Incumbent Democratic Rep. Joseph Morelle and Republican challenger La’Ron Singletary share this belief: the stakes are extremely high in 2022. The economy, reproductive rights and public safety are hot-button issues in the redrawn 25th Congressional District, which now includes the southern part of Monroe County and half of Orleans County,
Morelle has run in many contests for state and federal positions over his decades-long political career, serving in the state Assembly for decades and winning election to his first term in Congress four years ago. He believes this election is “one of the most important of our lifetime,” and represents a crucial line of defense against what he sees as growing extremism.
“Slashing reproductive rights, making fully automatic weapons legal to own, reducing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, making it harder for people to vote–I’d call all of those things extreme,” says Morelle. “Donald Trump did not create that extremism, but he tapped into it and amplified it so well. We’re seeing now how people are emulating that ugly and mean-spirited behavior.”
Morelle believes his opponent is among those who have exhibited that behavior. In debates, Singletary has attempted to link the congressman to the “defund the police” movement and New York bail reform efforts, which Morelle denies.
Singletary is the former chief of the Rochester Police Department and a former Democrat who recently switched to the Republican Party, in large part because of the “defund the police” movement, which he calls a “costly social experiment.” Unlike Morelle, Singletary is a first-time candidate for public office. But he, too, believes this election comes at a critical time.
“We’re at a tipping point,” Singletary says. “We’re at a point where I’ve had many people come up to me and say that if things don’t change here, they’re leaving New York. With the policies that are being implemented here, the direction things are going in, whether it be crime, education, or affordability, people are up and leaving.
“The future, if it’s with Joe Morelle, it will be bleak, because it will be just more of the same.”
Most national political observers think the Republicans are positioned to reclaim control of the House of Representatives. Recent polls indicate races in a number of congressional districts previously considered reliably blue are now too close to call. In 2020, Morelle won reelection by 19 points. But the Cook Political Report recently shifted its rating for the 25th District to “lean Democratic” from “solid” and Real Clear Politics rates it a tossup–even though Morelle holds a substantial campaign finance advantage, according to OpenSecrets data.
Morelle staunchly defends his record and his party’s legislative achievements over the last two years.
“I think the history books will look back at Congressional Session 117 as one of the most remarkable accomplishments in our government. We were working within razor-thin margins in order to get there,” Morelle says.
In particular, he says, the American Rescue Plan Act, Inflation Reduction Act, and CHIPS and Science Act were among the largest infrastructure recovery bills in history and had bipartisan support among voters, even if it was not reflected in Republican votes on these bills.
Morelle acknowledges that the full effect of these laws may not have been felt yet and that it takes time for key provisions, such as the renewable-energy tax credits in the CHIPS Act, to have an impact. But he says there also are immediate benefits such as allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and capping the cost of insulin at $35 a month.
“It’s great my grandmother is going to be paying less for her prescription drugs, it’s great my grandmother is going to be paying less for insulin. However, she’s going to be paying $40 for eggs, milk, and bread. So, where are the savings?” Singletary says. “Particularly with the environment we have now with 8.2 percent inflation, those things in the Inflation Reduction Act that (Democrats) say are savings, are not going to happen today.
“First off, let’s not get to this point in the first place,” Singletary adds. “Let’s stop printing money and spending. If the American people have to live within a budget, then so should the federal government.”
He thinks spending can be reined in through steps such as moving away from government-run health care systems and achieving energy independence, which includes restoring the Keystone XL pipeline permit, which was revoked by President Joe Biden on his first day in office.
Crime and safety
Public safety is top of mind for voters they have met on the campaign trail, both candidates say. Rochester homicides by firearms in 2022 are at 20-year highs, reaching a total of 57 through the month of October. The number of illegal firearms in the area also has spiked. In 2021, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco traced 730 guns through the city of Rochester, close to Buffalo’s 779, despite the 60,000 fewer people here.
Singletary says his 20 years of experience in law enforcement helps him see the root of this issue. He is against outright weapon bans.
“The only people who want to ban guns are the criminals. Illegal guns will get out on the street no matter what. (With weapon bans) we’d just be making law-abiding citizens criminals,” he says, adding that restrictive gun bans hurt people of color in particular and their ability to buy weapons for protection, which is on the rise.
While the numbers have slowed slightly since 2020, the most recent retailer survey from the National Shooting Sports Foundation still shows an increase in firearm purchases among Black and Hispanic Americans.
Instead of working to enact gun bans, Singletary says, he would partner closely with federal agencies like the ATF and the U.S. attorney’s office, which he says he did with success as police chief. In addition, Singletary sees avenues for increasing mental health awareness when it comes to guns, suggesting that background checks for people displaying “red flags” would be appropriate, as long as they are not overly restrictive to potential buyers.
He also believes New York’s bail reform measures should be repealed or reworked.
By contrast, Morelle has been a firm gun control advocate, receiving an “F” grade from the NRA. He pushed for the Gun Theft Prevention Act this year in the House, and supported limited ammunition magazines, universal background checks, and a database for guns, similar to automobiles.
“Whenever a car’s bought or changes hands, the police can track it. This would be the same in setting up a chain of custody for firearms,” he says. “This would help law enforcement do their job. I don’t know why anyone would argue against that.”
Morelle also believes questions remain about Singletary’s record as Rochester police chief.
“He has yet to explain his handling of his exit as chief,” Morelle says, referring to Singletary’s resignation in the wake of controversy over Daniel Prude’s death at the hands of police. “He quit a job when the crisis that he was responsible for creating was still ongoing. He left others to pick up the pieces.”
Singletary submitted his resignation in September 2020, effective the end of the month. It came less than a week after Prude’s death was disclosed. In a statement, Singletary said “the mischaracterization and the politicization of the actions that I took after being informed of Mr. Prude’s death is not based on facts and is not what I stand for.”
A week later, then Mayor Lovely Warren fired Singletary. In September 2021, he sued the city, claiming wrongful termination. He later agreed to drop the suit, in exchange for $75,000 and health coverage.
Says Singletary: “We have a lot of systems in place and sometimes systems fail people. It leads to this revolving-door issue when it comes to mental health. It’s a system we need to fix, we need to invest in so we don’t see situations like Daniel Prude again.”
He recalls an incident where he talked a suicidal man off a bridge and brought him to a hospital.
“We believed we were bringing him to the hospital to get the proper help, and then, that same night, just a few hours later, we find him out on that same bridge again,” Singletary says. “We don’t want to be in a place where we criminalize behavior, but we also don’t want this revolving door for these people with serious problems.”
He believes this recurring problem of mental health is a systemic issue and sees community as an important factor, pointing to his efforts with the Community Affairs Bureau as a potential path to a solution.
A woman’s right to choose
Reproductive rights are on the ballot this year after the Supreme Court ruling that struck down Roe v. Wade, in a ruling that returned to the states authority to regulate access to abortion. Morelle and fellow Democrats in Congress have already responded with the Women’s Health Protection Act and the Ensuring Women’s Right to Reproductive Freedom Act. Still, he is worried.
“While New York at the present time is strong on reproductive rights, it’s still in danger,” Morelle says.
He also believes Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurrence on Dobbs v. Jackson makes the issues of birth control, same-sex marriage, and same-sex relations future targets.
A study by the National Partnership for Women & Families found that nearly 57 percent of all Black women and 53 percent of all women with disabilities live in the states that have already banned, or are likely to ban, abortion. It also found that the economic security of women and families already experiencing discrimination could be further threatened.
Singletary says he opposes a nationwide ban on abortions. However, he is personally pro-life and believes there has been a “death of the family (values),” which can be linked to a decline in strong faith traditions.
“My opponent has been part of a social economic system that makes women believe her only choice is to kill her unborn child,” Singletary says. “I believe African Americans, we personally do not believe in abortions. You typically see in minority families, aunty, uncle, grandma, all helping the mother to take care of the child.
“If we’re talking about freedom of choice, let’s put all the choices on the table then,” he adds.
Contraception, abstinence, and adoption are other options that have not been given enough attention, in his view.
Both candidates voice support for American efforts abroad to protect democracy against efforts to undermine it by Russia, China or other authoritarian nations.
Rochester’s robust resettlement programs should also be supported in their efforts to help refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan or future areas of conflict, Morelle says. He has worked in Congress to expand pathways for Ukrainian orphans to unite with their American families and hopes these efforts will continue.
The southern border, which he calls a “disaster zone,” is among Singletary’s other focuses. In particular, points to the transport of illegal drugs into the country. In the first nine months of 2022, U.S. Customs and Border Protection law enforcement agencies in San Diego and Imperial counties seized about 60 percent of the fentanyl seized nationwide.
“You don’t need to look any further than North Clinton to see the effects it already has had,” Singletary says, referring to the drug activity in that area of the city.
Despite their differences on a range of issues, both candidates see potential for a brighter future.
“This is my city. This is the place that I grew up in, the place that I love,” Singletary says. “What I want to do is take us back to a time when the area was thriving. Back when Rochester was known as ‘the Boomtown.’ Kodak, Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, the Midtown building, the Sibley Building downtown. Things that would bring people from all over the area together. We need to find what will make Rochester boom and to do that, we need to stop people from leaving and then unite.”
Morelle cites the book, “Jump-Starting America”, which identified Rochester as the number one place ready to excel due to superior research centers, philanthropic institutions, food processing, and world-leading optics manufacturing–all areas that he says can be strengthened by the CHIPS Act.
“Our future is exceedingly bright,” Morelle says. “I never want to hide the fact we have challenges that we need to confront. But we have amazing assets. Now, it’s just a matter of harnessing them.”