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Goodbye, Joe. Hello...? 

Monroe County Democrats have some big races ahead of them this year. Louise Slaughter is running for re-election to her Congressional seat, ditto Ted O'Brien in the State Senate. And Gary Pudup, former local director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, is running for the Assembly seat formerly held by Republican Bill Reilich.

Democrats' toughest election, however, could be the one to select a new party head.

State Assembly member Joe Morelle is stepping down as party leader when his term expires in September. County Democrats will select Morelle's replacement at their organization meeting the same month.

Over the next few months, leaders of the Monroe County Democratic Committee will undoubtedly spend a lot of time discussing what they want out of the new chair. They say they hope the selection process will be bloodless, but history suggests it could go another way. And with tensions from the 2013 mayoral election lingering, new power struggles or rifts could emerge.

Some of the leaders say they have a general sense of what they're looking for; they'd like a chair who can pull the party's different camps together. And they emphasize the increasing importance of suburban and countywide races, while keeping the party's city base, too. The next leader should also maintain the fund-raising and operational gains achieved under Morelle, they say.

City and suburban leaders need to press the issues important to them, says Anthony Plonczynski, leader of the city's 21st Legislative District committee. And different constituencies, including progressives and organized labor, will want a voice in the process, too, he says.

"Folks want to feel like they have had some involvement in making this happen," says Allan Richards, leader of the city's 23rd Legislative District committee.

But party leaders don't appear to have a shortlist of candidates. Names are circulating, but they're mostly prominent party members who would get mentioned in the context of any leadership vacancy. Among them: Brighton Supervisor Bill Moehle, former Brighton Supervisor Sandra Frankel, O'Brien (who served as party chair from January 2000 to December 2002), former City Council member and one-time mayoral candidate Wade Norwood, and Greece Democratic leader Dave Garretson.

But if candidates aren't lining up for what's often called a thankless job, there's a reason; Morelle's announcement caught party insiders by surprise. By Morelle's own admission, he let very few people know about his decision. Even key city and suburban leaders say they didn't know.

That's not to say that Morelle's departure is completely unexpected. He's taken on new duties as Assembly majority leader and chair of the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, and local party leaders say they figured he'd step down at some point. They just didn't see it happening now, they say, especially leading up to a couple of tough elections.

Morelle, who has lead the local party since 2005, says his new duties are what drove his decision. And he says he decided to announce his intentions now, so party members have time for thorough and thoughtful discussion of his replacement.

He says he didn't want party members to be in a position where they had to choose a new leader in haste, which has happened in the past.

"I wanted a period of transition," Morelle says.

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