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Leader navigates a path fraught with challenges

Rochester Business Journal
October 26, 2012

Lovely Warren followed her father out of their Rochester home some two decades ago, he in search of his next fix, she begging him to turn around.
 
"I remember going downstairs while he's walking out the door," says Warren, who was barely 13 years old then. "It's raining, and I'm outside in my pajamas and with no shoes on my feet, just crying, 'Daddy, are you going to choose drugs over me?'
 
"And he left. And him leaving took a part of me with him. From that day forth, it was really hard for me. It wasn't until I grew up that it didn't hurt anymore."
 
Warren is 35 now and seemingly successful beyond her dreams. A graduate of Albany Law School, she is president of Rochester City Council and the Northeast District representative. She also is lead counsel and chief of staff to state Assemblyman David Gantt, D-Rochester.
 
"Many of the students in our city are going through some of the things I went through," Warren says. "They may have a parent on drugs. They may have anger issues. They may not know how to deal with that at that point in time."
 
This is what Warren tells them: "Whether you're black, white, Hispanic or whatever in this city, no matter what your income is, you can still become somebody. When you look in the mirror 25 years from now, when you're 35 years old, what do you want to see? Where do you want to be?
 
"Don't think about the here and the now. You have to think: 'Yes, this is going on now, but how am I going to get from here to there? And what steps do I need to take?'"
 
Lovely Ann Warren-"My initials are LAW," she says, smiling-was born at Strong Memorial Hospital. Her dad worked at Xerox Corp., her mom at Eastman Kodak Co.
 
Most of her mother's family is nearby, providing a strong support system then and now, says Warren, a member of the Westside Church of Christ.
 
"I love this city," she says. "It was great growing up here, for a while."
 
The turmoil began when Warren was 8. Her mother had left Kodak. Her father quit his job at Xerox. The couple moved with their two daughters to California and stayed with friends there.
 
Two months later, mother and daughters moved back. Warren's father stayed behind, at least initially.
 
"It was a very emotional time, because when you're that young, you see things through this clear lens," she says. "You're naive, and you believe everything is great. I had a good childhood, I would say. But there were always things going on that you never fully understood."

Troubles brew
Warren was 13 when she was told by a cousin that her dad was using crack cocaine.
 
"You'd come home and maybe the TV is gone," she says. "The car is gone for the entire weekend. My mom was working almost three jobs, trying to take care of my sister and me. I never fully understood what was going on until my cousin told me."
 
She asked her dad if he was using drugs.
 
"He was honest and said, 'Yes, I have a problem,'" Warren says. "There were many times when he tried to get help for his addiction. But it wasn't something he could shake at that time."
 
Drug abuse had been the reason for the move to the West Coast, she realized.
 
"My mom believed that if she took him away from this environment, we could make a go of it as a family," Warren says. "My dad is very intelligent. He used to travel for Xerox and things like that.
 
"When my mom recognized that the same thing happening here was happening there, it was, like, 'Why did I take my children and myself away from my support network?'"
 
Her dad's problems turned Warren's teenage years to chaos.
 
"I struggled with the fact that I had a great father," she says. "We played tennis together. We did homework together. He really took care of me. He was a good dad, but once this disease took over, once he started to use drugs, everything started to change. Our relationship started to change.
 
"He wasn't around as often. And when he was around, sometimes when he was going through this high; you'd look in his eyes and see that he wasn't there. He couldn't keep any money in the house because he would take it and use it for drugs."
 
Her dad spent many of those years dividing his time between California and Rochester.
 
Their strained relationship affected Warren at Wilson Magnet High School. She became increasingly angry and sometimes violent, often for no good reason.
 
"Anything you said to me could set me off," she says. "I would literally just fight. There wasn't any discussion or arguing or anything like that."
 
Her personal demons conflicted with her hope of becoming a lawyer. That was something she had vowed to do as a 7-year-old in 1984 when her maternal grandfather was critically injured by gunfire while working as a security guard for Wegmans Food Markets Inc.
 
Years after the shooting, Warren found herself basically on her own. Her father was gone much of the time. Her mother worked three jobs. Her older sister had left to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C.
 
She started dating a man two years older than she, and she learned he was physically abusive.
 
"We'd get into an argument and he'd hit me, and I'd hit him back," Warren says. "I'm looking for love in all the wrong places because I'm trying to figure out this relationship with my dad.
 
"That was really what my high school years were about. I was a cheerleader, but I really wasn't involved in high school. I did the work and made it through. I wasn't the best student; I wasn't the worst."
 
The best thing to happen to Warren in high school was her involvement with Bless Thomas, a teacher and administrator who would become her surrogate father.
 
"Mr. Thomas had taken a real liking to me," she says. "He saw the diamond in the rough."
 
There is no need to be angry, Thomas would tell her constantly, no matter what others said to her.
 
"During her freshman, sophomore and junior years she had a lot of problems," says Thomas, who continues to work as a substitute teacher at the school.
 
"She was a toughie. I saw a lot of potential in her, and she used to fight a lot. She didn't take any junk from the girls. She would fight real fast. I needed to calm her temper down and tell her you can't fight your way through life."
 
Warren often faced suspensions because of her fighting.
 
"She was long-term suspended, and I would go into the hearings and speak up for her," Thomas says. "I would tell her she's a smart girl but we've got to control that temper or you're going to be out of school."
 
Thomas worked closely with Warren and her mother during those first three years of high school, trying to solve the anger problem.
 
"She was very smart and intelligent," Thomas says, recalling an incident that left Warren with a bloody mouth. "I could tell her to write what she just did, and she would write it so perfectly. I'd say, 'Look how good you can write, look how good you speak and you're out there fighting.'"
 
There would be no college, and no career as an attorney, if Warren could not keep her emotions in check and focus on the future, Thomas says he told her. And she could not control her dad's drug addiction.
 
"He really gave that fatherly advice and love and compassion that I was searching for," Warren says.
 
Meanwhile, Warren's mother was in a fight of her own. She stopped working during Warren's junior year after becoming violently ill with sarcoidosis, which caused inflammation of lymph nodes and other tissues. She also was trying to control her diabetes and hypertension, among other ailments.
 
"She would go into remission, but then it would come back. She would be in a hospital, and many times we thought we would lose her," Warren says. "So now I'm not only dealing with my dad being in and out, but my mother may be dying and I have this boyfriend who's a jerk."
 
Warren felt overwhelmed. Thomas guided her through it.
 
"I really decided to buckle down," Warren says. "I really didn't have to study. With most subjects, except for math, I could just pick it up like that. I did enough to get by. Then my senior year, I studied real hard."
 
Her grade-point average was 3.5 or better for most classes during her final year of high school.
 
Warren decided to attend SUNY College at Buffalo, but she dropped out midway through her sophomore year.
 
"I hated it," she says, "and it was too close to home because this terrible boyfriend was driving there and we're fighting."

A new path
She transferred to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a senior college at the City University of New York in Manhattan. It is the only liberal arts college in the country with a criminal justice and forensic focus.
 
"I always thought I would be a prosecutor because my grandfather was shot while working at Wegmans," Warren says. "I always felt like I was going to make people pay for their crimes."
 
Acceptance at John Jay brought disapproval from her boyfriend.
 
"He got very upset with me," Warren says. "He said: 'No, I don't believe in you. You're not going to amount to anything.' I said, 'I'm going to prove you wrong; I'm going to prove to you and everybody else that I can do this.' And I was done with him."
 
Her time at John Jay was exceptional, Warren says. A professor during her junior year convinced her to apply for a government internship in Albany. She did and in 1999 was accepted to work for Gantt.
 
"I've basically been there ever since," Warren says. "And I learned a different side of the law, that I could actually make laws and impact laws. Working that way, I have more hands-on communication with constituents."
 
After completing her internship, she returned to John Jay for her senior year.
 
"But God wasn't through with me yet," Warren says.
 
She was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a kidney disease. Doctors in New York City prescribed prednisone, but it did not work. Warren continued to submit samples to New York City doctors during her first year at Albany Law School. The condition worsened so much that those physicians insisted she get to a nephrotic specialist at the Albany Medical Center.
 
"I walked across the street and into a nephrotic clinic and just started crying," Warren says. "This older woman, the secretary, just held me and said, 'What's wrong?' I said: 'I don't know. They just told me I have to come here.'"
 
A doctor there told Warren she would have to take a leave of absence from law school while undergoing chemotherapy once a month for 24 hours, because the treatments could make her very ill. Warren, then 23, refused.
 
"I'm, like, are you kidding me?" she remembers. "Not now. Not now."
 
Warren agreed to nine months of treatments and, after a six-month rest, another six months of chemo. She maintained her law school obligations, missing a Friday class each month and spending that day in treatment.
 
"I would be able to leave Saturday morning, and then all day Saturday and Sunday I was really sick, throwing up," Warren says. "It was really hard. On Monday I was still a little bit ill, but not so much that I couldn't do it.
 
"Now you don't find a trace of this dis-ease in my system at all."
 
She became president of the Black Law Students Association during her second year and continued to work part-time for Gantt. She earned her law degree and passed the New York bar examination in 2003.
 
Warren came home and took a full-time job with Gantt.

Entering politics
Two years later, in 2005, she ran for a seat on Rochester City Council, losing by seven votes to William Pritchard in the Democratic primary. Her defeat was deserved, Warren says.

"I had just graduated from law school, I was coming home, and I had this air of arrogance," she says. "I'm this young African-American professional, I'm a woman and this community needs me to tell them what to do. I know I came across like that, and I believe that I had to be humbled."
 
Warren had recently married Timothy Granison, who works for Catholic Charities Community Services and for United Parcel Service of America Inc.
 
"My grandmother said, 'You just got married, and you need to concentrate on your husband; it's not your time,'" Warren says. "Of course, when you're in the thick of it, you think this is wrong and you should've won. You're hurt. But waiting a couple of years and running was better for me."
 
In May 2007, Warren was appointed to fill the Northeast District seat. She was elected to a full term that November.
 
"I take it more seriously now," Warren says. "I am really focused on what's best for the community and listening to what other people feel and advocating for that.
 
"When you are an elected representative, it has to be about the people you serve. It can't be about your own ego or your own agenda."
 
City Council members elected Warren as their president in January 2010.
 
"She's turned out to be a wonderful person," Thomas says. "I'm very proud of her. I see her on TV and on news conferences."
 
Thomas and Warren last saw each other May 31, at Wilson Magnet for an appearance by Amber Riley of the television series "Glee."
 
"She was there with all the dignitaries in the library," Thomas says. "We hugged and talked. She was kind of like my daughter. We stuck together. She believed in me, and I believed in her."
 
Since becoming council president, Warren has instituted a monthly meeting with the chairpersons of committees to get updates on present and future agendas. She and council Vice President Dana Miller meet regularly with Mayor Thomas Richards.
 
"It's more responsibility in making sure everything runs effectively and efficiently and still keeping a pulse in the community and making sure I represent the residents well," Warren says.

Future mayor?
She frequently is mentioned as a potential candidate for mayor.
 
"Possibly," she says of her interest. "Right now I'm comfortable being president of City Council and representing northeast Rochester. I'm comfortable advocating for that district and for my city as a whole."
 
Her district is the poorest in the city.
 
"It has the most challenges, so it's difficult at times," Warren says. "But what I love about that district is its resiliency. The people that live there have lived there for years. They've never given up on this district. They've seen it go from good to bad to worse."
 
The district includes some of the city's oldest businesses. They include Hickey Freeman, McAlpin Industries Inc., Hudson Steel Fabricators & Erectors Inc. and the Genesee Brewing Co.
 
"These businesses have been around for years," Warren says. "And they're still there, amidst all that negative energy.
 
"And it's not like it's the whole district, even though the whole district gets branded that way. It's three or four square miles within this large district that you have these issues and concerns."
 
Warren supported a proposal offered by then-Mayor Robert Duffy's administration to take control of the Rochester City School District as an agent of change, though she is not sure whether mayoral control would improve graduation rates dramatically.
 
She would support a voucher program in which parents receive a government certificate that could be used to pay tuition at a private or charter school.
 
"I want my daughter to get the best education possible," Warren says. "If that's in a city school, she will attend a city school. If that's a private school, she'll attend a private school. I do not believe in limiting her ability to learn."
 
Poverty and a family's social situation cannot be an excuse for the high dropout and low graduation rates, she says.
 
"We don't know what poor is in this country," Warren says. "Go to places like Haiti and places in Africa and Asia, where kids fight to get to school. We allow it to be used as a barrier.
 
"Do children have things to face when they're at home? Absolutely. Is poverty a factor? Absolutely. But we cannot allow it to be the excuse for children not learning."
 
She speaks from experience.
 
"Some parents have issues, but most parents want the best for their children," she says. "Even my dad on drugs wanted the best for me. He would still tell me to do my homework and go to school."
 
Her father is retired and no longer uses drugs, Warren says.
 
"He's been clean for about seven years," she says. "He lives in Atlanta. He's doing well. I talk to him often. For me, I had to forgive him, once I realized that he was sick. It wasn't intentional.
 
"Some people just choose to walk out on their children's lives and choose to make decisions that affect them. But when you're using a drug like that, it's really hard. We talked about it and cried about it, and we're over it. We've moved on."
 
Warren's mom has remarried, still living in the house in which Warren grew up.
 
"She still has her ups and downs, but the majority of the time she's more up than down," Warren says. "My mom helps me out with my daughter. I think that waves off the depression that comes with the illness. It gives her something to get up for."
 
Warren met her husband at Country Sweet Chicken & Ribs, a culinary institution in Rochester. They have been married seven years, and their daughter, Taylor, is 2 years old.

Off the job
Warren likes to read fiction when she's not working. She also likes bowling. She watches television shows "Homeland," "Scandal," "Criminal Minds" and "Law and Order."
 
"I DVR my shows," she says. "I watch specific shows. I don't watch TV; I watch shows."
 
Warren spends much of her free time with the extended family.
 
"We'll get together Fridays and Saturdays and hang out at one another's houses and play games and just catch up," she says. Another priority is "spending time with my daughter, making sure I am to her what I am to the community and making sure that she doesn't feel like she's making a sacrifice."
 
Warren occasionally brings Taylor with her when conducting business.
 
"Because of service, my husband and my daughter have to make a sacrifice," she says. "If I'm going to a meeting, sometimes I bring her because I think she needs to be exposed to what Mommy does and why Mommy may not be home tonight."
 
There is no confusion, no misunderstanding. The lens is clear.

Lovely Warren
Title: President, Rochester City Council
Age: 35
Home: Rochester
Education: B.A. in government, John Jay College, New York City, 2000; J.D., Albany Law School, 2003
Family: Husband, Timothy Granison; daughter Taylor, 2
Hobbies: Reading, bowling
Quote: "When I won five years ago, I said if I can't make a difference, if I don't see things changing in my district, I won't run again. But a lot of things have started to change. I believe that is because of my advocacy, because I am linking with the community and advocating together."

10/19/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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