Can Sabrina LaMar bridge the political divide?

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Monroe County’s current legislative districts by political party.
(Image: Jacob Schermerhorn)

A possibly three-month slog to draw new Monroe County Legislature election districts was slated to begin today with the first meeting of a special commission charged with devising a plan. 

The kickoff marks the first test of Legislature President Sabrina LaMar’s self-proclaimed mission to foster a new bipartisan spirit among the county’s often hyper-partisan lawmakers.

Characterizing her move to decamp from the Legislature’s Democratic Caucus to the GOP’s as a “reach across the aisle,” LaMar gained Republican county lawmakers’ support for her election as president with the GOP Caucus’ full backing. 

LaMar, who remains registered as a Democrat, ascended to the presidency with no Democratic support. All of the 14 other Democratic county lawmakers voted for Rochester Democrat Yversha Roman. 

While stating that she has no intention of switching parties, as Legislature president and a member of the body’s GOP Caucus, LaMar so far has appointed only Republicans to head Legislature committees and no longer sits with Democratic colleagues in Democratic Caucus meetings.  

The redistricting push promises to be an early test of LaMar’s stated resolve to work across the aisle and of her ability to mend fences with Democrats, many of whom have not looked kindly on her decision to ally with Republicans, a move she made as a member of a Democratic Party subgroup calling itself the Black and Asian Caucus.   

“We’ve seen nationally what happens when Democratic officials won’t work with their own colleagues and become a rubber stamp for the Republican agenda. It would be a shame for residents in Legislator LaMar’s district and throughout the County for that dysfunction to continue here,” said Monroe County Democratic Committee chair Zach King in a Jan. 3 statement.

A key appointment

In an interview this week, LaMar said she believes that any rifts that may have been created between her and members of her own party are being healed and that often too much is made of the gulf between the parties.

“There is a preconceived notion that the parties don’t work together,” says LaMar. 

Sabrina LaMar

Over her own several terms as a county lawmaker, she notes, “we went across the aisle 96 times.”

As to any animus between LaMar and her fellow Legislature Democrats, she says, “we are rebuilding relationships.” Several Democrats on the body are newly elected and have not been parties to “the old bickering.” 

LaMar’s March 8 appointment of the current redistricting commission follows Democratic County Executive Adam Bello’s veto of an electoral district map drawn and approved last year by the Legislature’s GOP majority and the Black and Asian Caucus. 

If the commission fails to come up with a new plan by the June deadline or Bello again vetoes the plan it recommends, drawing new county election district lines would fall to a state court.

LaMar, who did not serve on the commission that drew the now-discarded 2021 map, notes that she and other members of the breakaway faction voted for the previous map only after it was amended to reflect concerns she and her fellow breakaway Democrats had with city-district lines.

Those adjustments were made as part of a deal between the Black and Asian Caucus and Republicans that did not involve the commission’s Democratic members, says Josh Bauroth, a former county lawmaker, who represented a Rochester district and served on the 2021 commission. 

According to Bauroth, Democratic commission members were neither consulted nor informed of the changes before the plan was put forward for a Legislature vote. 

Voting district lines

Lines to determine voting district boundaries are revised every 10 years to reflect Census changes. Redrawing of district maps every decade as a rule has been a politically charged process since the country’s earliest years.

The guiding principle in drawing voting district lines is a rule known as one person, one vote that calls for each person’s vote to count equally.  

Nevertheless, gerrymandering—a process by which parties try to create districts that give their party a ballot-box advantage by splitting the opposing party’s voters into separate districts or packing them into a single district—is common. Sophisticated computer programs have turned gerrymandering, while nominally satisfying the one-person, one-vote rule, into a precise science.  

The origin of the term gerrymandering shows how deeply embedded in U.S. political culture such manipulations are. It traces to the early 19th century, when it was coined by a Boston newspaper that pinned the creation of a Massachusetts electoral district whose outlines were said to resemble a salamander on the state’s then governor, Elbridge Gerry. 

The extent to which the map Bello vetoed might have been gerrymandered to benefit Republicans or whether it was drawn to the GOP’s benefit at all is not clear. 

Neither Bello, nor the League of Women Voters, which also objected to the now-discarded map, cited political bias as a reason for scrapping it. Both criticized the process for drawing the map as opaque and cited lack of public input. 

Yversha Roman

The 2021 redistricting process was “deeply flawed.” Bello wrote in a Jan. 7 letter to the Legislature. The process used to draw new district lines “lacked transparency, failed to allow for meaningful public input and did not provide adequate information about the proposed districts to the public,” the county executive wrote.

The League of Women Voters laid out its objections to the vetoed map in a March 11 open letter to the new commission. The map had split suburban villages and towns in half and put some city voters in suburban districts and cut across city districts, the League complains. 

Roman, one of the three Democrats on the new commission, says the three public hearings the previous commission held did not give communities of interest or affected towns and villages enough input. What effect the rejected map might have had on voting was by no means clear to Roman. As to what advantage the old map might have given to either party, she says, the map’s divisions were too confusing to parse.

The League of Women Voters letter calls for “hearings (to) be truly publicized in advance and held all over the county (including, of course, all over the city), in accessible places and there must be adequate time for the public to review the maps prior to the hearings.”

Differing opinions

In drawing new district lines, LaMar says she expects to be guided primarily by the wishes and needs of her direct constituents, the city residents in her 19th Ward district. A main concern for LaMar is seeing that city districts are not split between more economically advantaged neighborhoods and less economically advantaged ones so that “the right resources flow to where they are most needed.” 

LaMar says she has not seen the League of Women Voters letter or spoken to a representative of the group and so cannot comment on the priorities the group cites. The exact process the new commission will follow remains to be worked out by the commission in coming weeks, she adds. 

The vetoed 2021 map was drawn by a commission named by former GOP Legislature President Joe Carbone. Like the newly named commission, its composition followed a formula laid out in the Monroe County Charter that calls for redistricting commissions to be made up of the legislature president, the Democratic and Republican county election commissioners, and one county lawmaker from each party. 

Because the GOP controlled the legislature last year and had named one of its own as the body’s president, the previous commission was made up three Republicans and two Democrats. Republicans on the commission were Carbone, Churchville lawmaker Steve Brew and elections commissioner Lisa Nicolay. Democrats were Bauroth and elections commissioner Jacquie Ortiz. 

In addition to LaMar, the new commission includes Roman, Ortiz, Nicolay and Ogden Republican Robert Colby, giving Democrats an ostensible 3-2 majority. Whether a new map will work to either party’s advantage remains to be seen.

Robert Colby

Colby did not serve on the previous commission but, like other Legislature Republicans and the Black and Asian Caucus members, voted for the 2021 map. He says he still believes it met all required standards. He concedes the map was hard to understand, but attributes its opacity to software that used Census blocs rather than street addresses or other more easily recognizable divisions. He says he hopes the county administration will provide tools to get around that problem.

Bauroth has a different take. In 2021, he says, “there was no process.” Republicans came up with a map that benefitted them and their Democratic allies, the Black and Asian Caucus, with virtually no consultation with their Democratic counterparts on the commission, he asserts.

LaMar’s initial split with her own party came as a member of the Black and Asian Caucus. LaMar’s and other members’ stated reason for forming the breakaway caucus is that fellow Democratic lawmakers were not paying adequate attention to needs of the area’s Black and indigenous people or to other people of color. 

Bauroth sees rivalries not specifically tied to such concerns as playing as much of a role or an even greater part in creating the split. 

Breakaway faction

According to Bauroth, the Black and Asian Caucus first organized in 2020 after Legislature Democrats tussled among themselves over the naming of a Democratic county commissioner of elections. 

As Bauroth tells it, the breakaway faction wanted to override the county Democratic Committee, which named Ortiz, to put their preferred candidate in the elections commissioner job. The group lost the fight. Subsequently, Legislature Democrats not sympathetic to the group ousted the Democrats’ then minority leader, Vince Felder, who was aligned with the breakaway faction. Felder claimed the vote to oust him was illegitimate, but he lost that fight. 

Members of the Black and Asian Caucus did shepherd and pass minority-friendly measures. Among such measures were a bill aimed at guaranteeing minority- and women-owned businesses consideration for county contracts, a bill to provide financial assistance for families to pay for burials of loved ones, and a resolution providing funding for minority-owned fine arts groups harmed by the pandemic.

Still, the breakaway faction became at least as noted for aligning with Republicans to block measures backed by Democratic County Executive Bello as for defending minority constituents’ rights. 

In a fundraising letter last March, Irondequoit Republican Carbone, then president of the Legislature, openly bragged that the Black and Asian Caucus’ support gave the GOP a 20-vote supermajority, providing the power to kill any initiative Bello might advance.

“We have built a veto-proof, 20-seat supermajority coalition that controls nearly all facets of county operations,” Carbone boasted in the letter. “Our 20-seat, veto-proof supermajority has politically neutered the County Executive. Democrats are making a last-ditch stand to hold on to what little power they have.”

Shifting power

The GOP’s veto-proof majority evaporated when all members of the Black and Asian Caucus except for LaMar lost their seats in last November’s election. LaMar, who had initially been appointed to her Legislature seat, had won a second term after defeating a rival in a Democratic primary. In 2021, she ran unopposed. 

In the 2021 election, Democrats including LaMar won 15 of the Legislature’s 29 seats, briefly flipping the majority from red to blue. LaMar’s announcement in January that she would join the Republican Caucus instantly shifted the balance of power back to the GOP.

As president, LaMar has appointed Republican members to head county committees. Also among her early moves was putting a defeated Black and Asian Caucus colleague, Frank Keophetlasy, on the county payroll as deputy clerk of the Legislature. She also hired Felder a special assistant to the president.  

With the GOP’s loss of its 20-seat supermajority, Bello was able to kill the 2021 map in January, move he could not have made last year, when with the votes of the Black and Asian Caucus, the GOP had two more votes than the 18 needed to override a county executive veto. 

How the redistricting process and the remainder of LaMar’s presidency will play under the Legislature’s altered balance of power remains to be seen. 

In the short space of time since LaMar decamped to the GOP Caucus, contacts between LaMar and fellow Democratic lawmakers have been limited but cordial, Roman says. She believes LaMar and Legislature Democrats can and will work collegially.

Legislator Rachel Barnhart, a Democrat who represents a city district, thinks the newly constituted commission will manage to draw a map that Bello will abide. Her confidence is based partly on a recently passed law put forward by Gov. Kathy Hochul that requires the state’s electoral districts to respect municipal boundaries and communities of interest. 

Relations between LaMar and Democratic county lawmakers are strained but not beyond repair, Barnhart believes.

She sees the Black and Asian Caucus’ concern for constituents of color and economically disadvantaged city residents as genuine. Barnhart also concedes that the split “was not entirely their fault.” But, like Bauroth, she disagrees with the breakaway faction’s contention that it was forced into the GOP’s arms because Democratic colleagues were ignoring minority constituents’ concerns.  

LaMar still hews to the Black and Asian Caucus’ version of events. 

“When your voice isn’t heard, then you’re not able to effectively represent your constituents, so sometimes it’s necessary to break away or be elevated in order to do what’s right for your constituents,” LaMar told an interviewer in a Jan. 4 Spectrum News segment.

Barnhart, like Bauroth, sees the breakaway faction’s initial split with fellow Democrats as having had more to do with internal rivalries than with other Democrats’ lack of concern for the faction’s constituents or with hostility to measures the faction supported. Those rivalries include the battle over the appointment of a Democratic elections commissioner and Felder’s ouster as minority leader.

Black and Asian Caucus members had not approached her or other Legislature Democrats with such concerns before breaking ranks, Barnhart insists. Had they done so, she adds, few would have opposed any of Black and Asian Caucus’s minority-friendly policy preferences.

“I support a guaranteed income myself,” says Barnhart, naming a policy backed by the breakaway group.

Still, like Roman, Barnhart sees future cooperation between Legislature Democrats and LaMar as at least within the realm of possibility and, like Roman, she hopes it is in the cards. 

Bauroth sees LaMar as “in an awkward position,” pinioned between her own progressive ideals and Democrats like Barnhart who share or sympathize with many of her priorities but might be wary of LaMar’s willingness to side with Republicans. GOP legislators who welcome her ability to give them a majority might share few, if any, of her ideals.

As to how certain policies LaMar supports like a guaranteed income for poor residents or reparations for Blacks square with his policy preferences, GOP lawmaker Colby, who helped shepherd LaMar’s move to the Republican side of the aisle, says: “I think we both agreed that there would be times when we would have to agree to disagree.”

Asked what benefit he sees in the GOP backing a Democrat as Legislature president, Colby thought a moment before noting that after Democrats won 15 of the Legislature’s 29 seats, “I knew that one way or another a Democrat would be the president. I figured it might as well be one I could work with.” 

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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