When then Henrietta Supervisor Mike Yudelson announced last year that he was switching from Republican to Democrat, it was a big deal. As the town's top elected leader and, before that, a longtime Town Board member, Yudelson was an important "get" for the Dems.
County party leaders called a press conference and then-chair Joe Morelle welcomed Yudelson, who was running for re-election at the time, to the party. Yudelson laid out his reasons for the switch — the behavior of national and Henrietta Republicans, he said — flanked by his family, Morelle, State Assembly member Harry Bronson (his district includes Henrietta), and Democratic Elections Commissioner Tom Ferrarese. But there was a glaring absence.
"There was no one there from the Henrietta committee, which struck me as kind of odd," says Simeon Banister, who in September was elected by the Henrietta Democratic Committee to serve as town leader.
At the time of Yudelson's October 2013 announcement, the Henrietta Democratic Committee was more or less defunct. Less than a dozen people were on the books as members, and they met irregularly. The committee had gone so long without a treasurer that it lost access to its own bank accounts.
But that was then, and a year later the committee is in much better shape. It has grown to approximately 70 members, and its meetings on the third Thursday of every month typically draw 15 to 25 people (a good showing for a local political committee). It reclaimed its bank accounts, launched a new website and got on social media, and in September its members elected a full slate of officers.
The Henrietta Democratic Committee has been resurrected, with Banister and Mike Kennerknecht, the committee's recently-elected chair, leading the way. Both are relative newcomers to Henrietta, and each has considerable experience in government and politics.
Banister, a Rochester native who moved back to the area last year, has held staff jobs with elected officials and state agencies, and is also the former executive director of the New York County Democratic Committee.
Kennerknecht, who moved to Henrietta in 2012, founded the Broome County Young Democrats, served as vice president of the New York State Young Democrats, was secretary of the Broome County Democratic Committee, and is former chief of staff for Democratic State Assembly member Donna Lupardo.
But they aren't the only heavyweights on the committee. Its secretary is Gaynelle Wethers, who was Nazareth College's first director of multicultural affairs — a position she held for 20 years before retiring. Wethers has been active with the Henrietta committee in the past and also managed Lovely Warren's successful 2013 mayoral campaign.
Yudelson, who just barely lost his 2013 supervisor bid, has also been helping pull in new committee members. And Tad Mack, the former Monroe County Democratic Committee executive director and a Henrietta resident, pitched in, too.
"We know that if we rebuild this committee and get it so that it's viable, we can field candidates — competitive candidates — in the town races going forward," Kennerknecht says. "And that's going to be beneficial to everybody. It's unfair to Henrietta residents that they're not getting the opportunity to have a choice in town and county government."
It's not clear why the Henrietta Democratic Committee fell on hard times. But local political committees are volunteer organizations and the loss of one or two key people can stall their work.
But the reverse is also true: one or two enthusiastic, driven people can energize the groups. And that's what's happening in Henrietta.
Banister and Kennerknecht got involved with the Henrietta Democratic Committee around the same time, though independently. And the deeper they looked, the more potential they say they saw in the languishing political organization.
One big asset has been the enrollment advantage Dems have in Henrietta," Banister says. "Voter turnout in the town is pretty good, and even without prodding, those voters are casting ballots for top-line Democrats."
The 2014 governor's race provides an example. Just under half of the town's registered voters cast ballots, and Governor Andrew Cuomo pulled in more votes on the Democratic line in Henrietta than Rob Astorino got on the Republican line.
And yet the town has an all-Republican government that doesn't reflect Henrietta's racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity, Banister says.
The story of the committee's rebirth and growth is remarkable for its simplicity; it mostly involved pounding the pavement. Committee members reached out to local church congregations, visited barber shops, and knocked on doors across town.
The committee's regularly scheduled meetings have helped town residents connect with the group, too, Kennerknecht says.
Banister and Kennerknecht defer on the committee's vision and goals; those will be developed by candidates and committee members, they say. But Banister does take aim at current town operations.
He says that some town employees are frustrated with the atmosphere at Town Hall, and some have left because of it. That contributed to a recent snafu where many town-issued tax-rebate checks went to the wrong addresses, Banister says. (Current supervisor Jack Moore declined comment on this story.)
Monroe County Democratic Committee chair Dave Garretson has said that the Henrietta committee's success may provide a tactical model for other local committees looking to beef up their ranks and operations.
The committee's resurgence comes just in time for crucial town and county elections in 2015.
At the town level, the Henrietta supervisor seat and two Town Board seats are up for election. The committee wants to run a full slate for the town offices, which is something it has done only twice since 2001.
At the county level, all 29 Legislature seats are up this year, and four of the districts touch on Henrietta. Democrats currently hold 10 of the 29 seats, and they want to make gains. The party also wants to retain control of the District Attorney's Office, which is held by Democrat Sandra Doorley.
But the big prize is the county executive's seat. Sitting exec Maggie Brooks, a Republican, can't run for re-election because of term limits, and without her in the race, Democrats theoretically have a better chance of victory.
Henrietta could be strategically important in the county races for Democrats. It's one of Monroe County's largest towns, its population is growing, and it has a Democratic enrollment advantage. If the party campaigns hard in Henrietta neighborhoods, it could see valuable returns.
And an active local committee will make effective, grassroots campaigning possible. Local committees are essential to larger, countywide campaigns, Garretson says.
"This is where we have people in the trenches, on the ground with clipboards, knocking on doors, making it happen," he says.