Nobody argues that, as dean of Rochester's state Assembly delegation, David Gantt is an influential and powerful figure in local politics.
But Gantt, like every politician, has critics. In Gantt's case, those critics wonder if the Assembly member truly represents the community's interests, or his own.
The issue of representation is at the heart of a three-way Democratic primary — set for Thursday, September 13 — pitting the incumbent Gantt against Jose Cruz and John Lightfoot. Cruz, a member of the Rochester school board, and Lightfoot, a county legislator, say the 137th District needs better representation in Albany. [The winner of the primary will face Green Party candidate Andrew Langdon in the general election.]
"One of the things that I hear constantly is that we need a representative who's available, we need a representative we can talk to, we need a representative who will understand and hear us when we have issues," Cruz says.
Gantt has represented the district since 1983; he filed the federal redistricting lawsuit that ultimately led to its creation. This year, during redistricting, it was renumbered from the 133rd Assembly District to the 137th. The boundaries, however, remain essentially the same.
The district covers a large part of the city, including a crescent-shaped string of neighborhoods that are among the city's poorest. The 137th is also what's known as a majority-minority district: 47percent of the population is black, 17 percent is Hispanic, and 32 percent is white.
The 137th also includes the Town of Gates, though Gantt's critics say he's ignored that part of the district. The Gates Democratic Committee has backed Lightfoot in the Assembly race, though Gantt prevailed during the county party's convention and got the nomination.
Cruz says that, if elected, he plans to spend more time in Gates and may even open an office there.
City had an interview scheduled with Gantt, but he canceled for health reasons. Despite several attempts, the interview was not rescheduled.
Gantt's popularity stems from his dedication to fighting for the less fortunate in the City of Rochester.
When the county's public defender retired in 2007, a group of community activists, county bar association members, and clergy tried to stop the Legislature's Republican majority from filling the post with a political appointee. They wanted an independent selection process.
When Republicans resisted, the activists began coming to meetings to speak out and protest. Gantt was a regular presence at those meetings — even getting arrested at one point for disorderly conduct.
This past Assembly session, Gantt supported legislation to block a tax break for the wealthy, and to impose criminal penalties for mortgage lenders and agents who commit fraud. (The latter bill died in the Senate.)
Gantt has a reputation as a tough politician. He works to put allies in positions throughout the party, and when asked to explain a vote or legislative action, he can be gruff and unapologetic.
He came under scrutiny several years ago after introducing legislation to allow red-light cameras in Upstate cities. The legislation required municipalities to purchase the cameras through a specific company. The lobbyist for that company was a former Gantt staffer.
Lightfoot says that "at his time," Gantt represented the district well by fighting for civil rights, equal rights, and fairness for his constituents. But over time, Lightfoot says, Gantt became the system.
"And if you're not in his clique, then you're out," he says.
Before winning election to the school board, Cruz served 10 years on the County Legislature.
Like Albany, the Lej can be a highly partisan environment. But Cruz was respected by both sides of the aisle and known as a collaborator.
He was part of a bipartisan caucus that helped stop former County Executive Jack Doyle's 2003 budget proposal. Doyle wanted cutbacks to health, social services, and arts funding that many legislators and community members found unacceptable. The Legislature ultimately passed a bipartisan budget.
Cruz says he's tried to be a rational presence on the much-maligned school board. He's backed large initiatives including alternative high schools and a 15-year, $1.2 billion project to remodel aging city school buildings.
He also took the lead when the board began discussing a condom distribution policy. The discussions began after the board heard a presentation from the county's director of public health, which approached condom distribution as an issue of teen reproductive health — particularly the prevention of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.
The board held public forums and the debate became contentious. Cruz led those meetings and the school board ultimately approved a program based out of the health centers in some high schools.
As the head of the policy committee, it was Cruz's responsibility to take the lead on the condom issue. But he handled himself well and kept a contentious issue from exploding.
"My responsibility is to educate myself about the issues, do the homework, and then ultimately the decision rests on me," he says.
On job creation, Cruz says he wants the state to pay more attention to work force development. The state needs to determine which industries are hiring and how it can develop programs to train workers, he says.
Lightfoot served on City Council for four years and began a four-year term on the County Legislature this year.
He says his most significant accomplishment on Council was a recommendation implemented by the 911 call center. The result was two additional questions that dispatchers now ask callers: whether anyone present at the scene has been using drugs or alcohol, or has mental-health issues.
In the County Legislature, Lightfoot is developing a proposal to require the county to audit the diversity of its work force. He says he believes there is a lack of diversity in management, supervisory, and professional positions and a reverse disparity in clerical and maintenance positions. He says he wants the county to monitor work force diversity and, if those efforts reveal a disparity, to implement a system to address it.
Lightfoot says he wants the state to include a mental-health component in its part of the education curriculum, a change he'd pursue if elected to the Assembly. Statistics show that 23 percent of youth ages 9 to 17 have some sort of mental health problem, whether it's slight depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or some other condition, he says.
Those issues make it harder for students to learn, and could be carried into adulthood, he says.
"We want to be there to at least give the students the knowledge and some information so that they can choose to pursue help or make themselves a healthier lifestyle," Lightfoot says.
As for job creation, Lightfoot says the state should be more aggressive in supporting research projects, such as the new battery commercialization center being developed at Eastman Business Park. That research work can turn into manufacturing jobs, he says. The state should also seek out and encourage foreign direct investment, he says. In particular it should court foreign companies to set up manufacturing operations in the state, he says.
"We need to create our laws so we create a smooth transition for them," Lightfoot says.
One of the most significant legislative issues for Rochester is state aid parity. Rochester receives less state funding per capita than Buffalo or Syracuse, and has for years.
Parity should be the top priority of the 137th District's representative, Cruz says.
"It's an issue we have to continually drive and drive and drive until we make changes that'll get this area more of the money that it needs," he says.
Lightfoot says the fight should center on talking to individual legislators from across the state to make Rochester's case.
Mayoral control of city schools also has the potential — however unlikely — to resurface. Gantt sponsored the original mayoral control legislation in 2010, which passed the Assembly but never came to a vote in the Senate. Cruz says he doesn't see the level of interest present several years ago and that he's "not convinced it's the way to go." Lightfoot opposes mayoral control.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is nearing completion of its environmental review of high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Once that's done, the Assembly will almost certainly be under pressure to influence state fracking policy. Gantt's position on fracking is unclear. Lightfoot opposes it. Cruz says there are tremendous concerns about fracking's environmental and community impacts, and legislators will have to develop a thorough understanding of those issues.
"I know there's a midpoint somewhere and I think the Legislature is in a good position to figure out where that midpoint is," Cruz says.
This year, Gantt voted for an Assembly bill to increase the minimum wage. Cruz also supports a minimum wage increase. Lightfoot, however, does not. The state's economy still hasn't come back from the recession and an increase in the minimum wage would mean an increase in the cost of some products and services, he says. He says he's concerned that middle class New Yorkers would suffer because of those price increases.
There is one perpetual state issue where the three candidates appear to agree: abortion rights. Lightfoot and Cruz each support a woman's right to choose and, in 2010, Gantt was endorsed by NARAL Pro-Choice New York.