It's almost a regular occurrence: some Rochester Democrats accuse other Dems of trying to take over some of the city's political committees. This time, an influential group of black politicians, the Black Political Caucus, is pointing the finger at the Rochester Teachers Association and the New York State United Teachers labor unions.
Caucus spokesperson Willie Lightfoot, a county legislator, made the allegation in a June 24 press release.
"A lot of the individuals should be more focused doing their jobs and doing them right than out here trying to get political," he says.
The committees are low level, but play a pivotal role in determining which candidates get the support of the county Democratic Committee. Takeover allegations usually surface during the lead up to City Council, school board, or mayoral races, so it's no surprise that the accusation is happening now, since the mayor's office is on the ballot in 2017.
Though Lightfoot named the RTA in the press release, the union that is trying to get seats on committees is actually the Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals, which represents 600 teachers' aides and assistants. RAP is trying to get about 60 of its members onto two committees in southwest Rochester, says Angie Rivera, the union's president.
The effort is about awareness, not political gamesmanship, she says. But the caucus isn't buying it, and still suspects that the RTA is involved, Lightfoot says.
The Black Political Caucus, which includes State Assembly member David Gantt, current and former county legislators, and a few City Council members, says that the unions should back off, and that they should also stop offering union members who live in the city $15 an hour to canvass for committee candidates.
NYSUT has supported RAP's effort by providing a few thousand dollars for things such as canvassing, says NYSUT spokesperson Carl Korn. And RTA e-mailed members to let them know about the paid canvassing opportunity, he says. But that's all. The paraprofessionals union started the project and is running it, Korn says.
The dust-up could be a misunderstanding, but important subtext exists. The caucus includes prominent supporters of Mayor Lovely Warren, who made a recent push to create a "receivership district" for struggling city schools. The proposal didn't sit well with RTA leaders and was ultimately rejected by the State Education Department.
Lightfoot says that the unions and teachers, many of whom live outside of the city, are responsible for poor student performance and low graduation rates in the city. And now the unions are trying to reduce the influence of parents and people of color in city Democratic politics, he says.
"I think it's all politically motivated, really," Lightfoot says. "You have a mayor's election coming up next year, you have some big elections coming up next year, and maybe they're trying to position themselves to have some type of control."
But RAP isn't trying take over the committees, Rivera says. The union hasn't been involved in city Democratic politics in the past, but members have become interested in issues such as the minimum wage and state education policy, she says. And the union wants to make sure that it has a voice in the political process, she says.
Most of the union's members are city residents and are African American or Latino, says Rivera, who lives in the 19th Ward.
"We live in this community, so I think that in order for us to get a better understanding of the community, we need to get involved and have leaders and politicians that are RAP members," she says.