Video Interview, Bill Johnson, November 30, 2012
- KEVIN INDOVINO: OK.
- So let's first start with back with the seat
- of funding and that whole issue with what
- was called the community chest back then, I believe.
- Can you just start off for me the story
- about what the CETA funding issue was,
- and how you with the Urban League got involved with it.
- BILL JOHNSON: Well, there was a public service component
- of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act,
- CETA, funding that came about in the late 1970s.
- And the city of Rochester received a large grant,
- and decided to contract with the United Way, or at the time
- was called the united community chest for administration
- of this grant, which would be subcontracted out
- to a number of not-for-profit agencies.
- One of the agencies that had applied for funding
- was the Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley.
- And when that became public, the United Way and the city
- came under excruciating criticism
- from a group of white right-wingers,
- homophobic people in the community.
- And that led the United Way's board
- of the United Community Chest's board to turn that grant back
- to the city.
- And the city then reached out to the Urban League of Rochester.
- And I was the executive director at the time
- then when the offer was made to us.
- This funding would have literally doubled our funding.
- We were about a $1.1, $1.2 million dollar agency.
- And so now they are offering us a million dollars
- to administer.
- Our board, the board of the Urban League, discussed it,
- and there were two main issues for us.
- One is a great opportunity for us to continue to grow.
- At the time that I came to the league in '72,
- it was at the point of the brink of closing.
- It was at the brink of bankruptcy.
- And so I was hired to restore its funding
- and to increase its programming.
- So this was a wonderful opportunity,
- but it also meshed with the Urban League's mission,
- which was to fight in all forms of discrimination.
- And generally speaking, what we did
- was to fight racial discrimination.
- But we saw this strong protest for what it was.
- It was discriminatory.
- And only the Gay Alliance proposal was singled out.
- There were about three dozen proposals in that package.
- And one city councilman, Charles Schiano,
- focused on that to the detriment of a lot
- of other activity going on.
- And there was really nothing that sinister about the Gay
- Alliance proposal.
- It was a community education, it was a newsletter,
- it was not a proselytizing kind of a thing.
- But these homophobic people really
- chose to exacerbate this problem.
- And the history will show that took they over city council.
- They came in there with tremendous protests.
- But the council stood its ground.
- The Urban League stood its ground.
- Those people, Schiano, and Mike Macaluso,
- and other people like that, threatened
- even Urban League funding.
- But we refused to bow to that pressure.
- And that grant was approved by city council overwhelmingly.
- We ran the program.
- We didn't have picket lines out front.
- We had crackpots who were called.
- But those people would have never supported the Urban
- League in the first place.
- There was no need of us trying to accommodate
- any of their concerns.
- Now, on the other hand, you can imagine the problem
- that the Community Chest faced because they were a fundraising
- organization, and they try to avoid controversy,
- because they view that any controversy tends to impact
- adversely that funding.
- So it was a great opportunity for us.
- It led us into other areas into the future.
- And I think it was a great blow against discrimination,
- bigotry, intolerance that the city of Rochester made.
- And as you know, I think this was really
- the forefront, because Rochester has
- been a leader on these issues in so many other ways.
- One of the leaders of the Gay Alliance at the time
- was Tim Mains.
- A few years later, he was elected to city council
- being the first openly gay person in New York state
- to win election to political office.
- And other things have happened in this community
- over the years.
- So I look back on that as really as a significant moment
- in the history of this city, while it might not
- have been on the par in terms of scale, of the fight with Kodak
- and hiring of blacks back in the sixties,
- I think that we can say that it really approximated
- that same level of importance.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: You touched on something there
- that I was going to come to a little bit later,
- but now that you touched on it--
- because you'll have a unique perspective on this.
- What is it about Rochester, that we've always been
- a champion for the underdogs?
- What is it?
- Because Rochester's not a big city.
- But we have such a history here for activism and civil rights.
- And a lot of that has roamed out of Rochester.
- What is it about the city as a whole of who we are?
- What does it say about who we are, that we step up
- to the plate this way?
- BILL JOHNSON: Well, it's really a part
- of our historical culture.
- But I think you have to look at it very closely,
- KEVIN INDOVINO: Hold that thought a second.
- I'm just going to close that door over here.
- Somebody's in the office over here.
- (pause in recording)
- So yeah, just talk about who we are as a community.
- BILL JOHNSON: Yeah.
- We have achieved a reputation for being on the cutting
- edge of issues like women's rights,
- abolition, the fight movement in the sixties, the civil rights,
- and a lot of areas.
- But by then, you had to really go deep and look at it
- even closer, because there's something really rather
- ironic about all of this.
- While we have achieved this reputation,
- it didn't come without hard fights.
- There was intense resistance, where you go back.
- Susan B. Anthony never saw the achievement of her dream
- in her lifetime, and yet now she is widely
- recognized as one of the premium leaders of the fight
- for women's equality.
- Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist movement
- that had a strong toehold here in Rochester,
- he didn't achieve a lot of prominence
- until he left Rochester and became a national figure.
- And I cite this, and hope this won't
- be viewed as a digression.
- But I think it's very, very important.
- Back in 1999, we found a time vault in the old City Hall.
- It had been discovered, and had been placed there
- in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
- And the instructions were that this box
- should be opened before the turn of the twenty-first century,
- So there it had been sitting.
- And City Hall had moved.
- And someone went into this, and found it,
- and it had been sitting somewhere.
- So we opened it up, took it over to the Museum of Science
- Center, opened it up.
- And here's the thing that I found striking about it.
- The contents of this box were placed at 1872, OK?
- And they had managed to pack a lot of stuff
- in there, newspapers, diaries, any kind of memorabilia
- that related to that period.
- In that box that was put together in 1872,
- there was not one single reference, one single item
- that could be tracked to Susan B. Anthony or Frederick
- Douglass, which meant that during that time,
- their contemporaries did not view
- them to be as important as we have subsequently
- come to view them.
- Now, for me, that's very, very significant.
- And I think it suggests, really, the kind of community
- Rochester is.
- Yes, we've done great things, but it's not
- been without a struggle.
- And I think that we look back now on this very significant--
- at the time, it was viewed as a fight.
- But I think we now can see that it
- has led to many more prominent developments
- in the arena of gay rights.
- And Rochester really can claim it's place
- at the forefront of that movement.
- So I think that if there's any lesson to be learned,
- it's one of persistence.
- You don't back down in the face of very, very
- strong opposition.
- There are people of goodwill who probably
- don't stand up and cheer, but quietly, they
- support these things.
- Because I think that the Urban League got a lot of credit
- back then for having the courage on board and our staff
- having the courage to take this all very publicly.
- But I think the city council, which had just
- become a Democratic-controlled city
- council-- because you go back a decade,
- it was under Republican control.
- And if the Republicans--
- I don't make mean this is a political statement.
- It's just a statement of fact, that if the Republicans control
- our city council back in 1977, '78,
- they would have capitulated to that,
- to all of that strong opposition,
- because that was coming from people
- they viewed to be part of their natural base.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: A couple quick thoughts here.
- When the Urban League got approached
- to administer the grant, what were your first thoughts?
- And I can't imagine you said from the get go, let's do this.
- There had to be some debate, some apprehension there.
- Any concerns up front?
- BILL JOHNSON: Well, yeah, to be perfectly candid,
- the answer is yes.
- But driving this decision was my background
- being born in a southern racist south,
- and being born and raised in the 1950s,
- and the sixties when the Civil Rights
- Movement came to prominence.
- Now here's a real irony.
- There's a lot of homophobia in the black community
- as well, and particularly in the organized religious community.
- That is just now beginning to subside.
- President Obama, by embracing same-sex marriage really broke
- through, but there was fierce--
- for example, in the state of Maryland,
- there was an item on the constitutional amendment,
- a referendum item on the ballot in the November election
- that was strongly opposed by fundamentalist black churches,
- But they lost.
- They lost.
- So what I'm saying here is that when I saw this,
- I broke it down.
- And I had to do this in other points of my career
- to point out to my own people, that you can't afford
- to be on the wrong side of this issue,
- because all you got to do is take out gay and put in black,
- and you've already been there.
- We've already been victimized by the same kind of demeaning,
- harsh, and racially-divisive feeling.
- So how is it that you can afford to turn
- your back on other people being discriminated against?
- And that was very, very strong.
- And that was an argument I can recall making to our board.
- I think our board saw it, that it would have been hypocritical
- for us to walk away from it.
- And maybe-- and I never could quite
- understand why the city council chose Urban League.
- As I say, we were just beginning to come back from a period
- where we have sunk to a great low level.
- And somebody over there, Mayor Ryan or someone,
- saw in us the capacity to do this.
- And maybe they recognized, that if we go to x agency, or y
- agency, they could find a way to oppose it.
- They could say, well, there's going to be resistance.
- But with us, they could not expect that kind of response.
- The irony is this, our funding with the United Way
- could have been jeopardized as well,
- that we were at that point of our budget, over half of it
- was coming from the United Way.
- So we got quiet encouragement from the United Way to do this.
- We had assurances that they weren't
- going to succumb to any indirect pressure
- to take away funding from one of it's agencies,
- because they always said these agencies are autonomous,
- they are governed by their own board of directors.
- But they could give us assurance that we could do this
- without bringing any great danger to our other programs.
- But I think it was the right thing to do.
- Looking back, it was obviously the right thing to do.
- And it worked out because these folks went away.
- They made their loud noises.
- They made their threats.
- But in the final analysis, they weren't
- capable of following through on all those threats.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: And one last question,
- I want to talk to you a little bit about Betty Dwyer,
- because Betty Dwyer was very significant in helping
- you administer these grants.
- We interviewed Betty.
- She had a lot of great things to say about you.
- So I just want to get your thoughts about Betty,
- and really significant contributions
- that she made in helping make this grand administration
- BILL JOHNSON: Yeah.
- Betty didn't work for us at the time.
- Jeff Carlson, who was my deputy at the Urban League,
- and my deputy at City Hall for until he died--
- Jeff and I were together for over twenty-five years--
- when we decided we going to do this,
- we knew that we needed a strong manager.
- We needed a strong manager.
- And I recall that he identified Betty.
- He had worked with Betty in other areas.
- And he said this is the right person for the job.
- Betty had done some work with ABC
- and with other organizations.
- So she had a strong community organization background.
- But the thing that I think really
- was Betty's strongest point, is that she's unflappable.
- She doesn't give this appearance of being tough,
- but she's tough as nails.
- So she had the right disposition,
- the right demeanor, the right background,
- the right temperament to do this job.
- And I would tell you, you can imagine
- that this program was going to be
- under severe, excruciating observation.
- People were waiting for us to make a mistake.
- We had to submit to evaluations.
- We had to-- we ran the program for about five years,
- as I recall, until seat of funding shifted
- to a new federal program.
- But she managed that ship so tightly
- that it could never be a challenge to the funding based
- on programmatic or performance lines.
- Betty, is a joy, is my one joy--
- I go to my grave with my deepest appreciation.
- She worked with us in other areas.
- She never ever failed.
- But I'm just saying she was the right person to do this job.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: So let's move forward a few years.
- You're now the mayor of the city.
- And a particular proposal comes up, domestic partnership
- benefits at the city level.
- BILL JOHNSON: Yeah.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: I imagine probably
- a lot of pressure from someone like Tim to get this through.
- Again, talking about your first thoughts
- about when this issue came up for discussion--
- BILL JOHNSON: Well, this issue was actually
- driven by Tim Mains.
- Tim had been deprived of leadership.
- When I became mayor in 1994, Tim had run a very strong
- at large election.
- I think he may even have led the ticket.
- And he had some expectations of becoming
- the president of city council.
- And he was deprived that, that chance.
- So he had no consultation with me or anyone else.
- Exercising his right as a legislator,
- he introduced this legislation for domestic partnership.
- Again, no other municipality in New York state
- had ever considered such legislation.
- And obviously, no one had passed it.
- So now, again, this brought out Mike Macaluso, OK?
- Charlie Schiano was off the city council.
- But Mike Macaluso came forever, wherever
- he had been hiding all these years, and he comes by,
- and he begins to pound the city council on this.
- This was a very divisive issue.
- So let me just say without a lot of detail--
- I'm sure Tim will talk about that--
- we finally came to the night we were going to vote on this.
- And this was closely divided.
- I was mayor for twelve years.
- And only two times during my tenure
- did legislation ever pass by just one vote.
- When the vote was taken, it was five to four.
- And I didn't have any role.
- I will not sit here and try to claim
- any credit for leading that.
- But I recognized, again, that there would be pressure coming.
- So I said to Tim--
- I gave him my assurance that I will sign that legislation, OK?
- And remember, if it passed by only five to four vote,
- if I vetoed it, it could not have been--
- it was highly unlikely that it would have
- been approved over my veto.
- So I didn't want it to be any doubt about the fact.
- And I, again, made statements that this was, for me,
- a civil rights issue.
- And all the people looked at it.
- Well, could the city afford it?
- Is this going to really exacerbate our costs?
- And my point was, this is the right thing to do.
- So the moment the vote was taken, and it was five to four,
- I announced that, "Please, get this to me immediately
- so I can sign it."
- It has to be put in a certain format.
- So there was no way it was going to be ready that night.
- But it was ready the next morning, which I signed.
- And amazingly, after I signed it,
- these fundamentalist ministers, both black and white,
- a delegation visited me a few weeks later and said,
- "Mayor, we want you to veto that legislation."
- I said, "Well, I think you're about three weeks late.
- I've already signed that legislation.
- I don't why you didn't know it because it
- was in the newspaper."
- "Well, you need to undo it."
- I said, "Nope."
- Again, I lectured them about how could they
- be on the wrong side of this issue.
- But there were fundamentalist white ministers,
- who we interacted with on other issues, like violence,
- and housing, who really threatened
- to pull their support on those issues if somehow
- or another we did not reverse the action
- on the domestic partnership legislation.
- And we stood very, very strong on that.
- So, again, I think that the city of Rochester
- demonstrated its foresight in its wisdom, its vision
- on something that was highly controversial,
- but I also believe highly important for us to do.
- And that has stood the test of time.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: I watched the videotape of that, that city
- council session.
- And I just wanted to get your opinion
- on this, because it seemed to me like Lois Geiss was
- that deciding vote.
- BILL JOHNSON: Yeah.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: But she took a long time
- before she actually came out and says, yes, I'm voting for this.
- BILL JOHNSON: Yeah.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: Just your recollections of that--
- BILL JOHNSON: Well, I will say this.
- And I worked with Lois for the entire twelve years
- that I was mayor.
- She was president of city council.
- And Lois was very deliberative, I think is the right word.
- And even before the matter came to city council,
- she didn't think that a measure was
- going to pass with at least seven votes.
- We were hard pressed to get it before city council.
- In other words, she wanted it to have strong, strong support.
- And if there were people on council
- who had some individual objection,
- she would give them that chance to express
- their views during the debate and before the vote.
- But she knew where the votes were, OK?
- Now, I'm only saying this to say that if that legislation--
- it took her a while to develop that style.
- And I think that she did a count.
- There were a couple of people we couldn't be certain of.
- They could have gone either way.
- So that vote could have been five four in either direction.
- Five four, for or against.
- It could have been six three, or seven two.
- Clearly, and I don't recall the four who voted.
- If I think about it long enough, knowing how they voted,
- I could probably figure out who the four were.
- So those people who were subjected
- to tremendous pressure from the opposition,
- maybe on religious grounds.
- There could be on philosophical grounds.
- But under the style that she subsequently
- developed, if that legislation had
- come one or two years later, it may not ever come to a vote
- because she would not have allowed
- it to come to a vote with just a five to four.
- The other issue, the other issue that came maybe ten years later
- totally unrelated to this dealt with budget and the fact
- that I was reducing.
- I took seven million dollars from the school district,
- which is like a holy grail.
- You can't do that.
- And we needed the money for our own operations.
- And we worked very furiously.
- And in fact, that vote was closer than we thought it was.
- But certainly, we couldn't hold our voting on the budget.
- And so that was the only other time.
- But I would say this.
- I think Lois, the president of council
- always casts the final vote.
- So sitting there with a four to four vote,
- she was the decisive one.
- And then I've never spoken to her about her feelings
- about this.
- She cast the vote the right way as far as I was concerned.
- And we solidified it because we wanted
- to make certain there wasn't even
- the hint of a possible veto of this legislation.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: I just want to touch base
- on that evening again just a little bit more,
- because the chambers were filled with a diverse range of people,
- or pros and cons, a lot of people, very emotional.
- But when the vote went down, you had to get up and speak,
- and say I'm going to sign this legislation, just
- talk to me a little bit about what you were feeling
- emotionally at that time, the certainty
- that you had that this was the right thing to do.
- BILL JOHNSON: Well, for me, it was almost instinctive.
- It wasn't something that I had to think about.
- I didn't have a vote on it.
- So, for example, if the fifth vote
- hadn't been a no vote, at that point there was nothing
- I could have done about it.
- We hoped, and we talked to people,
- and we wanted to make sure that this was important.
- It was important to Tim.
- Tim is a respected member of city council.
- But, again, as I say, I haven't seen the tapes.
- You might go back and confirm for me that some of the people
- were talking about the economic implications
- of this legislation, trying to really shift it away
- from the social implications of it.
- I just knew.
- I had a sense based on things that
- happened to me at the Urban League
- that there was going to be a group of people who could claim
- an affinity to me, who could claim that they supported me,
- and they helped me.
- And really, the group of ministers-- remember,
- I won election in a very divisive and competitive
- And I wasn't the front runner.
- So I was the underdog, and I relied on and needed
- the help of a lot of people.
- So a lot of these people who came to see me--
- I don't know what took them so long.
- There was no way I was about to invite them
- to come talk to me about this.
- But when they said they wanted to come,
- it would be I expected that I would receive them.
- A lot of these people could truly say,
- if it hadn't been for I standing by you,
- you wouldn't be sitting where you are today.
- And here we are.
- This is important to us.
- And we truly, truly, truly want you
- to reconsider what you've done.
- And I had to have a very, very serious discussion with them,
- and to distill almost lecturing to them
- about what it meant, that you can't pick and choose
- in the area of discrimination.
- You can't pick and choose an area of hatred.
- You can't say well, I tolerate this form of it
- because the environmental aspects of this
- are too explosive, and they could turn right back on you.
- We've seen this.
- And let me say that--
- think about the fact that everybody
- said after the election of Barack Obama,
- we have really transcended a real racial barrier
- in this country, and yet we've seen such outpouring of hatred
- against this man that is unbelievable.
- So we haven't solved this problem of racism.
- And it's now more convenient.
- The people who can say, oh, I really
- don't harbor any racial animus in my heart,
- I like black people, I like Herman Cain, I like Condoleezza
- Rice, so don't tell me that my feelings against Barack Obama
- are racially based--
- but now it's easy for them to choose two groups
- that they feel are relatively helpless, gays, and lesbians,
- transgendered people, and brown immigrants, OK?
- So that means that they always need a manifestation
- for their bigotry.
- They've got to find something or somebody to hate, OK?
- And I want to reassure my black brothers and sisters
- that-- don't take too much comfort in the fact
- that other people are being targeted
- because they can circle back on you just as quickly.
- And they've proven it with their vilification of the President
- of the United States.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: It's interesting.
- It's all part of that cycle.
- OK, it's no longer acceptable to say anything negative
- about blacks.
- BILL JOHNSON: Yeah.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: So you can't do that.
- You can't say anything about women anymore.
- You can't do that.
- So it's just like, OK.
- Who's the next group?
- BILL JOHNSON: Except that it's just--
- KEVIN INDOVINO: Without getting--
- hopefully no longer acceptable.
- BILL JOHNSON: Well, let's hope not.
- But this past election cycle was so horrible,
- And even to the extent of women.
- And it's just that there are just
- a group of people who are fearful of change.
- And they need to have a scapegoat for their feelings.
- So they find it wherever they can.
- And I think that this notion that somehow that being gay
- what do you call it--
- an assumed behavior, and that if somehow
- or another, if we pray hard enough,
- or if we hate long enough, that they're going
- to abandon this lifestyle.
- It's really just ludicrous and has to be confronted.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: We're not only the first municipality
- in New York to pass domestic partnership benefits,
- but were actually one of the first in the country.
- And I just want to get your thoughts on that.
- Again, I hope that the pride that you
- felt in that, that we were one of the first
- in the country to do this, but again,
- what that says about who we are here in Rochester.
- BILL JOHNSON: Yeah.
- It's says that deep down at the core,
- we really do value our legacy and our heritage
- as a community that's viewed as one
- of the leaders in the tolerance and equality movement.
- We don't brag enough about it, so
- that a lot of people who really don't know much about Rochester
- sometimes find it hard to believe
- that this much social history took place
- in such a small place.
- So I think that what you're doing and what others are doing
- helps us elevate that, elevate that status.
- There are people who don't even know Frederick Douglass is
- buried in Rochester, New York.
- They think somehow he's down in Washington DC
- because that's where he spent the last twenty
- years of his life.
- But no, it's something to be extremely, extremely proud of.
- And I think it sets us apart as true leaders, as pioneers.
- And as I say, it continues.
- It continues and moves into other areas.
- So we've been doing this now for one hundred and seventy years.
- This has been the mantra of this little bird that's tucked away
- in the corner of Western New York that has really
- produced so many seminal movements in this country.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: We're going to leave it at that.
- BILL JOHNSON: OK.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: It's good.
- Thank you very much.
- BILL JOHNSON: Hopefully you can find a minute or two that you
- can use.
- KEVIN INDOVINO: Oh, definitely.