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Dems pick candidates, head to primaries


The Monroe County Democratic Committee has something of an unofficial maxim: primaries are inevitable.

So it goes with the 2017 city races. The Democrats have designated their candidates for the mayor's race, five at-large City Council seats, and three city school board seats. Who plans to wage a primary isn't yet clear, and may not be for a couple of weeks. But some candidates have said from the get-go that they're going to try to get on the November ballot, one way or another.

Take the mayor's race: Incumbent Lovely Warren received the party's designation during its convention last Thursday. She had previously pulled in more than 55.6 percent of the weighted city legislative district committee votes, so she went in with the designation buttoned up.

Former Rochester police chief James Sheppard, who attended the convention, has already made it clear that he'll primary Warren. On Friday he picked up the Independence Party endorsement, and on Saturday he held a campaign rally. And soon after the Dems made Warren's nod official, former television reporter and anchor Rachel Barnhart released a video committing to her own primary run. Barnhart skipped the convention, which she dismissed as insider politics. (Sheppard got 38.7 percent of the committee votes; Barnhart received 5 percent.)

Warren gave an acceptance speech that was, at various points, a checklist of her accomplishments, a pledge to work for the city's people, and a blistering call to action against the Trump White House and the Republican Congress. And she did it all to loud cheers, one guy proclaiming, "That's what I'm talking about," when Warren said Rochester is a city worth fighting for.

"I would be the first to admit that we're not where we want to be," Warren told the crowd. "But we're in a better place than we were four years ago."

Warren also used her time at the podium to throw her support to sheriff candidate Todd Baxter, the former Greece police chief and Veterans Outreach Center leader whom Democrats designated as their candidate at the convention. He'll face incumbent Patrick O'Flynn, a Republican.

And the mayor said the Democrats – well known for infighting – need to get their house in order if they want to win races. Warren promised to help build up the party and to "reach across the aisle" within the party to mend rifts. But she didn't elaborate beyond those statements, either at the podium or later in a huddle with press.

The City Council designations proved a little more complicated, since only four candidates had cleared the committee vote thresholds before the convention, and all five at-large Council seats are up for election. The four who made it through the first round of voting were incumbents Loretta Scott, Jackie Ortiz, and Dana Miller, as well as Malik Evans, who is looking to make the jump from school board to Council.

Well over a dozen candidates sought the Democratic designation for City Council, but at the convention, the contest for the fifth seat came down to former County Legislator Willie Joe Lightfoot and Edison high school teacher Matt Juda. Ultimately Juda, who had the backing of some prominent LGBTQ party leaders, prevailed.

Lightfoot received the fifth highest vote totals in the committees (44 percent), while Juda received the ninth highest (30 percent). To anyone unfamiliar with the finer points of Democratic Committee rules, it might look like Lightfoot should have been the fifth candidate. But long-time party rules require candidates to get more than 50 percent of the weighted city committee votes.

During the second round of balloting, city committee leaders threw Juda enough votes to get him well over the threshold.

Lightfoot knew he wasn't likely to win the second round of balloting, and he plans to run a primary. He also criticizes the party's 50-percent vote threshold as well as another rule that allows people from outside of the city to serve on city legislative district committees.

"Clearly, there are some flaws in our system," Lightfoot said in an interview the day after the convention.

It's likely at least some of the other Council hopefuls will also run primaries. For example, Mary Lupien announced her candidacy early, campaigned vigorously, and says she plans to continue on. Many of her supporters were energized by Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign and haven't yet been able to get on city Democratic committees, she says.

There was also something of an upset during the school board designations.

Beatriz LaBron was the only school board candidate to get the party's backing after the first round of voting. Board president Van White and newcomer Natalie Sheppard made it through after the second round, leaving incumbent Cynthia Elliott without the party's designation. Elliott's been in this position before, however, and she has successfully defended her seat.

The only suburban race to come up during the convention was handled quickly and easily. The East Rochester, Brighton, and Pittsford Democratic committees formally designated East Rochester Schools Superintendent Howard Maffucci for the County Legislature District 10 race. He'll face Republican Jason Rosenberg, a University of Rochester professional staffer and a small business owner. The seat is currently held by Republican Anthony Daniele, who has to give it up at the end of the year due to term limits.