A 2016 phone call from Rep. Louise Slaughter’s office changed Zach King’s life.
The Democratic congresswoman had defeated Republican Mark Assini in 2014 with a razor-thin margin, recalls Patty Larke, Slaughter’s former district director.
“It was imperative for her to win big (in 2016). She had to win big in order to retain her stature and to remain relevant,” Larke says.
In her search for campaign staff, Slaughter spoke to King’s cousin, a pastor at a local church.
“My cousin Frank said, ‘Well, Zach doesn’t come to church, but he went to school for politics. So, give him a call,’” King says.
King joined Slaughter’s reelection committee as a lead field organizer, beginning his rapid rise in politics. Today, at age 28, he is chair of the Monroe County Democratic Committee.
He was elected to the position in October, along with a young and diverse leadership slate that represents Black, Latinx, LGBTQIA+ and white communities.
“Typically, MCDC (plays) an advisory role, whereas I want to make sure we’re playing more ball,” King says. “I want to make sure that there are enough field organizers within the county party to go out and knock (on doors) for candidates who can’t raise money to pay for staff to go knock.
“I want to make sure that we’re building a volunteer structure within the county party that can work on behalf of our candidates rather than them having to try and do everything themselves.”
At the same time, he must contend with party infighting that at times in recent years has threatened to boil over, imperiling its chances of finally ending the Republicans’ grip on the Monroe County Legislature.
Governing the party
The MCDC is the official governing body for the Democratic party in Monroe County. Its aim: to help Democrats pool efforts to elect representatives for local, state and national government.
The party recently completed its 2021 candidate designation process—150 individual seats are up for election countywide this year. Marquee seats up for grabs include Rochester mayor and Monroe County sheriff. King wants the party to make gains in the county Legislature and town boards.
“A lot of our focus this year is on the county Legislature and making sure that we’re winning a functioning majority (and) making sure that we’re doing our best to work for Democratic values and making sure we’re passing Democratic legislation,” he says. “There’s a lot of seats that are out in the suburbs that are very much within the realm of possibility of winning—there are five to seven seats out there that are definitely flippable.”
The GOP majority in the Legislature shrank from 18-11 after the 2017 election to a one-seat edge following the 2019 election. To win the Legislature majority, the Democrats might need to retain all of the seats they now hold.
“I think we have a very good map to build from. We’ve got a lot of great candidates—a lot of young candidates, diverse candidates, who are ready and excited to get involved in politics,” King says.
The big tent
King helps govern a local party led whose top elected officials are Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren. Some political observers say the power lies with Bello, who has a broader geographic area and more jobs under his purview. Others believe Warren, though under indictment for alleged campaign finance improprieties, holds sway.
While it strives to be inclusive, the party has had rifts. Some members are split by allegiance to Warren and others allied to the late Assemblyman David Gantt on the one side and to Rep. Joseph Morelle on the other. A faction has sided with Republicans in the Legislature on certain issues. And there are still others who don’t fall into those groups.
King does not deny factions exist, but he believes the much-discussed Warren-Morelle split is too simplistic.
“I also get a little frustrated when we talk about this false dichotomy because there are plenty of folks within the party locally who don’t fall into either pocket. … I think there are a lot more folks outside of that false dichotomy than the folks within the media or within general political circles like to think about.”
One example: the small group of county legislators who formed a Black and Asian Caucus, led by Legislator Ernest Flagler Mitchell. Vince Felder, a county lawmaker who is a member of the caucus, feels spurned by the party.
“Basically, we’re back to when David Gantt was the leader of the Black Democrats in the city,” he says. “We belong to the party, but we operate on our own because we can’t trust it.”
Gantt, who passed away last year, began his political career in the county Legislature in the 1970s. He later became the first Black county resident to be elected to the state Assembly. Gantt was known for forging his own path, inspiring a number of Black political leaders, including Warren, who served as his chief of staff.
Chris Christopher is a longstanding Democratic campaign consultant who worked with Gantt and Morelle, who didn’t always see eye to eye. She says they came together on big issues more often than many people believe.
“And I know that because I worked with them on several things that I know that they were part of the same team,” says Christopher, owner of Christopher Communications, who also worked with Warren when she was first elected mayor. “And this is the lesson—and the legacy—that I think people should be looking at now.”
She also notes that the new MCDC leadership is not aligned with longstanding factions within the party.
An unexpected career
King didn’t choose politics as a career. It chose him.
A Rochester native, born to an Italian-American mother and a Jamaican-American father, King attended Bishop Kearney High School. He went to Colgate University, where he initially planned to study medicine. However, he didn’t quite take to the sciences.
“I ended up falling in love with my minor, which was writing and rhetoric,” King recalls.
With a passion for listening to orators, he was drawn to finding better ways to persuade others.
Coupling that interest with political science made for a powerful combination. King worked as a painter through college, with the belief, instilled by his parents (his father was a carpenter), that a trade would always keep him employed. He returned to Rochester after graduation in 2015, and started painting houses, working in a coffee shop and as a barback downtown.
“I was working three odd jobs for the first year or so after I got out of college because I wasn’t sure how I wanted to use my major,” says King. He had little interest in politics as it’s typically practiced.
Then came the phone call from Slaughter’s office, which led to his position as a lead field organizer for her 2016 reelection committee. His job: talking to voters and recruiting volunteers. King also ran Slaughter’s voter registration program, registering 2,500 voters.
“This was a big, big reelection campaign,” Larke says. “And a young man just out of college (is) charged with the responsibility of being the lead field organizer for the city of Rochester. … First of all, (he) had to organize the people that he was going to work with, and then convey to those people what they needed to convey to the people they talked with.
“And I have to say he led that charge. He wasn’t just one who directed it. He led it personally. It was just a huge accomplishment, a huge thing for such a young person.”
Slaughter won that election against Assini, with 55.7 percent of the vote.
After that stint, King worked on former Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard’s mayoral campaign through 2017. Though Sheppard lost to Warren, earning percent 22 percent of the vote, King says he learned a lot in that campaign.
Anthony Plonczynski-Figueroa, regional political organizer for New York State Union of Teachers and vice chair of labor at MCDC, recalls working with King on Sheppard’s campaign.
“I was always really impressed,” he says. “And I was always really connected to that kind of energy. Because, you know, you don’t find folks in the political world or in this kind of work, who not only are passionate about it, but good at it. And he had all those tangibles, and it was infectious.”
After Sheppard’s campaign, King moved to New Jersey to join the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters as a field representative. In early 2018, Slaughter asked him to help her campaign once again.
“I came back and was working for the congresswoman from February 2018 until her unfortunate passing in March,” King says. “That happened two weeks into the petitioning process, which is usually a five-week process for candidates to get on the ballot. You have to get X amount of signatures to get there.”
It was a difficult time for King, personally and professionally.
“Very rarely does your boss die,” he says. “And so, you’re going through this personal grief while also trying to figure out your life and your livelihood and trying to just juggle a lot of different emotions at the time.”
He recalls replaying in his mind the last conversation he had with Slaughter. They were at MCDC on a Saturday in mid-February 2018. The hour-long talk covered various topics, including a promise made by King: “I’m gonna keep your seat blue, ma’am.”
He resigned from his role before a candidate stepped forward to run for Slaughter’s 25th Congressional District seat, but pledged to help whomever the party decided to back.
A day after Slaughter’s funeral on March 23, 2018, MCDC’s executive committee decided to support Morelle. King helped Morelle’s team get the necessary petitions signed in two weeks. Morelle won the primary and the general election.
Next, King worked for Gov. Andrew Cuomo for nearly two years as a Finger Lakes regional representative. His tasks were intergovernmental, working with local municipalities, county governments and state agencies. King ensured that the region’s counties received needed resources. For example, in response to the Lake Ontario shoreline flooding in 2019, King connected elected officials in Wayne and Monroe counties with resources at the state level. The job taught King how the state government works operationally.
“With the pandemic,” he says, “that was kind of that job on steroids. Trying to explain to everybody what was going on in the early months of the pandemic with the governor’s office. So, it was very much a catch-all job, where you wear a lot of different hats and work with a lot of different people across the area.”
Still, politics hadn’t left King’s mind. He kept in touch with the local Democratic Party and Rochester’s political scene. Every two years, the MCDC has an opportunity to elect new leadership for local committees and the position of chair, King says.
“I’ve always been very drawn to just trying to understand the nuts and bolts of (election campaigns),” he says. “It all comes down to how many people live there, how many people vote or who’s leaning toward whom and in what ways? And how do you get people out to vote.”
King missed that action while working for Cuomo. So, he thought long and hard about running for the leadership position at MCDC.
“I recognized the job was rough as it was definitely going to be a fraught position,” King says. But he felt compelled to pursue it. “I stepped up when I thought it was my time to step up and do the job.”
He ran with Stephen DeVay, Beatriz LeBron and Ebony Dukes, promising a “New Monroe—A Democratic Monroe.” Focusing on data, candidate visibility, community support and fundraising, the team acknowledged the need to work in concert with all candidates and Democratic committees in the county with transparency and clear communication.
Monroe County Clerk Jamie Romeo, who held King’s position in the past, supported him and the team. She is excited to see young leaders step into difficult leadership roles with an eye to the future.
“(With) the challenges that we’re all facing as a community, and just as a country too, we really need to be doing that forward focus on where we’re trying to get to, and what are we trying to build,” Romeo says. “And I think that it’s going to be really helpful as we look at particularly a local election year like this. And then looking at that the years to follow.”
King and his team were elected in October, a month after Brittaney Wells, former MCDC chair, left to work for the Warren administration as chief of staff. When he got the job, the words he heard most often were “congratulations” or “condolences.”
Christopher echoes Romeo on the importance of younger leaders with fresh ideas.
“We have an opportunity with a new change in leadership to really bring a new vitality, a new, youthful vitality, a chance to really start building a new bench,” she observes. “This is also a group of young leaders that really understand how you integrate campaigning in a digital world, as well as the tried-and-true aspects that we all know work. These are some young leaders that are really in a position to inject a new bolt of energy into the party.”
Though Democrats flipped seats in the 2020 election cycle, including county and surrogate courts, King knows there’s work to be done. He wants to ensure the party doesn’t get complacent. He is focused on internal party building, ways of campaigning efficiently through a pandemic, and learning lessons from the previous election cycle.
“We have to make sure we’re building the strongest apparatuses that we can, and building the strongest individuals that we can, because we don’t know what legislative districts are going to look like in two years,” says King, referring to the impact of redistricting after the 2020 census. “We don’t know what state Assembly or Senate districts are going to look like.”
Transparency and accountability
Ensuring accessibility and openness is part of King’s job. Accountability, too. He wants to be certain that members know and understand the rules. Trying to “come at it as neutral as possible” is essential to King.
“We want to make sure everybody understands we’re here to play the game as the rules are stated,” he says. “And oftentimes that turns us into an umpire rather than a player.”
Yversha Roman, Monroe County legislator for the 26th District, respects that. She says King helps candidates and members understand rules like the MCDC bylaws, for instance.
“We have a really strong working relationship,” she says. “He’s been authentic with me, in telling me when I have done something wrong, I had to look over something (again), or redo something. He’s been pretty transparent (and) straightforward with me. And they held me accountable as well.”
Transparency—from allocating funds to decision making—is imperative, King believes, so that members and committees comprehend the thought process behind MCDC actions.
“We need to be here to work with everyone who claims to be a Democrat and try to figure out what’s the best way to move forward as a party,” King says. “I like to think of us as a family coming together for Thanksgiving. And I have never been to a Thanksgiving dinner without at least one or two of my family members yelling at somebody else. It’s just inevitable, it’s going to happen.”
Says Plonczynski-Figueroa: “Zach authentically wants to do a great job, and he wants to do a great job for everyone. He’s very conscious, and he’s very purposeful in being fair and wanting folks to feel included.”
He points to King’s strengths in organizing. In the chair, the party has a legitimate organizer, Plonczynski-Figueroa says, which is a much-needed perspective. King tries to be accessible to all— including an 18-year-old who recently wanted to learn how to run for mayor. He wants party members to understand that MCDC doesn’t work in the shadows.
“We’re working very much in the light of day,” King says. “We’re trying to make sure everybody knows it’s not a back room that’s smoke-filled, it’s not the three men who go into the room and make a decision that everybody else has to figure out.”
In early October, as part of the leadership transition, King and the MCDC were presented with information related to past decisions and agreements. While the details have not been disclosed publicly because of the pending investigation, after conversations with the state Board of Elections, election law counsel and legal counsel, the committee was advised to inform the authorities. On Nov. 20, King had to comply with a subpoena. King had not expected to deal with such a situation in his new job, but he says MCDC took the necessary steps.
“If something comes from it, I know made the right decision. If nothing comes from it, I know I still made the right decision,” he says.
A good time to be a Democrat
In spite of all the challenges, King says it’s a good time to be a Democrat. His commitment to the party is not lost on his supporters. Describing him, they use adjectives such as charismatic, energetic, innovative and collaborative.
King is pleased with the gains Democrats have made. Two decades ago, Monroe County Republicans held a slight edge in enrollment. Since then, both the city and the suburbs have shifted decisively toward the Democrats—they now hold a 15-point enrollment advantage countywide. King warns of complacency and the need to pay attention beyond election cycles.
“It’s not about playing for the next three pool shots, it’s about playing for the whole table,” he says. “So, you’ve got to make sure that in this job you’re paying attention to a lot of that.”
King has no plans to run for office himself; he prefers the nuts and bolts of campaigns and assisting candidates.
“I want to make sure that we’re putting the right people in the position to do the work,” King says. “And I think I’m the right person to put the right people in the position to do the work.”
Remaining open to different perspectives on policies is important too, Romeo says.
“The party always has to set the table for everyone and then people can choose whether or not to be there, but we have to make sure that the party is always being open and accessible,” she says.
“Nobody should be thinking that the party is going to require certain registered Democrats to behave a certain way. That’s not that’s not how Democrats roll. One of the amazing things about being a “big tent” party is the strength in the diversity of that we have.”
Setting that table is King’s charge. Those who have worked with him believe he can engage, connect and understand.
To those who doubt he can do it, Larke says: “Give our future a chance. Zach represents the future, he is prepared.”
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.