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Local Democrats have a golden opportunity this year. Can they stop squabbling long enough to take advantage?

Them fighting Dems 

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Sandra Doorley's name is now an obscenity among some local Democrats. She is that woman: the betrayer, their former champion of justice who was seduced by the dark side.

What did she do? Doorley, the Monroe County district attorney, changed her party enrollment from Democrat to Republican, announcing the switch at a this-really-isn't-a-big-deal press conference in January.

But for Democrats, it is a very big deal. Doorley was their longshot candidate who defeated her Republican challenger in 2011 despite being heavily outspent. And she was proof that Democrats can win a countywide office despite an almost total absence stretching back to when Hands Across America was a thing.

For former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, Doorley's switch is a painful commentary on the state of the county Democratic Party.

"You cannot put any good face on it," he says. "Sandra Doorley's defection was a huge black eye. You just don't let that caliber candidate defect to the other side. I mean, what does that say?"

click to enlarge Former Democratic Committee chair Joe Morelle. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Former Democratic Committee chair Joe Morelle.

Democrats say that they were blindsided by Doorley's announcement — another indication, Johnson says, of the party's weakened state.

Talking to Democrats about the condition of the local party is a frustrating sport. It is in disarray, Johnson says. It is in a great spot, says party chair Dave Garretson. It is on the ascendancy, according to former chair Joe Morelle. It is rebuilding, say other Dems.

Years of observation, though, could lead you to the conclusion that the Democratic Party exists in a state of permanent turbulence; there are rivalries and turf wars over socioeconomics, race, neighborhoods, loyalties, you name it.

And every now and then something happens to further churn the waters. And because it's just how Democrats are, the conflict plays out publicly, leading many to understandably deduce that the party is in big trouble.

"There are few public disagreements among Republicans. Ever," Morelle says. "It's just their construct. They go behind closed doors — they may scream and shout there. But when they come out, they're unified.

"Our approach, historically, has been different," he says. "We just air grievances. We're like the big, rowdy Italian family; you're just going to say whatever the hell you want to say."

Doorley is a symptom, but fueling the current heightened state of tension is the political rise of Mayor Lovely Warren. (Warren did not return calls for comment on this story.)

It's clear that there is residual resentment among some Warren supporters — and Warren occasionally mentions it, too — because the party did not unanimously unite behind Warren after she won the 2013 mayoral primary. Instead, some supporters of former Mayor Tom Richards ran an insurgent campaign to try to keep him in office.

"That was particularly stinging," Garretson says.

But some Democrats point out that the Warren team did essentially the same thing by primarying Richards in the first place, when he was the party's first choice.

click to enlarge Former City Council president Ruth Scott - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Former City Council president Ruth Scott

Some say that the internal discord that dogs Dems has kept the party from gaining ground countywide. If that's true, then this period of intensified infighting could not come at a worse time for the party as it heads into a critically important election season.

Democrats wear their messiness with pride. It is a byproduct, they say, of inclusiveness — all voices, all skin colors, all perspectives are welcome in the party.

"The Democratic Party, it's like America," Garretson says. "We're that diversity. Sometimes it's noisy, but we have a common purpose and we find a way to make it work. That's who we are. That's our strength."

But it's a strength that hasn't won elections. Democrats can talk about restoring child-care funding in Monroe County, bringing integrity to county government, and holding COMIDA recipients to their job-creation promises — none of it matters unless and until they start winning.

Democrats have continually lost ground in the County Legislature. They've held the county executive's office exactly one time and for one term since the position came into being. The county clerk, the sheriff, and now the DA are all Republicans. And Democrats control only two towns: Brighton and Irondequoit, although they have made inroads in some suburban villages.

And though they do a lot of complaining about current County Executive Maggie Brooks, they haven't given her a truly competitive race in her three terms.

click to enlarge Democrats met recently to choose candidates for the 2015 elections. - PHOTO BY ASHLEIGH DESKINS
  • PHOTO BY ASHLEIGH DESKINS
  • Democrats met recently to choose candidates for the 2015 elections.

Johnson, who ran for county executive against Brooks in 2003, points out that Working Families candidate Patrick Christopher won about 25 percent of the vote against Brooks in 2007 — a year that Democrats sat out the county executive race.

"I'll never forget that," Johnson says. "What if we had run a credible candidate? Was she that vulnerable? We could have capitalized on it. I mean, the guy didn't even campaign."

"These political parties exist for one reason and for one reason only: to win elections," he says. "You've got to start winning some. Not the ones where there's no contest: the uncontested seat for South District Councilman in the City of Rochester. You've got to start chipping away at the Republican Party's domination."

Another consideration: fund raising. It's tough to convince donors to back a party that seems to have established a permanent encampment on the losing side.

Garretson, the Democratic Party chair, says that many factors have converged to make the 2015 elections a game-changer for the party. The two biggest: Maggie Brooks can't run again and all 29 County Legislature seats are up for grabs.

Garretson says that he wants to run someone for every seat in the Legislature. A few people have already come forward, including former Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard, who is running to represent the 23rd District.

Sheppard soundly defeated Mitch Rowe, the city's director of planning zoning, for the endorsement of the district committee. As of this writing, Rowe hasn't decided if he'll force a primary.

Some say that Rowe was recruited by Warren to challenge Sheppard, but Rowe says that it was his own decision to run.

Getting people into the Lej is critical to building a Democratic farm team, Garretson says. Many local pols have used the Legislature as a gateway to higher office, including Maggie Brooks, Joe Morelle, David Gantt, and Congress member Louise Slaughter.

Democrats have not yet unveiled their county executive candidate, but Garretson says that between three and five people are mulling a run. Names floating around include former Brighton Supervisor Sandra Frankel, former State Senator Ted O'Brien, and former Monroe County Legislator Vinnie Esposito.

The Democratic candidate will face Republican candidate Cheryl Dinolfo, the Monroe County clerk.

Threatening to overshadow the county executive's race, though, is the race for district attorney. Democrats, itching to take down Doorley, are trying to entice former DA Mike Green to run, and Garretson says that Green is considering it.

"He told me that it's the job that he loved most in his life," Morelle says about Green.

Garretson says that Doorley's defection is an unexpected gift — although it is obviously his job to paint shiny colors on everything. Doorley, as a Dem, would likely have run unopposed this year, he says, despite the rumor that the GOP threatened to give Doorley a strong challenge unless she jumped sides.

click to enlarge Democrats met recently to choose candidates for the 2015 elections. - PHOTO BY ASHLEIGH DESKINS
  • PHOTO BY ASHLEIGH DESKINS
  • Democrats met recently to choose candidates for the 2015 elections.

But now there will be a lively race that will drive people to the polls, he says. When that happens, Garretson says, history favors Democrats.

Garretson is confident that Dems will make gains this year. The local development corporation scandals; Republican cronyism and flat-out rejection of any attempt at bipartisanship; and Brooks' sleight of hand with property taxes have taken a toll, he insists. (Brooks often touts the county's flat property tax rate, but the county compensates for that by raising fees, instituting chargebacks, and other maneuvers.)

"If you live in Monroe County and you care about this community as I do, if you want this community to prosper, it's time to turn the reigns over to someone else," Garretson says. "And that means Democrats."

Of course, Republicans have operated this way for a long time with no electoral comeuppance. Dems and other insiders may boil with indignation about how the county runs things, but the voters, in general, seem to have a different opinion. Garretson says that the difference this year is that people, by his own observation, seem to have finally had enough.

Johnson says that Dems, for long-term viability, have to start cultivating the next generation of Bright Young Things: candidates who have potential beyond a single office.

"I think we really need to look beyond, 'Can they just win their district?'" he says. "Do they have potential countywide or citywide?"

New people bring new ideas and energy, he says, and may help the party move beyond moldy grudges.

Garretson says that conversations are taking place to heal some of the party's self-inflicted wounds. The unfortunate decision by some to campaign for Richards after Warren won the primary, he says, caused hard feelings that have been difficult to overcome.

"We're having the quiet discussions to put those behind us," he says. "I'm in constant contact with the mayor."

But it's not difficult to see how the healing could be jeopardized if the party votes to support Molly Clifford, one of the orchestrators of the insurgent Richards campaign, in her City Council bid. Or by the fact that the 23rd Legislature District committee endorsed James Sheppard — who retired, but some believe was forced out as police chief by Warren — in his Legislature race.

Another obstacle: the recent scandal at the Rochester Housing Authority, which has exacerbated the tensions between blacks and Latinos in the party. The agency's Latino leader was replaced by City Council member Adam McFadden, an African American and Warren ally. (McFadden stepped down after the US Department of Housing and Urban Development said that he couldn't stay on Council and lead the RHA.)

Some insiders, too, are reading nefarious motives into Warren's cooperation with county Republicans. Warren and Brooks do seem much closer and more willing to work together than some other mayors and county executives.

And Warren got credit for breaking an impasse in the County Legislature early last year over the CityGate Costco project by reportedly convincing some Dems to vote with the GOP on a borrowing measure.

Both sides wanted Costco, so you could say that Warren's apparent intervention was an exercise in good government. But Lej Dems weren't holding up the vote to kill Costco. Frustrated by years of Republicans barely acknowledging their existence, the Dems were holding out for an independent review of controversial county-linked local development corporations using the only bargaining chip they had. And offers by Dems to compromise by agreeing to pass the parts of the borrowing measure that were related to the Costco project were roundly rejected by the GOP.

click to enlarge Former Rochester mayor Bill Johnson. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Former Rochester mayor Bill Johnson.

So from that angle, Warren's actions could be viewed as undercutting the Legislature's Democratic leadership.

Some party insiders still make much of the Gantt-led walkout at the Democrats' organizational meeting in 2014, though others say that incident is overblown because more black people stayed in the room than followed Gantt out. (David Gantt and other Democrats involved in the walkout either didn't return calls or refused comment on this story.)

Gantt was not specific about his reasons for the walkout, but he told his supporters at the time that he wanted to know what Democrats are going to do for the black community.

Ruth Holland Scott, the first black woman to serve on City Council and a former City Council president, says that she doesn't blame Gantt if he is distrustful of the party. The Democratic Party hasn't always behaved with integrity toward him, she says.

"There were a lot of promises made to David when they wanted him to go out and turn out the voters, which he did and does very well because he knows how to do it," Scott says. "And then those promises were not fulfilled. And so he has a right to be a little bit on edge."

Scott says that the party is going through a transition not unlike the upheaval it experienced decades ago when a younger wave replaced the party's old guard.

"We're going from one generation to the next is what we're really doing," she says. "And I think I'm seeing a lot of activity by a lot of younger people. It's interesting to me that a lot of the voices of doom are the old guard. Sometimes we forget where we came from."

Though she stops short of calling it a power struggle, Scott says that there are people jockeying for positions of power in the districts and committees.

"I think at some point it will come together in perhaps one group that will hopefully lead the party," she says.

Former Mayor Bill Johnson says that Gantt's walkout at the meeting is a bit baffling and self-defeating, since it prevented those two dozen or so Democrats from participating in the vote to choose a new party leader.

"You cannot say that the Monroe County Democratic Party is anti-black," he says. "We're not talking about Ferguson, Missouri, here. We're not talking about a significant part of the population that's been shut out from political involvement. There's significant political involvement. It's reflected in the number of people who have been successful at the polls. So it's not a party that's hostile to the interests of African Americans."

Democrats, Johnson says, need to look at the larger picture.

"You don't have time to fight with your friends," he says. "We keep getting our brains beat out in these countywide elections. Can we put our whatever differences aside and come to work together?"

Simeon Banister, head of the Henrietta Democratic Committee, says you can't force people to get along. What you can do, he says, is work with the people who want to be part of revitalizing and growing the Democratic Party.

"Folks that aren't interested in coming together, you have to ask if they're really valuable in the first place," he says, adding that once Democrats start winning, the success will bring disparate voices together.

"Who wants to fight for the rest of our lives?" says a Democratic committee member who did not support Warren's bid for mayor. "I've got shit to do."

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