The Monroe County Democratic Party has a long history of internal power struggles and racial tensions. And this year, the divisions are playing out in an unprecedented number of contested elections for committee seats.
The elections involve approximately 260 ground-level Democratic committee seats in parts of the city's northeast and northwest. Committee primaries are fairly common, says Tom Ferrarese, the county's Democratic elections commissioner, but they don't typically happen on this scale.
The contests are crucial. Committee members vote on party endorsements, and on September 23, committee members countywide will vote on the party's next chair. Current chair Joe Morelle is resigning.
Some party leaders say that the upcoming chair election and increased interest in party affairs after last year's mayoral election are driving the unusual number of primaries. But other leaders cast the contests as a power struggle between different factions of the Democratic Party.
"It's starting a civil war within the party," says Anthony Plonczynski, chair of the 21st Legislative District committee on the city's east side. (Read a letter from Plonczynski to Democratic committee members below.)
Here's the longer version of what's happening: the Monroe County Democratic Committee is made up of tiers of smaller committees. The City of Rochester is divided into several committees based on County Legislature districts. And these groups -- called legislative district committees -- are made up of even smaller election district committees, each with four seats.
The primaries involve approximately 65 city election district committees in the 21st, 26th, 28th, and 29th Legislative Districts. Between all of the contests, more than 470 people are running for seats, Ferrarese says.
Some leaders say that it's allies of State Assembly member David Gantt and Mayor Lovely Warren who are the ones passing petitions to force primaries. (Gantt did not return a phone call seeking comment.)
Plonczynski says the challenges are a power grab by Gantt and City Hall. But Warren, her husband, and her brother face primaries for the election district seats they hold in the 21st LD. Warren and Plonczynski circulated competing petitions for the seats.
But some of the contests also reflect known racial tensions within the party.
Black and Latino Democrats have a history of running primaries against each other in the 29th Legislative District committee, for example. And they're going head to head in several election district primaries in the 29th District this year.
Molly Clifford, leader of the 28th Legislative District, says that there are vacant seats in her election district committees, and that some of the challengers could have been accommodated without running primaries.
Clifford says she isn't sure why her district is being targeted. (It is worth noting, however, that Clifford campaigned for Tom Richards in last year's mayoral race, even after he lost the Democratic primary.)
"It is what it is," Clifford says.
Letter from Anthony Plonczynski, chair of the 21st Legislative District committee, pleading for unity in the local Democratic Party. The letter was sent to Democratic committee members. (The letter originally included names of people who Plonczynski says circulated competing petitions. Those names have been removed until they can be independently verified.)
Dear Democratic Committee Members,
I email you with the predictable and not surprising news that our committee seats have been challenged this year with a competing slate of candidates. I have received your emails, texts, phone calls, FB messages, tweets etc. about what is going on and I am just as disappointed as you all.
This challenge has put citizens out of work, disrupted your lives and has taken away from the good work of the Monroe Democratic Party.
Most of you have already received a letter indicating whether your seat has been challenged. Challenging petitions were circulated in LD 21, 26, 28 and 29.
About two weeks into the petitioning process we received word from residents in our district that petitions, not distributed by the Democratic LD's of the City of Rochester, were being circulated in our community. Left with no other choice, we had to protect our district and circulated petitions to counter these efforts.
Sadly, those circulating petitions against us were some of our very own committee members. Though there are hundreds of committee vacancies in committees all across the City of Rochester and the County of Monroe, our committee seats have been targeted specifically.
Given the evidence presented by the competing petitions circulated, the challenge appears to be coming directly from Rochester City Hall led by Mayor Lovely Warren and the Office of NYS Assemblyman David Gantt who seem to want to remove all of us as committee members.
This group in total has challenged roughly 53.3% of the committee seats city-wide. Of those committee seats challenged, they are attempting to unseat a population that is 50% African American, 30% Latino and 20% White/Multi-Racial/Asian.
What I am the most disappointed about is the attack on leader of the 26th and 7th LD's, Felipe DeChateauvieux. Two months ago, Felipe was diagnosed with stage four cancer. We as fellow leaders banded together to help Felipe support his LD in this years petition process. However, even Felipe could not be spared from this apparent power grab.
I am dragged into and now take part in this feud knowing that as a party we cannot survive proceeding in this way. As we know, “A house divided against itself cannot stand."
Recently, statements from the Mayor have introduced the thought that maybe she was not aware of this effort taking place, unaware despite the petition she filled against her own committee.
If this is truly the case, as one of the most powerful leaders in our party, I ask that she stands with us and calls for party unity and ask all parties to withdraw challenges through the board of elections. In unity the designations we made in LD 21 to protect the committee will also be withdrawn at the same time.
We do have the power to come together, we all can end this right now and unite as a party.
If not, I will be in contact soon with ways that you can help. Thank you and if we must, let's win this.