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At-large City Council seats loom large 

click to enlarge 16 Democrats are vying for a seat on City Council in the primary on June 22. - JACOB WALSH
  • Jacob Walsh
  • 16 Democrats are vying for a seat on City Council in the primary on June 22.
All five at-large seats on nine-member City Council are on the ballot this year, and with President Loretta Scott deciding not to run for re-election and Councilmember Malik Evans running for mayor, the body is guaranteed some new blood.

The remaining at-large incumbents — Willie Lightfoot, Mitch Gruber, and Miguel Melendez — are looking to be re-elected.

Following a tumultuous year of racial, political, and social tension, not to mention a pandemic that disrupted every aspect of life, a whopping 19 candidates are looking to find their way into the Council chambers. Of them, 16 are Democrats who will face off in the June 22 primaries.

The candidates are protest leaders, community advocates, and plenty of familiar faces.

THE INCUMBENTS

Mitch Gruber:
click to enlarge City Council member Mitch Gruber - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • City Council member Mitch Gruber

Mitch Gruber was elected to Council in 2017, but his work in the community spans about a decade. Gruber has worked at Foodlink for about 10 years, currently holding the position of chief strategy and partnerships officer.

Access to healthy foods has been a major focus of Gruber’s career, and he has woven that interest into his role on Council as a driving force behind the city’s pending Food Policy Council. His other interests include affordable housing and equitable development in the burgeoning cannabis industry.

He currently serves as the chair of Council’s Parks and Public Works Committee.

“The second half of my term has been consumed by a global pandemic, repeated cases of police misconduct, and, frankly, a crisis of distrust in government of all levels,” Gruber said. “We have a lot of work to do to regain trust, and I believe I can help lead that process in a second term.”

click to enlarge City Council Vice President Willie Lightfoot - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • City Council Vice President Willie Lightfoot
Willie Lightfoot:

Willie Lightfoot is closing out his first term on City Council, but has the longest political tenure of any candidate on the ballot.

Lightfoot was elected in 2006 to serve as the representative for the 27th District in the Monroe County Legislature, which covers southwest Rochester. He served three terms in the Legislature before taking up his post on the City Council, where he is the vice president.

He is a retired Rochester firefighter, and a veteran of the United States Air Force who served in Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Lightfoot’s priorities include public safety and economic and youth development, and he has been steadfast in his support for Rochester police officers.

click to enlarge City Councilmember Miguel Meléndez. - PROVIDED
  • PROVIDED
  • City Councilmember Miguel Meléndez.
Miguel Meléndez:

Miguel Meléndez was appointed in August to fill the vacant seat left by Jackie Ortiz, who became the county’s Democratic elections commissioner.

Meléndez’s past work focuses largely on neighborhood revitalization initiatives, playing roles in creating La Marketa on North Clinton Avenue and the El Camino Revitalization Area Charrette and Vision Plan.

For the past year and a half, Meléndez has served as the Ibero-American Action League’s chief community engagement officer. He refers to himself as a “bridge builder.”
“I have a collaborative approach to the work I do,” Meléndez said. “I believe in listening first and then taking action. I have a registered track record of commitment to city residents, I’ve elevated quality of life issues, increased investment in neighborhoods, developed community level plans and implemented them, and been a bridge builder between community-level plans and government resources.”

THE ACTIVISTS

click to enlarge City Council candidate Anthony Hall has become a vocal member of Rochester's protest scene. - PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • City Council candidate Anthony Hall has become a vocal member of Rochester's protest scene.
Anthony Hall:

Much of the city was introduced to Anthony Hall through his involvement and speeches at the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. But his roots in community advocacy run much deeper.

Hall spent seven years as a youth gang intervention specialist with Pathways to Peace before leaving the group in 2018 to become the dean of Vertus Charter School for Young Men. He is also the founder and current executive director of the non-profit organization Bookbags Express, which collects school supplies for city children

Reinvesting in neighborhoods and schools, increasing transparency at City Hall, and reimagining policing in Rochester are central tenets of his platform.

“I’m running for City Council to restore accountability, transparency, and hope back to our community,” Hall said. “And to allow those that have been locked out, the voiceless, to have a voice at the table.”

click to enlarge If elected, Brittan Hardgers would be the first transgender person on City Council. - PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • If elected, Brittan Hardgers would be the first transgender person on City Council.
Brittan Hardgers

Brittan Hardgers is new to Rochester politics, but has a long history in local social advocacy. A transgender man, Hardgers founded Next Generation Men of Transition in 2018, with a goal of creating a “brotherhood” of support for transitioning men.

Hardgers decided to run for office after his involvement in Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Ensuring all members of the community have a seat at the table and that City Hall responds directly to the demands of the community are key components of his platform.

“There are too many people that are patting themselves on the back with a job well done, that literally are not responding to the voices of the community, the needs of the community,” Hardgers said.

If elected, Hardgers would be the first transgender person to serve on City Council.

click to enlarge City Council Candidate Stanley Martin, alongside Kim Smith and Brittan Hardgers, make up the People's Slate. - PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • City Council Candidate Stanley Martin, alongside Kim Smith and Brittan Hardgers, make up the People's Slate.
Stanley Martin

As a lead organizer with Free the People Roc, Stanley Martin has become one of the most recognizable faces in Rochester’s Black Lives Matter movement.

She is looking to parlay her name recognition into a seat on the City Council, but this isn’t the first time she’s been on the ballot. In 2019, Martin ran as a Democrat for City Council’s East District in a crowded primary field. Mary Lupien won that race, but Martin pulled in about 11 percent of the vote.

Martin was also a member of the Police Accountability Board Alliance and formerly worked at the Monroe Correctional Facility as a mental health counselor for inmates.

Falling solidly to the left of the other Council candidates, Martin is focused on abolishing police and prisons as they are today and has a staunch anti-capitalist viewset. She ultimately believes city government is not working for the people.

“We do see change in the most important piece, which is more people getting involved and focusing on the issues,” Martin said. “Within the establishments, it is a wall that feels like it cannot be broken through.”

Martin is part of The People’s Slate of candidates running for City Council, which include candidates Kim Smith and Brittan Hardgers.

click to enlarge Kim Smith is a long-standing public health advocate running on the People's Slate. - PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • Kim Smith is a long-standing public health advocate running on the People's Slate.
Kim Smith

Kim Smith’s background is firmly rooted in public health. A former employee of the Monroe County Health Department, Smith is best known for her work on matters related to HIV, although she got her start in the agency in the early 1990s working on lead control.

In 2017, Smith left her role as a supervising public health representative to work for the activist organization VOCAL-NY. Last year, she made a run for the 61st State Senate District seat and, later, vied to fill the City Council seat vacated by Jackie Ortiz, who left to become the county’s Democratic elections commissioner.

She lost both campaigns.

Although she is a member of The People’s Slate, Smith’s beliefs are less radical than
her running-mates. She does not favor abolishing the police, but does believe reforms are needed, including redirecting money from the Police Department to affordable housing, educational opportunities, and financial empowerment.

“What you are seeing in the streets are a result of numerous meetings where there has been no follow through, numerous requests for meetings that have not been followed through,” Smith said. “When we say our voices are not being heard, that is not a figurative statement.”

FAMILIAR FACES

click to enlarge Leticia Astacio has one of the most controversial histories of any candidate for City Council. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Leticia Astacio has one of the most controversial histories of any candidate for City Council.
Leticia Astacio

Of all the City Council candidates, none has a more complicated history than Leticia Astacio.

Astacio had a meteoric rise, from teenage mother with a troubled childhood to becoming the first Latina to serve on the Rochester City Court. But her success was short-lived when, during her first term in 2016, she was convicted of misdemeanor drunken driving and subsequently did time in jail for shirking the court’s orders.

The result was a spectacular fall from grace. Her story became a media frenzy and tabloid fodder that even spawned a Beyonce parody video, in which she participated, about how the media and Rochester as a whole had become obsessed with her.

Since being stripped of her judgeship in 2018, Astacio has worked to remake her reputation and rebrand herself as a serious practitioner of the law and a social justice advocate. Much of her legal practice in recent years has been devoted to defense law, including representing Black Lives Matter demonstrators accused of crimes. She has also been a regular at protests.

“I’m running because I think there are things that need to change here, and we need people to do the work, and not necessarily be popular or be friendly with politicians,” Astacio said. “We need to do the work.”

click to enlarge Miquel Powell was, earlier in life, a street level drug dealer. Today, he's an addiction counselor running for City Council. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Miquel Powell was, earlier in life, a street level drug dealer. Today, he's an addiction counselor running for City Council.
Miquel Powell

Miquel Powell’s story is one of redemption. In 2003 at the age of 21, Powell, then a drug dealer living what he has called a “street life,” was arrested on assault charges after firing a sawed-off shotgun into a daycare on Scio Street, hitting a woman in the arm.

Powell spent five years behind bars. After getting out, he set out to turn his life around, eventually receiving a bachelor’s degree in social work from the State University of New York at Brockport. Today, Powell works as an addiction counselor at the Catholic Family Center.

He entered the public eye in earnest after he was tapped to serve on the inaugural Police Accountability Board and his past became the subject of scrutiny. Powell later resigned from the board due to a conflicting grad school schedule.

Powell supports reducing the size of the Rochester Police Department, paying reparations to Black residents using tax revenue from the newly-legal sale of marijuana, and increasing access to home ownership.

“We’ve got to really focus on the undervalued neighborhoods in Rochester,” Powell said. “I believe Rochester is only as strong as our worst neighborhoods.”

click to enlarge Jasmin Reggler's first moment in the city spotlight was after being rejected from employment with the city after failing a THC test. The city ultimately changed its policy. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Jasmin Reggler's first moment in the city spotlight was after being rejected from employment with the city after failing a THC test. The city ultimately changed its policy.
Jasmin Reggler

Jasmin Reggler had a moment in the spotlight in 2020 when she was rejected for a city job working for newly-elected East District Councilmember Mary Lupien after she failed a drug screening by testing positive THC, the key psychoactive substance in marijuana. Following a CITY story on Reggler, the city of Rochester changed its policy to no longer test most prospective employees for marijuana use.

Reggler believes that when it comes to trust and accountability, there’s a gulf between City Hall and everyday citizens of Rochester. She said it was exemplified by Daniel Prude’s death and what she called a subsequent cover-up by city government. Transparency, she said, is much needed.

“We almost have to force (transparency), we have to stay on top of the issues going on in our city,” Reggler said. “We also have to continually do follow up, not just address one thing in one moment and then let it go.”

Reggler works as house coordinator for St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality.

click to enlarge Victor Sanchez first ran for Monroe County Legislature in 2019, just seven months after becoming a U.S. citizen. - PROVIDED
  • PROVIDED
  • Victor Sanchez first ran for Monroe County Legislature in 2019, just seven months after becoming a U.S. citizen.
Victor Sanchez

An immigrant from Mexico, Victor Sanchez became an American citizen in 2018 and was eager to take part in American democratic process.

Just seven months later, he ran for Monroe County Legislature’s 21st District seat, ultimately losing a neck-and-neck race with Rachel Barnhart. In running for City Council, Sanchez hopes to make progress on issues including housing justice, sustainable development, climate advocacy, and, as a gay man, LGBTQ+ rights.

Sanchez serves on the boards of Trillium Health, the City Roots Community Land Trust, and the Climate Solutions Accelerator of the Rochester-Finger Lakes Region. He works as a virtual design and construction systems administrator for Wegmans.

“I believe that representation and visibility are important in all levels of government,” Sanchez said.

click to enlarge Alex White is a long-standing fixture of the local Green Party, running for mayor three times on the party's ticket. - PROVIDED
  • PROVIDED
  • Alex White is a long-standing fixture of the local Green Party, running for mayor three times on the party's ticket.
Alex White

Alex White is something of a fixture on Rochester’s political scene as well as being a key member and leader of the Monroe County Green Party. His last foray into politics was his mayoral run against Lovely Warren in 2017, when he received 5 percent of the vote. He previously ran for mayor in the 2011 special election and in 2013, both times on the Green Party line.

This time, however, he is running for City Council as a Democrat.

Housing, zoning, and tax incentives are the major pillars of his campaign. White believes Rochester underuses tools like the Rochester Housing Authority. Instead of building affordable housing in the city, he has argued, outside development companies are brought in to build large apartment complexes whose rents are out of reach for most residents. He also believes in ending tax breaks for housing, expanding tenant rights, and creating a standard living wage.

White owns Boldo’s Armory, a game shop on Monroe Avenue specializing in collectible card games and board games, and is a liaison for United Christian Leadership Ministries’ Office of Adult and Career Educational Services.

“I have been involved in lots of actions in lots of the efforts to reform in Rochester,” White said. “This time, I’m setting my sights on City Council and I hope the voters agree this is a good fit.”

THE NEWCOMERS

click to enlarge Luis Aponte is a career paramedic running on a platform of "community-driven government." - PROVIDED
  • PROVIDED
  • Luis Aponte is a career paramedic running on a platform of "community-driven government."
Luis Aponte

Luis Aponte is a lifelong Rochesterian running on a platform of what he calls “community-driven government.”

Aponte believes all moves made by the city government should be prefaced by input from residents. As part of that, he’s a proponent of “decision-making tables,” by which residents can offer guidance to government officials and staff on how to deal with city issues.

A career paramedic, Aponte is the community liaison for Monroe Ambulance, the chair for the JOSANA neighborhood’s Charles House Neighbors in Action, and was involved in introducing the community school model to School 17, which has been held up as the standard for community schooling in Rochester.

“I’m a homeowner, property owner, activist, friend of the neighbors, friend of the schools . . .” Aponte said. “That’s just a huge effort in bringing everyone together.”

click to enlarge Jonathan Hardin is running with an emphasis on the importance of neighborhood groups. - PROVIDED
  • PROVIDED
  • Jonathan Hardin is running with an emphasis on the importance of neighborhood groups.
Jonathan Hardin

Originally from Mississippi, Jonathan Hardin relocated to Rochester in 2011 with his husband, Stan, in search of a more inclusive and accepting city.

In the ensuing years, Hardin discovered the influence that neighborhood groups could have on the city and took part. He joined the Charlotte Community Association in 2014, later becoming its president, and founded Many Neighbors Building Neighborhoods, a collaborative of about 30 Rochester neighborhood groups, and served as its first chair.

“If elected and when elected, I will ensure (neighborhood associations) have access to resources they can not reach,” Hardin said. “Neighborhood associations know what resources they need, and we need to listen to them.”

Hardin most recently served as a legislative aide for Northwest District Councilmember Jose Peo.

click to enlarge Jazzmyn Ivery-Robinson is running on a platform of community collaboration. - PROVIDED
  • PROVIDED
  • Jazzmyn Ivery-Robinson is running on a platform of community collaboration.
Jazzmyn Ivery-Robinson

Jazzmyn Ivery-Robinson is a Rochester-native raised in the North Marketview Heights and Group 14621 neighborhoods, but who was educated in Pittsford schools as a participant in the Urban-Suburban Program.

She currently serves as a career coach at Nazareth College, where she is also the coordinator of the voter participation program NazVotes and has been recognized for enhancing racial diversity on campus while cultivating relationships with the greater Rocheter community.

Ivery-Robinson emphasizes community collaboration to solve complex issues. She believes that the city needs to reevaluate police training, foster education on tenants’ rights, and expand Rochester’s affordable housing stock.

“I’m running to represent the voices of our community that are often left unheard,” Ivery-Robinson said. “We are one city, we are community, and we have to work together to address the issues within our city.”

click to enlarge Patricia Williams-McGahee is running with an emphasis on "environmental justice" and a holistic approach to policing. - PROVIDED
  • PROVIDED
  • Patricia Williams-McGahee is running with an emphasis on "environmental justice" and a holistic approach to policing.
Patricia Williams-McGahee

Patricia Williams-McGahee is a criminal justice and health specialist running on a platform of economic justice, affordable healthcare for all, and police reform.

She believes in focusing efforts on reducing carbon emissions, providing clean air and water to communities under the banner of “environmental justice,” and taking a holistic approach to policing, meaning placing the health of the broader community at the forefront of public safety.

Williams-McGahee serves on the board of the Safer Monroe-area Reentry Team (SMART), a group that works in assisting the formerly incarcerated with reentering society. She was also part of the business development working group of the city-county Commission on Racial and Structural Equity.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.

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