An uncertain start in 2024 for the Monroe County Legislature

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Heading into the first meeting of the 2024 Monroe County Legislature, the position of president is uncertain. Even with Democrats holding a 16-13 majority, it is unclear who will be voted in as president today.

“Generally, I’m just proud of the work we’ve done (as a minority party). I have led in really difficult times; board of elections, public defender, redistricting, for example,” says County Legislator Yversha Roman, the former minority leader who is seeking the presidency this legislative cycle. “This is a chance to make real progress on the high-priority issues which have been a part of our party’s focus for years now.”

However, party infighting has complicated this process. In November, with the support of Legislator Rachel Barnhart, former assistant minority leader Mercedes Vasquez-Simmons announced her intention to seek the presidency to focus on homelessness, public safety and creating opportunities for all Monroe County residents.

One month later, 14 of 16 Democratic elected caucus members, sans Vazquez-Simmons and Barnhart, voiced support for the former minority leader. This leaves the party shy of the 15 votes required for a presidential election.

For Roman, the year holds potential for making progress on challenges facing Monroe County such as language accessibility and housing. She highlights projects to widen language services for deaf and hard of hearing residents and those for whom English is a second language.

“The work I’ve done over the years I think is a testament to the work I’ve done to ensure everyone has access to government itself,” she says. “We need to continue to seek those opportunities so we’re not just hearing from a homogeneous set of voices.

“(Housing) is a priority for this caucus and continues to be a priority. There are individuals who are unhoused or underhoused. People forced into living in an overcrowded space,” Roman adds. “You can see an individual who graduated from college, for example, and now has to live with four roommates. It is affecting all walks of life.”

Housing is an area where Vazquez-Simmons and Barnhart have leveled criticism at Roman. Their proposal last week, in a negotiation for votes, included a $10 million fund for affordable housing initiatives (originally a budget amendment that did not pass).

The proposal also included the vice president position and chairing or membership on specific committees for the two legislators; additional health, public safety, and community resources in Legislative District 22 (Vazquez-Simmons’ district); and opportunities to create funding proposals without going through the administration.

In her own defense, Roman points to a number of housing initiatives she supported including a $2 million rehab of the 55 Troup Street building for 58 rooms of emergency housing and investing $48 million in CARES Act funds for eviction prevention. In addition, she has criticized the $10 million budget amendment as an “empty promise” lacking details.

The negotiation proposal was not accepted, leading Vazquez-Simmons and Barnhart to accuse majority Democrats of planning to share power with Republicans in order to get the required number of votes to elect a president.

“This means Yversha Roman would rather do a deal with Republicans than set aside funds for housing,” said Vazquez-Simmons in a statement.

“We have deeply serious issues related to homelessness and underfunding of affordable housing. This was an easy deal to make to ensure Democratic unity and help for the community,” said Barnhart in the same statement. “Instead, Minority Leader Roman would rather cut a deal that betrays our party’s values.”

A Republican power-sharing solution would take away committee seats from Democrats and limit their political effectiveness, the two legislators say.

“No one is forcing anyone to join forces with the Republicans. You have to choose to walk in that chamber and put your own power ahead of the community,” said Vazquez-Simmons. “There were so many ways to preserve Democratic unity, and it’s frustrating that those paths have not been taken.”

Susan Hughes-Smith, a Democratic legislator who indicated support for Roman in December, also says she will not cast a vote for any Democratic colleague who she believes is seeking a deal with Republicans, calling that point “non-negotiable.”

Republican conference leader Steve Brew declined to speak specifically about the presidential vote and “an unknown outcome.”

“I will say that for the last four years as majority leader, I have focused more on collaboration and getting things done rather than petty politics,” Brew says. “Our votes and support for the president will be based upon those same goals of effective government going forward.”

“I believe in bipartisan governing and governance to ensure that every corner of Monroe County is heard regardless of what side of the aisle they fall on,” says Roman, who also declined to directly comment on a potential Republican deal.

“Really one of the reasons why I chose to run is because I am different from someone in the government sector,” Roman says. “I’m a social worker by trade, I work in the nonprofit sector every day, I’m a new mom with a three-year-old, I’m relatively young, and yes, I am Latina, and I’ve happened to have grown up in the city of Rochester.

“One of the things I am fully aware of is that boards, committees and commissions function better for the community and for the organization in which they represent when they are diverse,” she continues. “Varying and diverse perspectives only help us improve.”

From 2010 to 2022, people of Hispanic origin in Monroe County rose from 6 to 10 percent of the total population, making it the fastest- growing ethnic group in the area.

Either Roman or Vazquez-Simmons would be the first Latina woman elected to the position, following the tenure of Sabrina LaMar, the first Black woman president to lead the Legislature. LaMar, who was a part of the splinter Black & Asian Democratic Caucus, achieved her status through Republican support and helped to make Brew majority leader of the Legislature during her time.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. 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]

2 thoughts on “An uncertain start in 2024 for the Monroe County Legislature

  1. I don’t know what it is with the “the first this or the first that”. Is that the mission? Does a first mean the best qualified? Or does that mean that being first is the in- thing to do. As Frank stated the politician works for the people. Too many politicians forget all about that until….until the next election when they are once again working for the moment for the people. They are connected around the days up to the election and then wander off into the land of politics forgetting all about constituents.

  2. County Legislators, please let’s not repeat the stalemate of the past four years. Put aside personal egos and agendas, and remember, first and foremost, you work for us, the people. That said, I support the person with the most legislative experience who knows the ins and outs of governing the county and has a resume of putting county citizens first. We have the best County Executive we’ve had in decades and he needs the unwavering support of the legislature.
    Hoping for a great new year.

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