Monroe County Democrats are a soft target for the media and local political junkies, mainly because they just make it so easy.
The discord — essentially a power struggle between warring factions of the party — appears to be manifesting in some of this year's primary election contests, particularly in the Monroe County Legislature races. The primary election is on Thursday, September 10; the general election is on Tuesday, November 3.
Republicans are generally averse to primaries, preferring to keep their drama behind closed doors. But there are a couple of GOP races this year. In the County Legislature's 6th District, which covers a portion of the Town of Greece, incumbent Fred Ancello, the party's endorsed candidate, is being challenged by Edward Gartz, who has been a critic of the county's golf-course operations.
And there's a Republican primary for Henrietta supervisor primary: incumbent Jack Moore is running again, despite being recorded making racially insensitive remarks, and despite the subsequent calls — including some from local GOP leaders — for his resignation. Moore is being challenged by William Wu, a former Democrat who switched parties.
But the most action is in the city, in the Democratic Party. And since Democrats dominate city politics, for all intents and purposes the Democratic primary is the "real" election for City Council, city school board, and most city-district seats in the County Legislature.
All four district seats are up on City Council, and all but one incumbent is seeking re-election.
The Democratic Party's internal drama has a role in the City Council race if you believe reports that the faction led by Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and State Assembly member David Gantt went all out to recruit a challenger to Molly Clifford, who is running for the Northwest District seat. The challenger is LaShana Boose, who, according to her LinkedIn profile, is an adjunct faculty member at Monroe Community College.
Clifford is a longtime player in Democratic politics and helped run an insurgent campaign to re-elect then-mayor Tom Richards after Warren won the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary.
The lack of unified support for Warren following that primary has exacerbated internal rifts in the party.
The conflicts may also be resonating in the county elections — the primary and the general. All 29 seats are up in the County Legislature this year, and there are Democratic primaries in four city districts. Some Dems say that Warren and Gantt are trying to influence the Lej primaries so that they maintain some control over the Legislature's Democratic caucus.
And Warren — the local party's highest-profile elected official — has done little to help Sandra Frankel, the Democratic county executive candidate, get elected. She told WROC-TV 8 that she didn't know whether she would endorse anyone, Frankel or the Republican candidate, Cheryl Dinolfo. "I have not thought about that race," she said. "I've been thinking about running the City of Rochester and committing to the citizens of Rochester."
Four seats are up this year on the Rochester school board, with eight people running, three of them incumbents. Unlike the City Council district races, these are not head-to-head contests; the winners will be the four top vote-getters.
The Dems' drama doesn't seem to be a factor in the school board races, but the school district has issues of its own. Superintendent Bolgen Vargas and some board members have been feuding over Vargas's management style and whether the board is trying to usurp his power. And since his contract expires next June, the board will soon have to decide whether to renew that contract.
Republicans have controlled the County Legislature, and county government as a whole, since the 1990's. And in the Lej, Republicans currently have an 18 to 11 majority.
Democrats want to take the majority in the chamber, but that's a steep climb. They'll likely remain in the minority after the general election, which means they'll be less likely to get bills passed and will primarily serve as a check on the GOP.
The candidates in the Democratic Lej primaries don't differ on issues so much as on background, perspective, and approach to the job. Almost universally, the endorsed candidates and their challengers say that they worry about the county's precarious budget, and that they want more oversight of local development corporations, the quasi-governmental entities formed by the county to handle specific tasks.
They also want more county funding for day-care subsidies. County Executive Maggie Brooks cut the county's contribution to the program in her 2015 budget, which was approved by the Legislature's Republican majority. (No Democrats voted in favor.)
Here are profiles from the four city districts.23rd Legislative District
This district covers southeast Rochester and northeast Brighton, and the seat is “open”: incumbent Paul Haney has to retire because of term limits. The City of Rochester’s Buildings and Parks Director Mitch Rowe is challenging the party’s endorsed candidate, former Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard.
Rowe says that spending 33 years working in government has given him substantial experience with county budgets and economic development. That's important, he says, because the County Legislature is losing its top leaders due to term limits – including Haney, the Democrats' budget watchdog.
Rowe notes that as Seneca County manager, a position he held for two years, he developed government budgets. And in prior jobs there, in the Town of Irondequoit, and in the City of Rochester, he has handled planning and economic development issues.
"If the seat that my opponent and I were running for was county sheriff, he's the clear choice," Rowe says. "But I think the seat being the County Legislature, I'm the clear choice."
But Sheppard says that policing is essentially a people business, and that he brings a lot of relevant experience. As Rochester police chief, Sheppard often cautioned that cuts to programs that support children and working families would have serious social and budgetary costs down the road.
"We can cut those funds now and save nickels and dimes," he says. "But then we end up spending billions down the road."
Sheppard spent a lot of time on youth outreach efforts as chief. He continued those efforts after retirement, first working at the Center for Youth and, currently, as vice president of youth development at Dale Carnegie Rochester.
The legislature, Sheppard says, is a good place to advocate for children and families.29th Legislative District
This race, for a seat that serves neighborhoods in northeast and northwest Rochester, is a rematch of sorts. Incumbent Ernest Flagler, a city firefighter who has the Democratic Party’s endorsement, faces challenger Leslie Rivera, who had worked as a city school district teacher but was recently appointed vice principal of special programs at East High School. Rivera was appointed to the Legislature seat in January 2014, but Flagler beat her during a special election the following fall.
Rivera highlights her work as an educator, her youth — she's 31 — and her family's experience both owning a business and relying on public assistance. All of those aspects of her life, she says, would help her be a forceful advocate for the district. And she points out that there's currently no Latino representation in the County Legislature, even though Rochester has a substantial Latino population.
"Those are different perspectives," she says, "and so I feel like I can see things through various lenses."
Flagler didn't return messages, but during his time in the legislature he's developed a reputation as someone who will hear out his fellow legislators and who works with the Democratic caucus. He also has a reputation as a hard-working campaigner, and he often turns up at community forums and meetings on issues directly affecting the 29th District.21st Legislative District
This district serves parts of northeast Rochester. Mark Muoio, the party’s endorsed candidate, has worked as an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Rochester for the past six years. He handles housing matters in the city’s Landlord-Tenant court, where he represents people dealing with foreclosures, bankruptcy issues, and evictions.
"My experience representing people at Legal Aid drew me to think, Hey, maybe I can bring these experiences and these people's stories into the policy end of things and maybe prevent a number of people from coming down the line and needing me in court," he says.
For example, he'd like the county to develop a text-message notification system for housing assistance recipients. They would get messages when the county makes rent payments to their landlords, letting them know how much was paid. Too often, Muoio says, he represents clients who are being evicted because they didn't know that the county hadn't paid, or that they still owed some of their rent.
He also wants to see the county take a more active role on addressing absentee landlords and housing hazards.
City was unable to contact Bobbi Mitchell, who is challenging Muoio.28th Legislative District
Cynthia Kaleh has represented this district – which covers the lower neighborhoods of northwest Rochester – for the past eight years. And if she’s re-elected she’ll be the senior Democrat in the chamber. She faces a challenge from Ricky Frazier, who works as volunteer coordinator in the city school district.
Kaleh is emphasizing that experience, which includes debating contentious issues like the county budget and working to find common ground with Republican legislators.
"We're going to have a lot of new people in the first place, not that that's a bad thing," Kaleh says. "But you don't want to get rid of everyone that has experience as well."
Kaleh and her husband, Lawrence, own KalTech Support, a computer and IT business. She's the president of the Maplewood Neighborhood Association and has been active in neighborhood and community groups and initiatives for many years.
But Frazier says that as he knocks on doors in the district, many people tell him they don't know who Kaleh is. (This is one challenge of being a county legislator: in a lot of districts, many people simply can't name who represents them.)
Accessibility and approachability are a theme for Frazier. As a legislator, he sayd, he'd want people in the district to see and talk to him at government and community meetings, or at events such as football games.
Frazier also says that he'd like county officials to hold town hall meetings so people can voice concerns and learn about job openings, for example. Whether the next county administration would go along with that, especially if Republicans keep control of the executive's seat, is another issue.
"We need to do a better job as county government of saying that we represent the whole County of Monroe, not just the suburbs or the rural areas," Frazier says.
The terms of four Rochester school board members expire this year, and eight Democratic candidates are vying for them in the September 10 Democratic Primary. The party has endorsed incumbents Malik Evans and Mary Adams, as well as two non-incumbents, Liz Hallmark and Matthew McDermott.
Incumbent Willa Powell is challenging the endorsed candidates, as are Howard Eagle, Mia Hodgins, and Lorenzo Williams.
Here's a look at all eight.
Mary Adams, who is seeking a second term on the board, currently represents the school board on the community task force to reduce student suspensions. The mother of Rochester school district students, Adams has pushed for stronger parent and community engagement in city schools. She says that although that kind of collaboration can "slow things down a bit," there's a direct link between school-community relationships and student achievement.
Adams says she is troubled by what she describes as the tendency to view most city families and students in socially deprived terms. "It's as if all of our families are defined by pathology – 'we all need to be saved' – and we don't," she says. "We are actually the solutions."
Howard Eagle, a city school parent and retired Rochester teacher, has made multiple attempts to secure a seat on the school board. Eagle is a well-known education and community activist, and he's a harsh critic of the school board and district administration. Most recently, he has been calling for the removal of a controversial, racially tinged image of black children on the carousel at Ontario Beach Park.
Eagle has long advocated for broad-based community and family engagement with city schools. He stresses focusing on the fundamentals of education – reading, writing, and math – and he is a tireless crusader against institutional racism. He has also been one of the few candidates to speak candidly about the adverse consequences of social promotion in Rochester's schools. His blunt style over the years has earned him a faithful following; at times, however, it has overshadowed his views.
Malik Evans, who served as board president from 2008 through 2013, is seeking a fourth term on the school board. He says he that he understands how eager the community is to see student achievement improve but that he believes the district is stronger than it's been in some time. The board and the superintendent have too often been distracted by the many challenges large urban districts face, he says, but more recently they've focused on the fundamentals: improved attendance, students reading at grade level by third grade, and increased instruction time.
Evans says if he is reelected he will push for a regional high school that draws from both the city and the suburbs, with a cap of 40 percent of its students coming from high-poverty households.
Liz Hallmark is making her second try for a seat on the Rochester school board, and she says she's learned a lot since her attempt in 2013. Hallmark has been working in city schools as a teaching artist and currently teaches student teachers at Nazareth College, the University of Rochester, and Roberts Wesleyan College.
Hallmark says literacy for both children and adults is one of the district's most pressing issues. She supports Superintendent Bolgen Vargas's emphasis on reading, but says that she is wary of some school turnaround measures, such as lengthening the school day. "More hours doesn't automatically equal more learning," Hallmark says. "I want to know what is really happening."
Mia Hodgins, who is making her third run for a seat on the school board, is assistant director of development at Monroe Community College Foundation. She says her biggest concern with the Rochester school district is its chronic instability and the negative impact that on students and families.
The constant changes – school closings and reorgs, shuffling principals and teachers from one school to another, and starting and abandoning programs – add more stress to families who are already struggling. She also wants to see more unity between the superintendent and the board. "I truly don't believe we can elect the same people [to the school board] year after year and expect to see changes in student achievement," Hodgins says.
Matthew McDermott is a small-business owner and father of three children in city schools. Though he says he has been working behind the scenes to support the Democratic Party in the 24th District, he's a relative newcomer to politics.
McDermott says he wants to stem the district's declining enrollment by doing more to inform city families that there are some excellent city schools. He's critical of the district's school choice policy, which he says is "too complicated, with a lot of moving parts." And he would like to see a return to neighborhood schools. "We want to have a school system that appeals to families to stay in the city," McDermott says.
Willa Powell, a retired Army Reserves captain, is in the unusual position of being an incumbent who was not endorsed by her party. She is seeking her fifth term, and some critics consider her longevity to be a hindrance. But she has a thorough knowledge of the district, board policy decisions, and administrative changes.
A district parent, she has been critical of the Common Core curriculum and she supports the anti-testing movement. Though much of her work on the board has involved financial oversight, Powell has also been a frequent critic of the State Education Department's reform measures, arguing that if Albany were seriously concerned about failing schools, lawmakers would properly fund them.
Lorenzo Williams has been a long-term substitute teacher in the city school district. If elected, Williams says he would advocate for stronger vocational skills programs in all city high schools, particularly those related to construction and housing.
He wants prekindergarten to be mandatory, and he would advocate for creating a law and government magnet program to encourage more students to develop an early interest in civic engagement and the political process. Williams says cameras in the classroom would help provide greater security and accountability for students and teachers. And he opposes the Common Core curriculum because he says students are losing their capacity for critical thinking and decision-making.
Rochester's city government is grappling with serious long- and short-term urban issues. Some of the most immediate have to do with public safety, such as how the police reorganization is working out and how to implement the pending police body-camera program.
The city is also helping pay for a study for a possible new performing arts center downtown, a controversial proposal every time it comes up.
Longer term, downtown development continues to be a priority. And the city is involved in a wide-ranging, state-initiated effort to battle concentrated poverty in Rochester.
The seats of four of City Council's nine members will be on the ballot this year, each representing one quadrant of the city. The five at-large Council members and the mayor will be up for election two years from now.
Following are profiles of the district Council candidates in the Democratic primary.East District
Elaine Spaull, the executive director of the Center for Youth, has served on City Council for eight years and is seeking her third term. Her district includes part of downtown and well-off neighborhoods in southeast Rochester as well as the more challenged Beechwood neighborhood.
Spaull is a hyper-energetic personality who is well known in the city and seems to have her fingers in everything. She is effusive about downtown's gains, including the housing resurgence and the redevelopment of the Midtown site and the Sibley Building.
"I feel like I'm in the middle of the most amazing time in our city," she says.
But parts of her district still lack ready access to healthy food, she says. And the Beechwood neighborhood, she says, is saturated with high-impact convenience stores.
"The real key is enforcement," Spaull says. "Working with the Neighborhood Service Center and the Rochester Police Department, we must begin to use enforcement and Neighborhood Watch and our own residents to identify those stores that are illegally participating in activities which hurt families and are against the law."
That includes stores that are illegally buying food stamps from customers and then reselling them at a profit, she says.
Spaull is also working with other Council members and the community on a strategy to reward stores that emphasize healthy food over alcohol, for example.
She is challenged in the primary by Lisa Jacques, owner of Park Ave. Pets. Jacques says City Council's priorities are wrong, that Council bends over backward to offer financial assistance to moneyed developers at the expense of the rest of the city.
"The incumbent consistently votes to take our tax dollars and give them to the wealthy developers downtown," she says. "Then they send out a survey: 'Which services would you like cut?' I find that offensive every time they do it. Because if they weren't giving money to wealthy people, there would be plenty of money for extra police, extra money for the schools, extra money for services to the people."
Developers and many elected officials say that tax breaks and incentives are necessary for the city to compete, or developers will simply take their projects elsewhere.
But Jacques says that's a race to the bottom, and that despite the tax breaks, loans, and improvements City Hall has provided over the years, the benefit has not trickled down. The city has not moved the needle on poverty, for example, she says.
And Jacques says that the projects that get incentives tend to create very few jobs — a complaint echoed by many critics of COMIDA and other incentive programs.
Jacques also accuses Council members of knowingly passing unconstitutional laws, such as the failed curfew, just so they get the benefit while the inevitable legal challenges play out in court. Spaull says that's ridiculous. No one wants to be sued, she says.
"We're trying to protect the city," she says. "You always have to look at balance."
Jacques also wants the city to end its nuisance points system, which she says punishes businesses.South District
Adam McFadden is seeking his fourth term representing this district, which includes the 19th Ward, Highland Park, South Wedge, Corn Hill, Upper Mount Hope, Lilac, SWAN, and Susan B. Anthony neighborhoods.
The two biggest issues in his district, McFadden says, have to do with housing. Some landlords with property close to the University of Rochester — in the Brooks Landing area, for example — are inflating their rents, he says, because of university-related development in the neighborhood.
"Let's say you try to rent a property over on Barton Street, which, in the past, their rents probably never would have exceeded $700 for a single house," McFadden says. "The rents there for a three- or four-bedroom could be anywhere between $1,400 and $1,600. And that's a basic house in what used to be a disadvantaged neighborhood."
"It's one of those things that people aren't talking about, but it's definitely changing the dynamics of the neighborhood," he says.
The second issue is discrimination against people who receive Section 8 vouchers, McFadden says. Seventy percent of the vouchers issued by the Housing Authority are used in the city's poorest, most challenged neighborhoods, he says, because many landlords refuse to accept the vouchers, "which undermines the whole purpose of the voucher system."
The discrimination locks people into poor neighborhoods, McFadden says, preventing them from improving their lives. It also ensures that the city's concentration of poverty continues.
McFadden says he's advocating for legislation at the local and state levels to prohibit landlords from refusing Section 8 vouchers.
McFadden is also vocal about his dislike of the city's red-light camera program and the city's decision to start booting the vehicles of people with multiple unpaid tickets. He's pushing for an amnesty program to help people get caught up.
"I'm not saying that they can't pay their tickets," he says. "What I'm saying is, for 90 days we'll stop booting cars, allow people to work out payment plans for their tickets."
McFadden's opponent in the primary, Ann Lewis, is a former special education teacher in the Rochester City School District. She was also a rehabilitation counselor with the Monroe County Sheriff's Department and a victim service worker for the Rochester Police Department.
Like McFadden, Lewis has issues with the city's red-light cameras. The first offense should be a warning only, she says, and then the city should institute fines for subsequent violations. And the city shouldn't boot cars, she says.
"People are already stressed for cash," she says. "It shouldn't be, 'Well, let me decide whether to pay my RG&E or pay this red-light camera [ticket].'"
Lewis says she'd fight for more affordable housing in the city, and for using more of the city's plentiful open space for community gardens to help people eat cheaply and healthily.
Another issue for Lewis: the city should provide more money for start-up businesses. "We need some real grant money so we can become self-sufficient," she says.Northeast District
The incumbent in this race is Michael Patterson, who did not respond to a request for an interview. A former member of the County Legislature, he was appointed to the Northeast District Council seat when then-Council member Lovely Warren was elected mayor.
The district includes the Group 14621, Marketview Heights, and Upper Falls neighborhoods, areas that are home for some of the city's poorest residents. Patterson's opponent, Eugenio Cotto Jr., is former executive director of the Group 14621 Community Association, which provides services and advocacy for that neighborhood.
The current City Council too often relies on stopgap approaches to community problems, Cotto says, when a plan that goes to the root of the issues would be better, especially for the challenged neighborhoods in the northeast.
Downtown and the South Wedge are thriving, he says, while the northeast is starved for development and investment. The city's strategy for the northeast seems to be to knock down houses, he says, and create vacant lots.
"My question has always been, when are we going to do something that's nice in the northeast?" he says. Community gardens are fine, Cotto says, but they're not enough to boost the quadrant.
"I want to be the headache," he says. "I want to sit on City Council and say, 'OK, guys. You just allocated $40 million to the South Wedge. The next $40 million has to come to the northeast."
Fernwood Street once had an industrial incubator, Cotto says, but the building was falling apart, so the city demolished it about a decade ago. A developer's plan to build housing on the site was put on hold, he says, because of environmental issues. The site has languished ever since, Cotto says.
The northeast needs owner-occupancy, he says, to boost property values. Better landscaping and improved lighting would also make a difference, Cotto says.
Housing and parking bump-outs on Remington Street would attract people to the businesses on Joseph Avenue, he says, which "has a business association that's starting to thrive."
Hope has to be restored to the people in the northeast, Cotto says. The lack of investment and attention makes people feel that they don't matter, he says.
"They feel that no matter what they do, they don't get nothing in return," Cotto says. "They're always asking why they should vote: 'No matter who's there, they're not going to do anything for us, anyway.'"Northwest District
This race is an anomaly in this election cycle, because it's the only City Council race without an incumbent. Carla Palumbo is stepping down to devote attention to her new position as head of the Legal Aid Society.
Palumbo's chosen successor and the party's endorsed candidate is Molly Clifford, who has a long history in city government and Democratic politics. Her last position with the city was director of fire administration. When Lovely Warren was elected mayor, Clifford left city employment and became executive director of Community Health Strategies in Rochester.
Clifford is being challenged in the Democratic primary by LaShana Boose, whose campaign did not respond to requests for an interview with the candidate.
The northwest includes the Brown Square, Charlotte, Dutchtown, Maplewood, JOSANA, Lyell-Otis, and Edgerton-Dewey-Driving Park neighborhoods.
The district's main issues are the same as those throughout the city, Clifford says: jobs and economic development, education, and safe and healthy neighborhoods.
The northwest has healthy businesses, she says, including the much-touted Eastman Business Park. But, she says, many residents haven't been trained for the jobs that are and will be available at the park, for example.
Monroe Community College's Damon Center is moving into former Kodak offices in the northwest, and Clifford says that she wants to work with the college and northwest businesses to create job-training programs for area residents.
Clifford says that she also wants RGRTA to expand bus service in the northwest quadrant.
Streetscape improvements are needed, Clifford says, on the quadrant's three major arteries: Lake, Dewey, and Lyell Avenues. Residences and businesses along those corridors need help, too, she says, adding that she'd work to make grants and home-improvement loans available for this purpose.
The northwest district also includes the controversial Port of Rochester project, which includes a hotel, town houses, and condos. Some residents say that the proposed development would be too big and would alter the character of Charlotte.
Clifford says that she, too, thinks the project is too big and that she would "hold the developer's feet to the fire" to make sure the neighborhood gets the best project possible.