Primary vote shifts power in the county Legislature

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With the defeat of key members of the Monroe County Legislature faction that calls itself the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, the direction of the body could be primed for change. Where it will head remains to be seen.

Tuesday’s primary victories for Mercedes Vasquez-Simmons over incumbent Vince Felder in the Legislature’s 22nd District, Ricky Frazier over incumbent Frank Keophetlasy in the 28th District and William Burgess over incumbent Ernest Flagler-Mitchell in the 29th District appear to have effectively marginalized the five-member caucus. 

Keophetlasy and Flagler-Mitchell counted themselves as Black and Asian Democratic Caucus members. Felder, who has voted with the caucus, is not one of the five. His ouster as Legislature minority leader amid a split over who would be named the Democrats’ elections commissioner occasioned the intra-party rift.

The caucus for months has confounded Democratic Monroe County Executive Adam Bello, siding with Republicans to kill Bello initiatives on key issues. The caucus’ alignment with GOP lawmakers gave Legislature Republicans an unbeatable “super majority” sufficient to stymie Bello at every turn, Joe Carbone, leader of the GOP majority, boasted in a recent fund-raising letter.

In a May session, for example, the Legislature on the same night defeated a Bello-backed ethics law and Bello’s proposal to renovate county-owned offices. 

The renovation was supposed to be a prelude to moving offices out of space leased in the Wegman Building, a West Main Street structure owned by county GOP chair Bernie Iacovangello’s family and into City Place, a county-owned structure next door in need of long-overdue renovations.

In a statement  released in May, Deputy County Executive Jeff McCann railed against those votes as a politically motivated slap at Bello that defeated a measure that ultimately would reduce costs to taxpayers like the $11 million the county has so far paid to rent space in the Wegman Building.

Zach King

“Tonight’s results are clear,” exulted Zach King, chair of the Monroe County Democratic Committee in a statement released Tuesday just after vote counts came in. “Democratic voters throughout Rochester are sick of the political gamesmanship of the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, and of their continued support of the County Legislature’s Republican majority. Democratic voters clearly believe these particular representatives were putting politics above the people and above the needs of their districts and resoundingly rejected these so-called Democrats who consistently caucus with Republicans.” 

The Democratic Party “now looks to build on this momentum and flip the Monroe County Legislature blue in November,” King added.

But could lingering intra-party tensions still rear their head, complicating or even killing King’s hope of seeing county government turn completely blue?

The Democratic Party divide partly but not entirely traces to tensions between factions aligned with former Rochester Assembly member David Gantt and Rep. Joe Morelle, D-Irondequoit, says Rajesh Barnabas, a political newcomer who currently clings to a 22-vote lead in the County Legislature’s 24th District Democratic primary, pending a final count. 

Some 200 votes remain to be counted in the race before the primary results are to be officially certified on June 30. 

Gantt, who died a year ago, served nearly four decades in the Assembly and was long regarded as the local delegation’s dean. His roots traced to 1960s activism that reached deep into the soil of Rochester’s Black community. 

Before serving in Congress, Morelle chaired the county Democratic party, served in the Assembly leadership and as a Democratic member of the Monroe County Legislature. He rose steadily through the ranks of the local party’s long-established traditional base, which was largely dominated by white career politicians and members of the business and legal community. Players included former Rochester Mayor Thomas Richards, whose pre-mayoral resume had long stints as a Nixon Peabody LLC partner and executive positions and as CEO at Rochester Gas & Electric Corp. 

Barnabas is one of a five-member coalition of progressive candidates calling itself the People’s Slate whose members vied for City Council and County Legislature seats. Like the insurgents who challenged Black and Asian Democratic Caucus members, they were endorsed by the heavily progressive Working Families Party. 

Some of local Democrats’ intra-party tensions may be insufficiently sensitive to Black and Brown constituents’ concerns, Barnabas says. But there are also tensions between progressives like himself whose agenda includes a call to defund the police and “more conservative” Black, Brown and Asian Democrats who are not ready to fully endorse every progressive cause.

King holds that such differences are built into the Democratic Party’s DNA and are more a desirable feature than a bug to be squashed. The local party’s Gantt/Morelle split is not non-existent but is vastly overstated by “lazy journalists,” he contends.

The GOP’s Legislature majority is slim, King notes. Democrats will keep seats contested in Tuesday’s primary and to flip the Legislature from red to blue, they need only to win a single seat, he maintains. 

Which seat might be flippable?

“There are a few,” King says. But one in particular is in his sights: the 16th District North Irondequoit seat currently occupied by GOP Majority Leader Carbone. 

Party registration in the district heavily favors the Democrats, King says. (As of June, there were 7,438 enrolled Democrats versus 5,044 Republicans, with 4,927 independents and more than 1,000 additional voters enrolled in the Conservative, Independence and other parties.) And though Carbone defeated a Democratic challenger in 2019, Bello in the county executive race far outpolled Carbone’s Democratic challenger. If the stars are rightly aligned and the Democrats can avoid dissention in their ranks, the right candidate could easily send the GOP leader packing in November, the local party chief hopes.

Some may see local Democrats’ intra-party squabbles as a weak point. King maintains that they are a strength.

“We are a big-tent party,” says King, before repeating a hoary quip attributed to Will Rogers, a much beloved 1920s and 1930s vaudeville performer, wry humorist, newspaper columnist, political commentator and staunch supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s progressive agenda. 

On being asked on one occasion what his political affiliation might be, Rogers replied: “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”  

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

One thought on “Primary vote shifts power in the county Legislature

  1. Thank you for explaining all this. I had lost touch with local politics except was on see occastionally on the local news channels which I watch on YouTube in 1 minute snippets.

    It is reassuring to learn about the nonprofit local journalism which the Rochester Beacon is providing. The explanation of the local county and city politics is the only cogent source I have found. I am making my contribution today for your informative reporting.

    Thank you!

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