These are tense times for the Monroe County Democratic Party.
Last week, party members elected a new chair, Dave Garretson, to replace Joe Morelle, who had lead the county Democratic Committee for the past nine years. Garretson won a commanding victory against Rochester for Obama founder Ken Preston and Henrietta Democratic Committee leader Simeon Banister.
But the night belonged to State Assembly member David Gantt.
Minutes before Dems cast their votes for chair, Gantt and approximately two dozen of his supporters walked out of the room at the downtown Hyatt. It was an unabashed protest, and a jarring reminder of the current turmoil in the party.
Patching the rifts — rooted to a good extent in race and struggles over power — is a matter of urgency to many Democrats and an early leadership test for Garretson.
Democrats are headed into a big election year in 2015; the county executive's seat is up, as is control of the County Legislature. Leaders, including Garretson, said that it'll be difficult to run winning campaigns without a unified party. Dems need strong city turnout to win the executive race, in particular.
Garretson said that he's willing to sit down and talk to anyone in the party and that he looks forward to hearing Gantt's advice on how to proceed.
"They want to be heard and I am ready to listen," Garretson said during an interview late last week.
Gantt and his allies laid out some of their complaints after they walked out of last week's meeting. Committees aren't giving designations to black candidates with grassroots support, they said. And there's been a failure to promote blacks within the party, they said. And they said that they're unhappy that some prominent Democrats campaigned for former mayor Tom Richards after he lost the primary to eventual mayor Lovely Warren.
Gantt told the black Democrats gathered around him — the group included City Council member Adam McFadden, school board member Cynthia Elliott, and former County Legislator Calvin Lee — that from now on, "if the Democratic Party wants something from us, they have to ask us."
And in return, he said, they'll ask how the black community will benefit from the support they give the party.
Gantt said that he wants make sure that party leaders listen to Democrats in the black community, as well all groups in the community.
"The Democratic Party ought to be the party of the people," he said.
But in the days following the meeting, some key Democrats said they aren't sure what Gantt wants. Morelle said that the party has backed quite a few black candidates, including members of City Council, the school board, and the County Legislature. And the county party's top leadership backed Warren after her primary win.
Party members want to work with Gantt, Morelle said, but Gantt's demeanor and actions push them away.
"I think one of the growing frustrations within the party is that David is never clear about what he wants," Morelle said. "I think people's frustration is it always feels like a moving target. So whatever you do, you can just be sure that was the wrong thing to do."
Jim Vogel, a Brighton Town Board member and MCDC vice chair, said that he likes and respects Gantt, and that the two of them have had a good working relationship. He said that he plans to reach out to Gantt to discuss Gantt's concerns. The party needs to listen to Gantt, understand where he's coming from, and then build from there, Vogel said.
Vogel said that he suspects that Gantt and his allies want a greater role at party headquarters and that they think headquarters should do more to identify and recruit candidates of color and help them grow.
"He's a savvy guy and we need his input," Vogel said. "We need his help and he needs ours."
Vogel said that he has confidence in Garretson's ability to work through the conflict. Garretson is an inclusive person, he said, who will do his best to unite the party.
"He is a man of integrity and openness," Vogel said. "He's the real deal."