News & Opinion » News

Divide or conquer? The Dems’ dilemma


These days, Steve Minarik's life can't be easy.

Despite clinging (barely) to a majority in the state Senate and to the governor's mansion, the Grand Old Party is in unstable condition statewide. And things are likely to get worse; polls of almost every conceivable match-up show Republicans ceding the governor's position and failing to steal Hillary Clinton's Senate seat in 2006.

So at the end of a hard day in Albany or New York, it must be nice for the state GOP's new chair to know that things here in MonroeCounty are being taken care of for him. Not by Executive Director Mike Barry, whom Minarik left in charge of day-to-day operations, though. No, the bulk of the work is being done by the loyal opposition: Monroe County Democrats. Instead of carefully marshaling their limited resources to fight for competitive county and town positions, Democrats are funneling their money and effort into divisive primary campaigns for the safe seats available to them.

Although the Dems' chair du jour, Joe Morelle, has been in office for less than a month, he's already embarked on a crusade to reverse that situation. He's running into resistance.

Two weeks ago, Morelle said he plans to speak with every Democrat campaigning against a party designee to try to dissuade them from running (see "Judge Not," June 15). But so far that hasn't stopped plenty of people in the party --- or on its fringes --- from embracing those contenders.

One of those candidates is 29-year old Carrie Andrews, an organizer with the union New York State United Teachers. In April, the party chose community activist George Moses over Andrews to run for a County Lej seat in the city's 21st Legislative District. Now Andrews plans to challenge Moses in the September primary election.

The way Andrews sees it, Morelle's party-discipline push is doing more than creating a backlash; it's robbing the Dems both of choices and younger leadership.

As Andrews points out, voter registration in the city and Brighton is overwhelmingly Democratic. That means that --- barring a huge upset by Republicans --- whoever's on the party's line in November will win. Squelch primaries, says Andrews, and you'll cut rank-and-file Dems out of the process.

"People should be given an option," she says.

This is Andrews' first run for public office, and she says she can't understand why party leaders would do anything to discourage young, enthusiastic candidates like herself from getting involved politically.

"The Democratic Party is in need of new people," she says, "so I don't think stifling those new leaders or their campaigns is a good idea."

And that has led her to one conclusion: "I have no plans to withdraw from the race whatsoever," she says.

Among those defying Morelle and supporting candidates like Andrews is DFA Rochester. The group's also supporting two more Democrats who are challenging party designees: County Lej hopeful Mary Ellen Blanchard (in a Brighton primary against Travis Heider) and mayoral candidate Tim Mains.

"DFA" stands for "Democracy for America," of which DFA Rochester is an affiliate. But the acronym once stood for "Dean for America." Yes, these are the Deaniacs, the tech-savvy folks whose grassroots volunteer network and knack for web fundraising made them the envy of other Democratic hopefuls. That movement --- or part of it, at least --- survived the 2004 primaries and presidential campaign, reincarnated as Democracy for America.

Andrea DiGiorgio, one of the group's organizers, describes DFA's mission as "just to slowly bring the political process back to the people, step by step."

Since these folks are the offspring of the current national party chair's campaign, you'd think they'd be a welcome addition to the local Democratic Party, as chronically underfunded and overworked as it is. You might be wrong.

Speaking on the record, both sides are vaguely complimentary of one another.

"We may not see eye to eye on every candidate, but I think overall it'll be a good relationship," says DiGiorgio. "I don't think there needs to be any tension there. We have the same goals of electing quality candidates who make a difference."

Morelle offers a somewhat more tepid agreement.

"I actually don't know very much about Democracy for America," he says. "I'm sure we have many similar interests."

But talk to Dems off the record, and some express surprisingly strong emotions about the group.

"They're 15 strong, and they've got everyone intimidated, because that's 10 more than any other faction," says one party insider speaking on condition of anonymity."Everyone's trying to curry favor with them."

But reactions go beyond being intimidated. Some in the party are angry that DFA Rochester lent its approval to Chris Hilderbrant, a registered Green, but not to Pat Amato, a Democrat running for the County Legislature seat of her term-limited husband, Fred Amato. Some in the party compare the move to last fall's endorsement of Republican state Senator Joe Robach by several prominent Dems.

Two things DiGiorgio says about her group seem to undermine that comparison, though.

"Democracy for America isn't a group of Democrats," she says, although most active members are. "We are looking for candidates who are socially progressive."

And unlike other political groups, DFA offers two different categories of support: full "endorsement" and "approval." The group's approval carries less weight, and support, than an endorsement. It's also a more flexible designation.

"There's absolutely nothing in our guidelines that prohibits us from approving more than one candidate in a race," she says.

So what does a full endorsement from DFA get you?

"We don't have a lot of money," says DiGiorgio. "It's really a matter of time to work on the campaign."

That time may be one reason Morelle's content to leave DFA Rochester alone for the time being. Beside Blanchard, the group's other two fully endorsed candidates are Ted O'Brien and Ted Nixon. They are running for County Legislature seats in competitive districts in Irondequoit and Pittsford, respectively. With the party strapped for cash, no party chair worth his salt is going to turn away eager volunteers.

Whether this détente will last after this year's election cycle --- or even survive it --- remains to be seen.

It may be difficult to attract the willing volunteers DFA can offer, but it's also tough to spend limited resources well when you're spending them against your fellow partisans. It's even tougher to attract money to those types of races. Sure, some people will always give for strictly ideological reasons, but most donors (especially the biggest spenders) want a return on their investment, in the form of victories. They won't see that in a party constantly fighting itself, as Morelle is keenly aware.

"To the extent that people contribute to factions, they contribute to our difficulty to be competitive," he says. "If you really want to be a party on a county level that's competitive, that involves sacrifice."

Idealists among the Dems may read that last statement as a threat to democratic processes within the party. For them, Morelle has this response: "You can't have any influence over government if you can't get elected to office."