Every election is critical, but there are those who say that the future of democracy in the US depends on the outcome of the presidential contest between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
The stakes of the race between incumbent Congress member Louise Slaughter, a Democrat, and her Republican challenger, Mark Assini, aren't quite that high, but they are critical.
If Clinton wins, she'll still need every progressive in Congress to help keep Republicans' hands off of the Affordable Care Act, and to push for ideas important to Democrats, such as reducing student loan debt. If Clinton loses, the country will need Slaughter's experienced leadership, progressive voice, and steel spine more than ever.
Mark Assini is campaigning as a Republican everyone can love – Republicans and Democrats. But his nice-guy approach wouldn't survive this sharply partisan Congress.
The other race CITY looks at this week is the county clerk contest better Democratic incumbent Adam Bello and Republican Cheryl Rozzi. Clerk isn't usually a race to jump up and down about, but in Monroe County, the job has essentially turned into an apprenticeship for county executive — a fact that makes the office a political hot zone.
CITY's coverage also includes quick looks at other races of note, such as the US Senate contest between incumbent Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Wendy Long, and locally relevant State Assembly and Senate races.
Slaughter's still the best choice
Congress member Louise Slaughter has, for the most part, sprinted past one Republican challenger after another over her long career.
But Slaughter, beloved by many for her unabashedly liberal views and trademark Southern drawl, nearly met her match in 2014. Some say she didn't take the challenge from Gates Town Supervisor Mark Assini seriously enough.
But Slaughter was going through a personal crisis at the time: her husband, Robert, was dying. Still, Slaughter did go on to a narrow victory.
Voters will have another chance this November to decide between Slaughter and Assini, and the 25th District should remain in Slaughter's capable hands.
Every election is important, but the importance of the 2016 elections is unprecedented. Americans, who are themselves bitterly divided, are witnessing one of the most acrimonious and contentious presidential campaigns in recent history.
The stakes for Democrats couldn't be higher: Republicans control both houses of Congress, and losing Slaughter's progressive voice in the House of Representatives would be an enormous blow.
Even though the country has seen eight years of steady economic growth following a crippling recession that occurred under the last Republican president, and even though middle-class Americans saw a raise in wages last year for the first time in decades, many Republicans in Congress shrugged. And many still don't take income inequality seriously and continue to embrace tax cuts for the rich and trickle-down economics.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Democrat Louise Slaughter
Slaughter is our best defense against those tired policies.
And even if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins her bid for the White House, she'll still need every progressive in Congress to help keep Republicans' hands off of the Affordable Care Act, and to push for ideas important to Democrats: passing comprehensive immigration reform, reducing college loan debt, and providing free community college for families earning less than $125,000 annually, for example.
Slaughter's efforts on behalf of her home district, which encompasses the city and most of Monroe County, are undeniable. Her influence on the area is all around in brick and mortar, as well as in bits and bytes. The depth of her experience and relationships in Washington has helped Rochester make a painful transition from its manufacturing and smokestack past to a research and innovation-based future.
Slaughter championed making Rochester a hub for photonics research and high-end manufacturing; Rochester is the ideal location for the photonics industry, she says. And she wants to establish a new Clean-Energy Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Rochester, led by the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Slaughter gets it right on matters of national concern, too. She's never been a fan of trade deals, and was one of the few members of Congress who resisted pressure to sign onto the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"We've been the biggest suckers on trade," she says. "We lost half of our manufacturing base after that thing." She's also firmly against the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
And she recently introduced a bill that would help cut the trade deficit, she says. It would strengthen enforcement and accountability by not permitting trade imbalances to mushroom, she says.
Slaughter supports a fair and "orderly" immigration policy that recognizes the needs of DREAMers — children born and raised in the US to parents who are not citizens, she says.
"I've been concerned, of course, with people who come in and just stay, but we're not going to deport 11 million people," she says. "And breaking up families is always a bad idea."
Slaughter was one of the few members of Congress who voted against authorizing the Iraq War in 2002. And she continues to oppose what she describes as the country's penchant for military interventionism.
"We still have 100-year-old water systems all across this country because we have neglected this country and wasted trillions on wars," she says.
Slaughter sounded the warning nearly a decade ago about antibiotic resistance and the global risk posed by "superbugs." And she's pushed for funding scientific research in everything from clean energy to stem cells, much of it at local universities.
And she's resolute in her support for women, minorities, and social justice.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Republican Mark Assini.
Assini hopes that the public's appetite for change in leadership is enough to push him past Slaughter in this second attempt.
He was elected Gates Town Supervisor in 2010, and is personable and earnest. His appeal to voters: he's a rational Republican who is open to dialogue on some — not all — divisive issues. But in lieu of the constant hailstorm circling the Republican Party's top-of-the-ticket candidate — Donald Trump — and a partisan Congress, Assini's nice-guy approach will not survive.
Assini concedes that Slaughter has done a good job over the years, and says he's not going to resort to attacking her. He's running his 2016 campaign much like he did the last one, by knocking on thousands of doors and talking to constituents. And he doesn't hesitate to show the holes wearing through the soles of his shoes — his sixth pair, he says.
"I'm not going to run a mean ad," he says. "I think it's wrong. I'm focusing on fixing a broken economy and helping people who are hurting."
Assini's concern with aging infrastructure is a hangover from his 2014 campaign. He's on solid ground when he says that repairing the nation's aging roads, bridges, and dams would put people to work and be good for business. The ongoing neglect is indicative of a dysfunctional Congress that can't solve the most basic problems, he says.
"When you can't even get from point A to point B, it's symbolic that we've failed," Assini says. But it's been his party in Congress that has repeatedly blocked federal transportation funding to upgrade roads and bridges.
He wants to spur economic growth on the national level by reducing corporate taxes, which he says will allow American companies to better compete in the global market. On the local level, small changes, consolidations, and efficiencies can keep spending down and virtually eliminate the need to raise taxes, he says.
"There are ways to do it without hurting services," Assini says.
And he says he will never agree to reduce or privatize Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. But that's not what the GOP leader in the House of Representatives, Speaker Paul Ryan, wants.
And there are issues that won't endear Assini to some conservatives, and he'll have little support to change course. For instance, he's advocated for affordable housing development for Gates. And he says that Rochester's suburbs need to embrace racial and economic diversity.
Assini drew sharp criticism from the left over anti-LGBTQ comments he made a while ago on social media. Assini, a Catholic, says he did not support marriage equality or gay rights for many years due to his faith. But he apologized for the comments and says his views have changed — something he credits in part to his liberal sister.
"I've had gay friends for years," he says. "Some are direct family members. It just kept eating away at me. But as the pope said, 'Who am I to judge?'"
But Assini adheres to conservative orthodoxy on issues such as the Second Amendment, arguing that even though New York has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, gun violence hasn't diminished.
That may not be accurate. Some research suggests that states with stricter gun laws are seeing reductions in deaths from gun violence. But it's hard to be certain since Republicans have blocked federal funds for research on the matter.
And though Assini doesn't support the Affordable Care Act, he — like most Republicans — doesn't have a viable alternative.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Assini's campaign is his cautious approach to talking about Donald Trump — unlike Slaughter, who isn't shy about her support for Clinton.
"My take is we have two of the most flawed candidates ever," Assini says. That's the standard defense for many conservatives when explaining their support for Trump, although Assini backed away, somewhat, from that support following the release of a recording of Trump making lewd comments about women.
Bello’s vision strengthens clerk’s office
A county clerk's race isn't usually a barn-burner, but in Monroe County, the clerk seat has been a launching pad for bigger and better things; the last two clerks went on to become county executive. That's something that voters should keep in mind when they cast their ballots in the general election on Tuesday, November 8.
The seat is in play because former clerk Cheryl Dinolfo, a Republican, resigned after she won the county executive race's in 2015. Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed Democrat Adam Bello, who was the Irondequoit supervisor at the time, to take Dinolfo's place. Bello is seen by both Democrats and Republicans as a rising star.
He's now seeking to win the office in his own right. He's being challenged by Republican Cheryl Rozzi, the Greece town clerk and former clerk of the County Legislature. The winner will serve a four-year term.
Both candidates say that they have no ambitions beyond the clerk's seat and that they never really thought about the job until it became available this year. Rozzi has doubts, however; Bello's campaign shows he's looking beyond this race, she says. And Bello has criticized Dinolfo -- a potential political rival -- over her performance as clerk, including the fact that she exempted some customers from fees, in violation of federal law.
For many voters, the clerk job likely falls into the same category as local judge: they aren't sure why they vote on a position that requires certain skills and background.
The office needs a capable and experienced administrator at its head, since it files and manages county land and court records; handles marriage licenses, passports, and pistol permits; and runs the county Department of Motor Vehicles. Bello and Rozzi both fit the bill.
- FILE PHOTO
- Democrat Adam Bello
But Bello shows how the office can be more than that. Rozzi says she'll stick to the fundamentals while focusing on improving customer service and technology. Bello promises the same, but he has a broader vision, too. And that's why he's the better choice in this contest.
Since the clerk's office is the repository for the county's land and civil court records, it can help local governments keep track of vacant and abandoned properties stuck in the foreclosure process, better known as zombie properties, he says. And the county DMV can help job seekers without driver's licenses get state ID cards, since lack of identification is a common barrier to employment, he says.
"I think government's supposed to help people and try to make a difference in people's lives and in the community," Bello says. "It's not just supposed to be a bureaucratic institution where papers get shuffled back and forth. It's supposed to provide a real service."
Bello is also pushing the county for funding to re-establish a full-time downtown DMV. He wants the money included in the 2017 county budget, which Dinolfo will probably release shortly after Election Day.
Bello's interest in zombie properties began when he was Irondequoit supervisor. He heard concerns from residents about vacant properties that just lingered and detracted from their neighborhoods.
It is often difficult to figure out who is supposed to take care of the properties, some of which have been deteriorating for years. Eventually, the town began compiling a vacant and abandoned property registry. Town law requires foreclosing lenders to tell the town when a property goes vacant, and to maintain the properties.
The clerk is the county's record keeper, and once Bello took the job, he says he saw an opportunity to help local governments track and identify zombie properties through property records and foreclosure filings.
The office now shares information on foreclosure filings and judgements with county municipalities, with the towns receiving monthly email digests. The office also provides nightly data uploads to the City of Rochester to identify properties that either are or could go vacant.
The office is embracing technology in other ways, too. It rolled out an online reservation system for DMV offices, which Bello says will lead to shorter and more predictable waits. Bello also plans to offer e-filing capabilities in the coming months. Attorneys will be able to file papers from their offices instead of making a trip to the clerk's office. E-filing will save legal firms time and money and help front desk workers at the clerk's office provide quicker service, Bello says.
Early in his appointed term, Bello discovered filing cabinets filled with unfiled forms from people who wanted their pistol permit status hidden from public view — a leftover from the Dinolfo era. The forms were supposed to go to a judge for review, but that apparently didn't happen in many cases, for reasons that are not clear.
Bello and his staff sent the forms to a judge, got them back, and are now alphabetizing and filing them.
Bello also discovered that under Dinolfo, the clerk's office waived fees for plastic pistol-permit cards and passports on about 600 occasions. A Department of State official says the waivers violated federal law.
Bello and his staff are trying to recoup the waived passport fees. Bello says that around 60 people have paid the $25 charge; many didn't realize they got the waiver and just want to do the right thing, he says.
Dinolfo says that the fees were waved in the name of customer service and that it was a longtime practice of the office. But Patricia McCarthy, a Democrat who served as clerk from 1985 to 1993, says her office never waived passport fees.
Republicans say that Bello, with an eye on keeping his job and parlaying it into bigger things, is politicizing the office with his attacks on Dinolfo. But Bello says he's just trying to do the right thing.
"I have a responsibility as a public official that when that happens -- I come across wrongdoing, I come across unfairness, I come across something that might be a violation of the law -- I have a responsibility to act," he says. "Whether Election Day is a month from now or six months from now, I have a responsibility to take action immediately and fix it and make sure it doesn't happen again."
- FILE PHOTO
- Republican Cheryl Rozzi
Rozzi has spent more than 30 years working in government: 28 in various county departments and the past three with the Town of Greece.
"I never envisioned elected office as part of my life's plan and I'm not a career politician," she says. "I'm a career clerk."
As Greece town clerk, she's looked for ways to make the office more efficient, effective, and customer-friendly, she says. She directed the town's planning office to stop sending her easement permits for review, since she trusted the department to do a proper review, she says.
She also reconfigured the office's front area so that her staff's workstations are located at the front counter, just like at a bank, she says. Before, customers would come in and have to wait until a clerk noticed them, but now customers and staff are face-to-face immediately, she says.
And Rozzi also worked with the town's community-senior center and library to change their cash-handling procedures. The two departments collect cash from users for various things, and were bringing the uncounted money to the clerk's office. The clerk's office staff counted the money, which basically made them responsible for cash they didn't collect themselves.
Now each department counts out the cash before it comes to the clerk's office, Rozzi says.
These fixes may seem minor, but they're meaningful changes that make the department function better and improve accountability, Rozzi says. Good government administrators need to have an eye for details, she says.
Rozzi says she wants to use the same approach in the county clerk's office: relying on the input of front-line workers to find better ways to do business.
"I think my opponent has a different vision and I think that vision would potentially lead to another elected office," she says. "I'm not interested in that, and for me, it's all about the ultimate clerk's position."
Other races of note
Chuck Schumer (D) vs. Wendy Long (R)
Schumer, a Democrat, is the incumbent in this race. He was elected to the US Senate in 1998 and is running for his fourth six-year term. His opponent is Republican Wendy Long, an attorney. Long ran an unsuccessful bid for Senate in 2012, losing to Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand.
Schumer is the next likely Democratic leader in the Senate. He's known for using the media to help push an outcome he wants, and it has worked for him on a slew of issues, from stopping a proposed cable Internet data cap to advancing a trade policy that benefited Hickey Freeman, a local suit manufacturer.
Schumer has also supported Rochester's fledging photonics institute and is outspoken on the dangers of trains carrying crude oil. He recently pushed for the federal commerce and state departments to revise a proposed rule that could have prevented photonics and optics companies from exporting non-military products. The final rule allows for the exports.
Long is a tough-talking conservative who earned her law degree from Harvard Law School. She helped create a nonprofit group to get Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito confirmed, and is a supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
But Long has made bizarre statements, including one that accused Schumer of ignoring terrorism: "When will Chuck Schumer wake up — when they start beheading people in Central Park?" And she is known for her extreme views, including linking crime in Syracuse to a newly opened mosque, according to Syracuse.com.
Third-party candidates in this race are: Robin Laverne Wilson (Green), and Alex Merced (Libertarian).
Ann Lewis (D) vs. Joe Robach (R)
State Senate, 56th District
Robach, the Republican incumbent, represents a heavily Democratic district in the State Senate. He's frequently present at all kinds of public events, from major announcements at prominent institutions to ribbon cuttings at local small businesses. He often says he's pleased at the amount of state funding he's been able to direct to his district and community.
Robach voted in favor of the property tax cap.
Lewis, a Democrat, has run for other offices in the past. Most recently, she challenged the re-election of South District City Council member Adam McFadden. On her Facebook page, she writes about bringing well-paying clean-energy jobs to the state, and in favor of equal pay for equal work. She also writes about the need to improve the state's infrastructure. Lewis has spoken against the city's red-light camera program in the past.
Joe Errigo (R) vs. Barbara Baer (D)
State Assembly, 133rd District
This race has received more attention than it ordinarily would due to the shocking suicide of incumbent Bill Nojay in September. Republican leaders chose Errigo to take Nojay's place on the ballot after Nojay won the primary, despite his death.
Errigo is a former State Assembly member. He says that he wants to fight for ethics reform in Albany, and to repeal or modify the Safe Act. Errigo has worked as a consultant, court reporter, and small business owner.
Baer is a lawyer and social worker. On her campaign website, she says she will fight for more affordable housing for seniors, expanded tax reductions for farmers, and reduced higher-education costs for students.
Dorothy Styk (D) vs. Mark Johns (R)
State Assembly, 135th District
Dorothy Styk is a former county legislator who switched her party registration from Republican to Democrat in 2015 because Lej Republicans put politics over meaningful debate, she said.
While in the Legislature, Styk introduced legislation to ban the sale of personal care products containing microbeads within Monroe County. The beads make it into water bodies and harm fish and other aquatic organisms.
As an Assembly member, Styk says she would fight for ethics reform in Albany, support smart job-creation programs, and be a strong voice for women.
Johns has held this Assembly seat since 2011. He supports term limits for legislators and says that he wants to eliminate gerrymandered districts and provide mandate relief for local governments.
Harry Bronson (D) vs. Bob Zinck (R)
State Assembly, 138th District
Bronson is enjoying a higher profile after his defeat of challenger Rachel Barnhart in a highly touted Democratic primary. Bronson, an attorney, supported the minimum wage increase and paid family leave. He also worked to get marriage equality passed.
He is chair of the Assembly Commission on Skills Development and Career Education and cites workforce development as an issue of particular importance. He sponsors an initiative to provide tax incentives to employers and grants to small businesses and nonprofits for hiring apprentices.
Zinck is a former Monroe County legislator and is co-owner of Lovin' Cup, a popular eatery and music venue in Henrietta.
On his campaign website, Zinck says that he will cut bureaucracy in state agencies that regulate business, eliminate laws that impede business growth, and lower the tax burden on small businesses. He also says that he will vote for tax cuts for the middle class and fight for term limits.
As former commissioner of the Rochester-Monroe County Youth Bureau, Zinck says that he would be an effective advocate for youth development programs in the Assembly.
David Seeley (D); Christopher Burns (R)
David Seeley was appointed supervisor by his fellow Town Board members after former supervisor Adam Bello became Monroe County clerk. Seeley's running for a one-year term, to fill out the rest of Bello's time in the office.
Irondequoit is an interesting town to watch; it bounces back and forth politically and, in recent years, the fate of the town's top job has been somewhat tied to the state of the former Medley Centre — a dead mall that changed hands not too long ago.
Irondequoit has turned a lot of its attention to zombie properties and other property maintenance matters. It is also focusing on senior housing. Seeley and other town officials are encouraging neighborhoods to develop formal associations and are soliciting smaller project ideas from them.
Earlier this year, Seeley unveiled an initiative to promote solar energy in Irondequoit. Seeley is former senior advisor to State Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle.
Christopher Burns is a marketing and strategy consultant. He also co-founded Rochester Young Professionals. He says that he wants to burnish the town's image to draw new businesses, and called for a tax-credit program for homeowners who fix up challenged properties.
This article has been corrected. It previous said that Senator Joe Robach voted against an increase in the minimum wage. But Robach voted in favor of the most recent state budget, which included the increase.