A state Assembly showdown

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Demond Meeks, left, and Willie Lightfoot Jr., right, are are set to run against each other for a state Assembly seat in the 137th District.

In Rochester, the late Assemblyman David Gantt still holds a place of honor in the minds of those who worked with him and those who came after him.

Gantt, a Democrat, served in the state Assembly from 1983 to 2020 as the first Black person to represent Monroe County in that legislative body. During his time of service, he worked to strengthen voting and civil rights and fight drug dealers. He secured funding for the city to modernize its school system, improve economic development, and retain the Rochester Red Wings baseball team.

Gantt died in 2020, the same year he stepped down from his seat in the 137th District. The Democratic primary contest to replace him that year was won with a 2,280-vote margin by labor organizer Demond Meeks, not Ernest Flagler-Mitchell—the candidate backed by Gantt and Monroe County’s Democratic Party leadership. 

“I must recognize the man, the giant, upon whose shoulders I stand,” Meeks said, addressing the Assembly in 2021 following his election. “I am honored to be the second (Black) individual to hold this seat and to take on this torch.”

City Councilmember Willie Lightfoot Jr. also has ties to Gantt.

“My dad, the late honorable Willie Walker Lightfoot, and the late David Gantt served together in the Monroe County Legislature. My dad went to Madison, Dave went to Franklin, so there was an honest friendly rivalry there in that way,” Lightfoot says.

“I know the type of work that he did,” he adds. “And to pay homage to the people that paved the way is so important, it’s a part of my DNA.”

Now, Lightfoot and Meeks are set to run against each other for the seat that Gantt held, in a 2024 primary race next month. Meeks says improvements have been made during his tenure, which itself came at a tumultuous time, and that work needs to continue. Lightfoot agrees that more needs to be done and believes that a clearly messaged plan and increased accountability is the way forward.

Meeks is the incumbent candidate and seems to have fellow Assembly members and Rochester’s mayor in his corner, but Lightfoot was announced as the designated primary candidate by the Monroe County Democratic Committee earlier this year.

The 137th District

The Assembly’s 137th District spans the entire town of Gates and a vast majority of the city of Rochester. Since 2010, the district’s population has dropped from 127,000 to 119,000, a decline of 5.7 percent.

The number of white and African American residents have fallen by 1,800 (4.3 percent) and 8,500 (15 percent), respectively. At the same time, the Hispanic population has increased by 4,200 (23 percent) over the last decade.

The district has also grown older overall, with the median age increasing from 30.1 to 34.3 from 2010 to 2022. Both the early middle (20 to 34 years old) and older (55 to 75) age groups have grown, while the young (19 and under) and late middle (35 to 54) have fallen.

The declining trend line stops at the city limits, however, as Gates has seen its population increase by 7,000 people (31 percent) over the past decade. This growth is spread across all ethnicities, but is proportionately the strongest among Hispanics, whose share of the population has more than doubled, from 3.1 percent in 2010 to 7.5 percent in 2022.

Votes from the town were not a deciding factor in previous primaries, often serving instead as a boost to the victor’s vote total. Still, primary voters in Gates tend to favor challenger candidates, with a majority supporting Jose Cruz and Ann Lewis over Gantt in the 2012 and 2018 contests, respectively. (Lightfoot’s cousin, John Lightfoot, also ran in 2012.) In 2020, a majority supported the eventual winner, Meeks, who was not the party’s endorsed candidate.

While Gates likely still lacks the power to currently swing a race one way or another, its growth and voting patterns could spell more influence in the future. In 2022, the town made up 24.3 percent of the total 137th District population, up from 17.5 percent in 2010.

In the city, political participation seems to be strongest in the southwest 19th Ward and Lyell-Otis neighborhoods, although the center city and Marketview Heights also have relatively high turnout rates.

Race to win

Lightfoot’s decision to run has roots in his own experiences during 2020.

“In the past four years, the silence from Albany has been deafening around very pressing issues,” Lightfoot says, listing public safety, housing and jobs. “I have yet to see a plan orchestrated by the Assembly specifically toward my community that looks like me. Nothing.”

As the owner of New Creations Unisex Shop in southwest Rochester, recovery and assistance for small-business owners was slow in coming during the COVID-19 pandemic, he says. While actions from city and county government were decisive and did a “phenomenal job,” he thought there was a lack of participation from state leaders.

The spate of violence that followed the pandemic, particularly from illegal firearms, was another alarm bell to Lightfoot, which continued without proper reaction from the state level, in his view.

During that period, he created the Roc Against Gun Violence Coalition as a city Council member. The group most recently toured the city in an effort to educate the public on the recently released illegal gun trace report. They have also released an action plan involving multiple agencies and are looking to focus on identified “problem gun shops” in the near future.

“I’ve been taking action so I can tell you all the things we’ve done in city government. (RAGVC), the person in crisis team, the homicide response team, mobile crisis unit, the Brady report, Cut the Violence, Total Health and Wellness Initiative, this is the work,” says Lightfoot.

That work is a good example of the type of active lead role the Lightfoot says he wants to bring to the state Assembly. If elected, Lightfoot intends to spend his first days creating plans and more importantly, he says, sharing them with the community so they can hold him accountable for that work.

“I can show you four plans from the work that I’ve done. Show me one plan the state (delegation) has provided to this community,” he says. “We see these sound bites of bringing all of this money to the area. Think of how hurtful that is when I’m in the second- or fourth-poorest ZIP code in the state of New York. ‘I’m bringing billions of dollars to you.’ To who?”

Meeks, who did not respond to the Beacon’s request for an interview, stated in his reelection announcement that his focus would be on supporting labor unions, people experiencing financial distress, and crime prevention through interventions at a young age.

Since being elected, he has held seats on a number of committees, chairing the Subcommittee on Insurer Investments and Market Practices in Underserved Area and serving on the Cities, Corrections, Children and Families Committee, and more.

Notable legislation Meeks has been a prime sponsor of includes having the state Division of Criminal Justice Services study and make recommendations concerning instances of police brutality in Rochester, prohibiting the arresting or restraining of young children while effecting the arrest of the parent or guardian, extending wage parity for home care workers in Upstate New York, and appropriating funds for universal basic income pilot programs.

In a recent newsletter, he trumpeted $1.2 billion in funding for additional health services for the Rochester City School District; $10 million for Rochester’s Downtown Revitalization

Initiative; and millions of dollars for neighborhood associations, including Baden Street Settlement, Teen Empowerment Center, the Urban League, the Latino Youth Development and Resource Center, and more.

Finances and political allies

Determining the frontrunner in this race is more difficult than it might appear. Although Meeks is the incumbent, having held the seat for two cycles, Lightfoot has the county Democratic committee endorsement.

“I’m grateful for all the committee members who chose me over an incumbent. I think that says a lot about my work ethic and experience and what I’m capable of doing,” says Lightfoot, also including in that experience his time as a county legislator. He served three full terms as county legislator representing District 27 and is in his second term on City Council.

The most recently available campaign finance disclosure records for Assembly committees show Meeks with a sizable advantage in both contributions and support from current politicians, however. In the first quarter of 2024, he raised $31,300 and had about $24,000 on hand in the final summary.

Fifty-eight percent of funds collected came from “Monetary Contributions Received From All Other,” a category that includes political committees, PACs, LLCs, unions and foundations.  Contributions from individuals made up 40 percent of Meeks’ collection. 

Unions alone comprise 40 percent of contributions and include groups for carpenters, teachers, sheet metal workers, public employees, teamsters, painters, fire fighters, and iron workers. The campaign also accepted $500 donations from Airbnb and the New York Avangrid PAC.

“We believe (Meeks) will tirelessly advocate for the betterment of our community,” reads a March statement from the Gates Firefighter union. “Over 90 percent of the citizens of the Gates Fire District are represented by Meeks, so join us in re-electing Demond Meeks to the NYS Assembly 137th District!”

Committees for fellow state Assembly members Harry Bronson and Sarah Clark and Rochester Mayor Malik Evans made up a combined $4,500 in contributions, signaling their support for the incumbent. Patrick Coyle, who has previously worked on campaigns for Evans, is also listed as the campaign manager for Meeks.

On an individual donor level, contributors include county Legislators William Burgess, Lystra McCoy and Carolyn Delvecchio Hoffman; City Councilmember Stanley Martin; Brighton Town Councilmember Nate Salzman; RCSD board president Cynthia Elliott; and Urban League President Seanelle Hawkins.

The majority of Lightfoot’s $9,000 in contributions during that same period came from individuals. Imburguia Brothers Holding, a real estate developer based in Brighton, is the only business to significantly contribute, donating $1,000.

Other $1,000 donations, the highest amount for Lightfoot, were made by commercial real estate attorney Peter Lutz and Rochester Student Housing LLC owner Scott Beck. Former county Legislator Sabrina LaMar and a committee of Frank Keophetlasy, who recently lost a city Council election to Bridget Monroe, also gave to his campaign.

Marcus Williams

Whoever secures the 137th District primary victory will likely win the general election as well. However, they might still face competition from a Republican candidate.

Marcus Williams, a longtime political gadfly, ran as a Republican candidate in 2022, ending a nearly 30-year streak of races without opposing candidates, dating to 1994. Meeks won a resounding victory, with a 9,000-vote margin or 70 percent of the vote total.

Among election districts in Gates, though, Williams outpolled Meeks by 500 votes, perhaps showing lines where the electorate is divided. Williams has indicated he intends to run again this year.

The other major primary occurring next month is a contest for Rochester City Court judge between local lawyer Michael Geraci, who is the endorsed candidate, and former Mayor Lovely Warren.

In April, Geraci filed suit to remove Warren from the ballot, since there was a petition for her to run for a seat on the Monroe County Democratic Committee as well as the City Court seat. A state judge ruled in Warren’s favor, determining that the Democratic Committee petition was filed without her knowledge.

Warren was elected as mayor in 2013 and won a second term in 2017. A series of public controversies embroiled her next effort and she lost the primary to Evans in 2021. Later that year, she stepped down from office after agreeing to a misdemeanor plea deal for a campaign finance violation.

Early voting begins next month and will take place from June 15 to June 23. In-person voting will be held on June 25.

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]

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