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After the party

Democrats scored some unexpected victories on Election Day. Now what?


Celebrating the returns: Democratic Party Chair Joe Morelle, School Board President Darryl Porter, and Mayor-elect Bob Duffy.

There was no single moment when the excitement started brewing at the Democrat's election-night party at the CrownePlaza.

But by the time Mayor-elect Bob Duffy made it to the stage for his victory speech, the term "fever pitch" wasn't an adequate description. Befitting Duffy's reputation as a "rock star" candidate, the cheering party faithful resembled a crowd of concertgoers more than anything else.

That enthusiasm wasn't lost on the Dems' leaders, who were quick to herald what they're calling the party's "renaissance."

It might seem like a stretch for the Dems to be delirious about electing the mayor of Rochester and maintaining their 17-12 minority status in the CountyLegislature. After all, in a city where they hold a 3-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans, Duffy's election seemed a foregone conclusion.

Part of the exuberance may have to do with the position the party was in just five months ago. Rick Dollinger, the Dems' second chair of the year, had stepped down. The party had less than $200 in the bank, and its debt had crept into the five figures. On top of that, factions within the party were arming themselves for a bitter mayoral primary.

That was the situation Joe Morelle inherited when he took over the party in June.

The morning after the election, he seemed pleased with his handiwork.

"If I was any happier, I'd be dead and in heaven," he gushed.

One reason for Morelle's elation is the results in his own hometown, Irondequoit. Going into Tuesday, the whole town government --- the supervisor and the four Town Board members --- were Republicans. Come January 1, three of those five seats, including supervisor, will be held by Democrats.

"It's huge," one reveler said after news of the sweep hit the ballroom floor. "It's the next Brighton." (That town is currently the only one in MonroeCounty run by Democrats.)

Despite running solid campaigns, the Irondequoit victory took even some Democrats by surprise.

"I was totally shocked by that," says outgoing Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson. "That town is probably one of the most competitive in the suburbs."

Even the town's Democratic leader, Adam Bello, admits to some astonishment.

"I was a little surprised, yes, that we swept everything," he says. In addition to the three town seats, Democrats Stephanie Aldersley and Ted O'Brien held onto their CountyLegislature seats, Aldersley winning handily in what had been expected to be a tight race. And while Bello acknowledges that his party will have to fight to retain the control it's just won, he's optimistic.

"I think we're in it for the long run," he says. "This was not a small victory."

His candidates' victories are all the more surprising given that Republicans have been in power in Irondequoit for over two decades and still have a slim registration enrollment advantage (12,116 to the Dems' 11,808).

Morelle, the consummate political strategist, sees the town as a pivotal territory in his bid to bring the Democrats back into competition with Republicans countywide.

"It ended up being our Ohio," he says. "It was the battleground." That may be a bit of an exaggeration, since control of the county hardly hinged on the town, and Republicans still hold sway in most suburbs. Still, Morelle says establishing a base in Irondequoit marks a turning point for Democrats.

"The city, Irondequoit, and Brighton represent the axis of a county party," he says, pointing out that over 300,000 people --- nearly half the county's population --- live in those three municipalities.

Democrats were also bragging about what they say was a strong showing in several other suburbs: In Mendon, Democrat Moe Bickweat was re-elected town supervisor. Democrats lost the 10th district County Legislature seat (Pittsford and East Rochester) by only 602 votes out of over 6,500 cast, and lost the Gates supervisor race by only 597 votes out of over 6,700.

"It's a chipping away process," says longtime party activist Paul Haney (who was elected to his first term in the County Legislature in the heavily Democratic 23rd district). "I think there are other towns that in the next few years will be ready to change sides." Haney predicts Gates will be the next suburb to swing Democratic.

Holding it together

The sweep in Irondequoit might also have implications in the County Legislature, albeit more indirect ones. Prior to the election, there was speculation about who might be tapped to lead the Lej's Democratic caucus next year. Stephanie Aldersley now holds that job, but that's led to some charges that because her district has been considered competitive, she was reluctant to take the lead on tough issues. (Aldersley's commanding 2,000-plus margin of victory and the sweep in her town will now make that argument to make.)

The possibility of a dust-up over power in the Lej mirrors the enduring unease with which factions in the party view each other. This election may not do much to change that. During the campaign, some Duffy supporters (including some with ties to the campaign) spoke privately about reshaping the party in their own image after a Duffy victory, even raising the possibility of ousting Joe Morelle and installing another chair.

Morelle says Duffy himself put a stop to that, and he says the two are working well together, despite Morelle's co-chairing the campaign of Duffy's chief rival, Wade Norwood, in the Democratic primary.

And Morelle's fundraising abilities and political savvy may have already made him indispensable to the party.

Haney is effusive, praising the party's newest chairman not only for his fundraising skill but also for enlivening Democratic headquarters since he took over. "The single thing that impacted yesterday's outcome," Haney said the day after the election, "is what Joe has done to Democratic headquarters. That place was hopping 24/7 for the last five weeks."

The Gantt factor

Morelle also has to consider the segment of the party that supported Norwood in the Democratic primary. Norwood may have lost his bid for mayor, but his most prominent backer, Assemblymember David Gantt, still wields a great deal of power, both in Albany --- as dean of the Rochester delegation --- and in the Monroe County Democratic Party. He held up some state funding for the Rochester school district in 2004*, and if he chose to, he might make life difficult for Duffy at a time when the city will need state financial help.

Gantt and some of his allies and supporters didn't attend the Democrats' election-night celebration at the Crowne Plaza. Morelle, who says he made sure Gantt was invited to the party, doesn't make much of Gantt's failure to show up. And although Norwood and several other Gantt-backed candidates failed to get elected, Morelle dismisses any suggestion that the dean of the state delegation has lost some of his clout.

"David's a leader in this party, not just in the African-American community but in general," he says. Morelle also says he believes Gantt will work with Duffy despite the primary's outcome.

"David is going to do everything he can to push the new mayor's agenda," Morelle says.

Bill Johnson says he hopes that's true, although he doesn't come off as glowingly optimistic as Morelle does. Johnson, who 12 years ago won in a primary against Ruth Scott, another Gantt-backed candidate, says he was able to overcome any hard feelings to work with the assemblymember.

"Both of us were able to make it over that hurdle," he says. "I would certainly hope that the same spirit of cooperation that followed my election in 1993 will happen here."

That's critical for the benefit of the entire city, Johnson points out, adding that "people will be talking to [Gantt] to make that point."

Howard Relin, former Monroe County district attorney and one of the group that convinced Duffy to run for mayor, says substantially the same thing.

"Some people I think are still upset about the primary," he says. "I think they're going to realize Bob Duffy's going to be a terrific mayor and they'll realize it's time to work with him."

Still, when pushed at a news conference on Wednesday, Duffy admitted he hadn't recently spoken with Gantt.

"Do you worry that he hasn't called yet?" Channel 13's Evan Dawson asked.

"No, I don't worry at all," Duffy replied. "We're working very hard to heal those divides."

"Do you think maybe he lost your number?" Dawson pressed.

The question wasn't meant to be answered, and Duffy didn't, but it goes a long way toward demonstrating the conventional wisdom about Duffy and Gantt's relationship, at least for the immediate future.

Plenty of Dems have privately expressed concern about what a Duffy-Gantt grudge match might do to the party. The struggle between the factions with which the two men are associated is typically cast as a racial struggle. But just about everyone involved agrees that's an oversimplification.

City Councilmember Bill Pritchard, who supported Norwood in the primary, says he thinks some tension with racial undertones may last a while. "There were some very vocal members of the African-American community who were dead set against Bob Duffy being mayor," says Pritchard.

But Pritchard adds that the racial divisions aren't as solid as some people perceive. While Gantt fought hard for Norwood before the primary, for example, many African-American community leaders were solidly behind Duffy.

"It's a test for people," says Pritchard, "when you place your personal interests and aspirations behind the needs of the party, the community, and the city. We need to begin to gravitate toward those leaders, regardless of community, who have demonstrated that they are willing to put their individual interests and the interests of their individual communities behind the interests of the larger community."

Some political leaders may not be willing to do that, says Pritchard. "If so," he says, "we may have to --- no, we will have to go around them."

A divided City Hall?

Ultimately, a City Council with three new faces may be the most interesting venue for the Dems' internecine struggles to play themselves out in public. With no Republicans serving, Councilmembers will be free to form alliances that reflect (or contradict) the alliances within the larger party structure. There's also been speculation that because many Councilmembers supported Norwood, Council could emerge a more contrarian, perhaps even obstructionist body on January 1.

Joe Morelle doesn't buy that.

"I think this City Council will be a little bit more independent," he acknowledges. But that's mainly because of conversations within the party about the role of legislative bodies, sparked by the Democratic legislators' recent complaints over the diminished role of the County Legislature.

And Bill Pritchard, who won re-election to City Council last week, insists that there'll be no animosity toward Duffy among Norwood supporters. "We're a bunch of professionals," he says.

The rock star in office

The biggest X-factor in all of this is the man whose election was at the center of the Dems' energy Tuesday night. A few rumors notwithstanding, there's been very little thoughtful speculation on who might be part of a Duffy administration, and virtually no leaks of specific names.

Less than 24 hours after his victory, Duffy appointed former Rochester police chief and public safety consultant Bob Warshaw to head his transition team. Rumors had abounded that Duffy planned to get rid of his popular successor as police chief, Cedric Alexander. Duffy had consistently said he'd made no plans, but last week Alexander rendered moot what could have been a controversial decision: he announced he had accepted a job with the state Department of Criminal Justice Services shortly before Duffy's press conference introducing Warshaw.

Duffy says Warshaw's not after a job, but he wouldn't answer queries about other people and positions in his administration, except to say that he hopes to "look locally for talent" wherever possible.

And while the confetti was still being swept up, Democrats already had their eyes on 2007 and the next round of local elections. Many of the hard-fought seats in the County Legislature will be up again. So will the county's top job.

It's no secret that many Dems would love to see Duffy take on Maggie Brooks for that office, even though Duffy says he has no higher ambitions.

"If he chose to run, we would be deliriously happy," says Morelle.

"The sky is the limit for Bob Duffy," Howard Relin says, before catching himself and adding, "not that he wants to be anything other than mayor."

Duffy's popularity and Democrats' own aspirations for control of the county give the party an interesting dilemma. Duffy would be a powerful candidate, but to run in 2007 he'd have to start campaigning just over a year after taking office as Rochester's mayor. That might not sit well with voters.

But if he didn't run, there'd be plenty of other Democrats who would want to. If another Democrat won, that would cut off Duffy. And if a Democrat ran and lost, it would strengthen Brooks' standing, making her harder to defeat in 2111.

(Mary Anna Towler contributed to the reporting on this article.)

* The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Gantt withheld the funding in the spring of 2005.