said. “I feel very good about what I’ve done. I have made a difference. I’m still young and there’s so much I can do.

“When you run for office, things change. You always carry on a valuable dialogue that’s helpful. I’m still fighting.”