Bill Johnson (William A. Johnson Jr.) became Rochester's first black mayor in 1994; serving three four-year terms during which the city continued to experience the difficulties faced by many rust-belt communities — crime and poverty in the wake of failing traditional family structures, declining population, the flight of businesses from downtown, budget gaps and the inability of the public schools system to retain and educate.
He swept into power by rallying form the back of the pack to defeat a crowded field in the Democratic primary, laying out his agenda in a thoughtful booklet titled "Living Within Our Means."
City government was perceived as being more accessible during the Johnson era than was the case under Mayor Tom Ryan, and Johnson was also credited for improving relations with Monroe County as well as Rochester City School District leaders. He embraced the Neighbors Building Neighborhoods initiative launched late in the Ryan administration, a bid to restore grassroots power and activism. And he rolled out Rochester 2010, a thoughtful albeit incomplete roadmap for improving the quality of life and economic vitality of the city.
But he also approved the consolidation of police substations, which made law enforcement officers less visible and less accessible. The opening of six Neighborhood Empowerment Team offices included staffing by police officers on a much more modest level than what the substations offered.
He frequently attended community events that were beyond the scope of mayoral duties, earning the respect of many of his critics for dedication and sincerity. Additionally, Rochester's struggles during his 12 years in office were generally regarded as less dramatic than the plight faced by Buffalo and Syracuse.
But Johnson left many challenges for successor Robert Duffy, not the least of which were the failed Toronto Fast Ferry project, the struggling High Falls entertainment district and the inability to work effectively with the area's Democratic delegation in Albany.
He reduced funding to the City School District — which supporters lauded as long overdue — and was regarded as ineffective in his efforts to lobby state officials for more money, a failure accentuated by Duffy's successful plea to Albany in 2006 for relief. He also traveled more and worked served in several regional or national organizations that critics claimed distracted him from his Rochester responsibilities. And his support of the Rochester Musicfest was regarded by some as rooted in personal passion for music rather than economic development.
Johnson challenged the popular Maggie Brooks for the job of Monroe County executive in 2003, losing badly when his stance against urban sprawl was portrayed to suburban voters as an agenda to merge city and county school districts and making a fourth term as mayor implausible. Johnson had feuded famously with Brooks' predecessor, Jack Doyle.
Duffy put an end to the Fast Ferry within days of the change of leadership, drawing fire from Johnson, who had endorsed the former police chief over City Councilman Wade Norwood in what was perceived as a parting shot at State Assemblyman David Gantt.