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In Rush, a raid on the Conservative Party and a question of values 

click to enlarge Donald Trump on a stop in Rochester during the 2016 presidential campaign.

FILE PHOTO

Donald Trump on a stop in Rochester during the 2016 presidential campaign.

What does it mean to be a Conservative with a capital “C”?

That question was the crux of the case before state Supreme Court Justice Daniel Doyle on Tuesday.

At issue was whether the chairman of the Conservative Party of Monroe County could unilaterally expel 21 new members of his party, all hailing from the rural suburb of Rush, whom he suspected of being interlopers.

The chairman, Donald Mazzullo, had determined that the new members were “not in sympathy with Conservative Party values,” according to his complaint.

Specifically, he believed the new members enrolled as Conservatives for the sole purpose of surreptitiously electing more liberally-minded candidates to Rush town council positions on the Conservative line in the upcoming primary election.

In their defense, the new members argued in court papers that the Conservative Party has no hard-and-fast values. They noted that the party often endorses candidates of any political stripes it believes can win elections, including many who violate or ignore supposed conservative principles.

“Most notably, they nominated for president in 2020 a man who supported record federal spending, Donald Trump, although fiscal discipline is allegedly a core tenet of conservatism,” the members’ response read.

It might be tempting to think that 21 party members alone couldn’t sway an election. But in Rush, there are only 71 enrolled Conservatives, according to county Board of Elections records. Last fall, there were just 57, meaning the party rolls swelled by about 25 percent in less than a year.

“These people are only recent enrollees,” explained Mazzullo’s lawyer, John Owens. “We’re not looking and would never look to disenroll longtime Conservative Party members. These are people who enrolled in the last few months that it was possible to do so in order to vote in the primary that’s forthcoming.”

Party raiding is not an unusual gambit in small towns. A handful of party enrollees can heavily influence the outcome of primary elections, where turnout is notoriously low and participation is typically limited to only the most faithful of party members.

Indeed, the irony of the case before Doyle was apparent to anyone who follows local politics.

Doyle, a longtime registered Republican, was one of dozens of Pittsford residents with a history of conservative politics who recently switched their party affiliation to the left-leaning Working Families Party.

There has been much speculation around the motives of those newfound Working Families members.

The prevailing theory among skeptics, though, is that they are gearing up to support Town Justice John Bernacki Jr. in his re-election run. Bernacki remains an enrolled Republican, but he is running in the Working Families primary in the hope of gaining that line, despite the Working Families Party supporting his challenger, Scott Green, a Democrat.

Both Bernacki and Doyle were last re-elected on the Republican and Working Families lines.

Mazzullo’s suspicions about the new Conservatives in Rush were based on more than a hunch.

All 21 of the new Conservatives had only recently filed paperwork with the county Board of Elections to change their party affiliation. Most of them had been Republicans or Independents, according to Board of Elections records.

But most of them had also signed petitions to get three other new party members on the ballot, including Ted Barnett, a candidate for town supervisor in the Conservative primary, who until recently was listed as a member of the Rush Democratic Committee.

Most of the signatures were authorized by Debra Kusse, who is a member of the Monroe County Democratic Committee and married to Rush Supervisor Gerry Kusse, a Democrat.

Raising suspicions further was that the contact person listed on the petition was Don Scheg, the head of the town Democratic Committee.

The other two candidates listed on the petition were Anna Fiorucci, who was until recently an enrolled Democrat, and Evelyn Chaffer, who was until recently an enrolled Republican, according to Board of Elections records. Both are running for town council seats and are fighting for the Conservative line.

Anyone can enroll in any political party they want in New York. But state Election Law does provide a mechanism for party officials to oust members it believes are working to undermine the party and its principles.

When none of the new Conservatives showed up to a hearing Mazzullo held under state law to question their sympathies with Conservative Party principles, he determined they were not real Conservatives and set about asking the court to order the Board of Elections to purge them from the voter rolls.

“If they didn’t know and don’t know what the party stands for, then why did they switch enrollments?” asked Mazzullo’s lawyer, Owens.

The new Conservatives’ lawyer, James Ostrowski, did not speak to his clients’ ideological values, but rather to what he cast as the lack thereof of the Conservative Party.

“It’s very difficult to find anything that the Conservative Party sticks to and adheres to judging from its obvious open support of candidates who violate what we would think are well known conservative principles, such as Donald Trump not supporting free trade,” Ostrowski said.

“I wasn’t just sort of having fun here as a political junkie,” he went on. “I’m making a very serious point. Tell me some principle that the Conservative Party has actually adhered to.”

Doyle adjourned the argument reserving decision, saying he would likely make a ruling on Wednesday.

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.
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