Of six Monroe County Legislature seats held by Democrats that will be decided in a primary June 27, one race in particular is a nail biter.
That seat—for the 27th District—is held by County Legislature president Sabrina LaMar. A registered Democrat, LaMar has sat with the Legislature’s Republican caucus since 2022. Her decision to side with the GOP gave Republicans control of the Legislature.
Challenging LaMar is Rose Bonnick, a community outreach worker in Democratic state Sen. Jeremy Cooney’s office. A newcomer to elective politics, she’s running a campaign with LaMar’s GOP alliance at the center. But LaMar’s supposed apostasy was not the main factor that pushed Bonnick to run, she says.
After too frequently being called on as a Cooney aide to help 27th District residents with county-level problems that she believes should rightly have been handled by LaMar’s office, Bonnick sensed a need among LaMar’s constituents that she could meet.
“I feel like I was prayed into this race,” Bonnick declares.
Making a case
Bonnick is a novice candidate with minimal resources, and she is relying on retail politicking to make her case.
For weeks she has spent evenings crisscrossing the district, which includes Rochester’s 19th Ward and a sliver of Gates. On most evenings she is accompanied by Munye Abanaur, a Somali immigrant.
Bonnick met Abanaur when they worked on Cooney’s first Senate campaign in 2018. Abanaur, who runs his own medical-transport service, also works for Cooney as a part-time community outreach worker.
“You take care of your people; I take care of mine,” Bonnick tells Abanaur on a recent canvass, referring to her longtime efforts to help fellow Jamaican immigrants find services and programs before she went to work for Cooney in 2020.
Abanaur nods in agreement.
The pair go house-to-house, knocking on registered Democrats’ doors, asking for their votes. Every six or 10 houses, someone answers, and Bonnick introduces herself as a candidate running for the district’s Legislature seat. She asks if they know who their current representative is. Almost all do not, which Bonnick takes as a good sign.
Bonnick’s chances of unseating LaMar are yet to be seen.
LaMar is a two-term incumbent who, after being appointed to the seat in 2020, ran for a second term unopposed. Bonnick is not her first challenger. She also faced a primary opponent in 2019 and won handily. Still, LaMar is taking Bonnick’s challenge seriously.
“Any time you are in a race, it’s a challenge,” LaMar says. “They all must be taken seriously.”
LaMar’s decision to caucus with the GOP came after the 2021 general election, in which Democrats won a slim one-seat County Legislature majority for the first time in 37 years. It was also the first time in three decades that a Democrat held the County Executive office.
For Legislature Democrats, LaMar’s decision dulled the victory. LaMar sees it differently.
“I did what was best for my constituents,” LaMar says. “The Democrats had the opportunity to elect me as president, but they wouldn’t even consider it even though I was among the most senior members of the caucus.”
In the previous session, the Legislature had been fractious. As assistant leader of a splinter group that had aligned with Republicans, LaMar been a central figure in her party’s internecine disputes.
The Democratic splinter group was a five-member faction calling itself the Black and Asian Caucus. The group voted as a bloc with Republicans on several key issues to stymie initiatives proposed by County Executive Adam Bello, the first Democrat to hold the office since Tom Frey’s single four-year term in the late 1980s.
The Legislature’s then-president, Irondequoit Republican Joe Carbone, boasted that the BAC had given the GOP a “super majority” to block Bello’s every move.
As Legislature president, LaMar has taken a hybrid approach. She has granted parliamentary advantages to her Republican allies. But she has also sponsored a grab bag of initiatives typically dear to progressive Democrats—increased mental health funding, renaming Greater Rochester International Airport after Frederick Douglass and creating a county Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. She has helped increase funding for indigent burials and for non-profits that serve vulnerable citizens. Recently she sponsored Ban the Box legislation that would prohibit employers from asking job applicants about criminal history.
Nevertheless, LaMar is hardly loved by her former Democratic caucus mates. In the Legislature’s 2023 election for president, no Democrats voted for her. Her own vote for herself along with the votes of 14 GOP lawmakers provided the slimmest of margins for her victory.
“I went through it at the time and it was ugly,” recalls County Legislator Rachel Barnhart, referring to Democrats’ pre-election parlays.
A self-described progressive, Barnhart represents a Rochester district. In working with LaMar over the past year and a half, Barnhart says she has come to see many of LaMar’s gripes with Democrats as justified. She believes LaMar has done a credible job as president. She says her fellow caucus members could have done more to placate LaMar and keep her in the Democratic fold but that feelings over the BAC’s open opposition to Bello were still too raw at the time.
Since then, Barnhart says, she has worked well with LaMar. Unlike the openly hostile BAC, LaMar and her fellow GOP caucus members have mostly raised no opposition to key Bello initiatives. The County Executive’s budget passed unscathed, for example. Barnhart praises LaMar’s work devising and pushing through a Legislature redistricting plan, calling it “Sabrina’s finest hour.”
LaMar says she and Bello “have a great working relationship. I have worked very closely with him on everything from redistricting, cutting gas taxes last year, eliminating sales taxes on clothing items that cost less than $110, and cutting property taxes on seniors, low-income families, veterans, and disabled individuals. This doesn’t include a unanimous budget last year. People are in their feelings because they didn’t get their way, but in no way was the county executive harmed by my decision. He has received everything that he has asked for.”
Barnhart sees plenty of blame on both sides for the county Democrats’ largely unhealed rift, but “caucusing with the Republicans is even for her a bridge too far,” she says. If LaMar wins a third term and still sits with the GOP, “I would not vote for her as president.”
Despite the GOP’s relatively light treatment of Bello under LaMar, handing the Legislature majority to Republicans has had negative consequences for Democratic initiatives, Barnhart says. LaMar has named GOP members to head committees, making it harder for minority Democrats to propose legislation. Were her party to control the Legislature, more of its agenda would be passed.
While LaMar casts her decision to caucus with the GOP as in the best interests of her constituents, how many primary voters will agree remains to be seen.
In 2022, voters ousted four of the five Black and Asian Caucus members, leaving the unchallenged LaMar as the faction’s last standing member. When she won that race, LaMar assured voters that she was not leaving the Democratic party. So far, she has kept a D after her name.
Barnhart, who is white, sees the party’s rift as fractured along racial lines. City Blacks’ distrust of white suburban members is not completely unwarranted and LaMar in particular has been ill-treated, she says.
Monroe County Democratic Committee chair Stephen DeVay declines to weigh in on the 27th District race. LaMar has the backing of the district’s Democratic Committee—and the party officially backs candidates endorsed by local party committees.
No matter who wins in this year’s races, the party’s hope for the 2024 County Legislature is to see “a true Democratic caucusing majority, a majority that caucuses as a unit (and) works collaboratively with the administration,” he says.
Overwhelming Democratic registration in the city has long made it a party bastion. Winners in the five city-district primaries are likely to coast to victory in November. Whatever motives challengers might have, they won’t create the schisms the BAC created, DeVay says.
The five primary challengers, including one in her own district, are like LaMar endorsed by their local party committees. They share LaMar’s distrust of the party’s white contingent in the suburbs, Barnhart says.
Barnhart, who predicts an easy primary victory for herself, does not see local committee endorsements as crucial, however. The four BAC members who lost seats in 2022 primaries were endorsed by their local committees, and all four lost by significant margins.
In challenging LaMar, Bonnick hopes her own longstanding involvement in the community as well as LaMar’s alliance with the GOP will tip the scales in her favor.
A native of Jamaica, Bonnick immigrated to the United States in her early twenties more than three decades ago. At this point, she says, “I’ve spent more time in (the U.S.) than I’ve spent in Jamaica.”
In Jamaica, Bonnick worked as executive assistant to the Ministry of Agriculture’s legal secretary, preparing and vetting land-transfer documents. She says her decision to leave her native island was “a matter of economics.”
Coming to Rochester after spending an unhappy year in Brooklyn, Bonnick joined an uncle, Roy Davy, who had first come to the U.S. in the 1960s to cut sugarcane in Florida. He eventually landed in Rochester and paved the way for “the migration of very many of us.”
In Rochester, Bonnick married a fellow Jamaican immigrant and had three children. They are now divorced. Her husband returned to Jamaica early on, leaving Bonnick to raise her family as a single parent. He has not paid child support.
Left to her own devices, “I did what I had to do,” she recalls.
After a year working as a cashier at the Pittsford Wegmans, Bonnick says, she left with a mixed record. She was slower than most ringing up items—but praised by customers and managers alike for an ability to instantly connect.
For most of the last three decades, Bonnick ran a cleaning service for residential and commercial clients. She started the business in part “because I am Jamaican and that is what Jamaicans do. We work two, three jobs, and then we start a business on the side.” She never advertised. Referrals brought in all the work she could handle.
Culture aside, a prime motivation for starting her own company was to give herself a flexible schedule so she could spend time with her children. Still, “you don’t become a single parent in this community without having to face challenges and to utilize resources,” she says. “People make it difficult to get resources and help that should be readily available. You have to climb too many ladders. You have to jump through too many hoops.”
Bonnick says she became known among family and friends as a connector—someone skilled at navigating those hoops and ladders. They sought her help and advice in unfamiliar circumstances—for example, enrolling their children in school. She refused no callers and charged nothing. As her reputation and referrals grew, she began to offer aid outside of the Jamaican and Caribbean immigrant community.
Bonnick herself sometimes relied on Salvation Army food vouchers to feed her family. She volunteered for the same organizations she sought help from—ringing bells with her children in the Salvation Army’s annual holiday campaign, and pitching in at Habitat for Humanity and local food kitchens.
“I wanted my children to understand that although I could not provide them with everything, we still had more than some.”
Bonnick’s children are now grown. Her older daughter, Niambe Thomlinson, is senior communications director for the National Urban League’s Washington, D.C., bureau. She is managing her mother’s campaign remotely. Another daughter works in finance. Her son works in information technology.
Bonnick’s association with Cooney goes back some 10 years. Already friendly with Cooney, she volunteered as a campaign worker in his unsuccessful 2018 challenge of former Republican state Sen. Joseph Robach and in his successful 2020 bid for the office.
Cooney hired Bonnick as an outreach and constituent services worker “to be paid for what she was doing anyway.” She is known to many in the 19th Ward, says Cooney, who joined Bonnick at a recent gathering of the area’s Jamaican and Caribbean community. “Everybody knew Rose,” he says.
Bonnick describes her relationship with LaMar in the past as not particularly close but cordial. Her daughter Niambe interned in former Mayor Lovely Warren’s administration. Warren and LaMar were both mentored by the late Assemblyman David Gantt, dean of the Rochester Democratic delegation. Like Warren and LaMar, BAC members also were members of Gantt’s camp.
When she announced that she would challenge LaMar, Bonnick says, some tried to discourage her, urging her instead to run for Rochester’s City Council, “where the pay is better.”
Says Bonnick: “They didn’t understand I’m not in it for the money.”
In her door-to-door campaign, Bonnick uses LaMar’s alliance with Republicans as a chief talking point. She hands out flyers featuring LaMar’s Dec. 31, 2021, letter to the Legislature’s then president Joe Carbone, informing him of her intention to join the GOP caucus.
In the general election, if Democrats retain the nine suburban Legislature seats they currently hold and make further gains in the suburbs, they stand a chance of gaining control of the Legislature, even if LaMar wins the 27th District race. But if the 29-member Legislature stays at the same 15-Democrat, 14-Republican mix, and LaMar keeps her seat, Republicans stay in control.
If that happens, Barnhart predicts, things will continue as they are. She would rather see the rift healed and LaMar welcomed back into the Democratic fold, but given the ill will on both sides that’s unlikely, she says.
Chatting with an older 19th Ward resident in the woman’s immaculate yard on a recent campaign swing, Bonnick begins, as she typically does, by asking the woman if she knows who her county legislator is. The woman says she does not. She is sheepishly uncertain, as if she has been called on in class and doesn’t know the answer.
Gesturing toward the house next door, whose lawn prominently displays a LaMar campaign sign, Bonnick explains that the woman’s representative is Sabrina LaMar, who is also her own representative, and that she is running to replace LaMar.
The woman is receptive but seems uncertain. Bonnick pulls out LaMar’s letter to Carbone and explains that LaMar caucuses with the Republicans.
“You’ve got my vote,” the woman says. “We should have a Democrat.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].