Sometimes, the only thing that'll unite stubborn people is a crisis, a problem so big that it just can't be ignored any longer.
This is the state that Monroe County Democrats find themselves in after last week's elections. Dems prevailed in their barely-competitive City Council and school board races, won re-election to the Irondequoit Town Board, and picked up at least one Town Board seat in Sweden — showing that the party can win outside of the city.
But the rest is very bad news. The Dems were defeated in every other contested election, including the top-prize county executive contest and in their County Legislature races.
"If this wasn't a come-to-Jesus moment, I'm not sure what is," party chair Jamie Romeo said during an interview the day after the elections; lawn signs, campaign handbills, and call scripts were still strewn across MCDC headquarters.
Democrats knew the odds were against them heading into Election Day, but the results are still deflating. The teetering party has taken a pummeling this year, beginning with the defection of District Attorney Sandra Doorley to the GOP in January, extending all the way to Mayor Lovely Warren's choice not to endorse in the county executive's race.
The Democratic Committee is also close to broke. Some big donors, put off by the party's disarray, are holding on to their checks. It doesn't help that Warren and other high-profile Democrats such as Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle and House Representative Louise Slaughter aren't raising money for the party.
The question is where do the Democrats go from here? Party leaders talk in general terms about rallying together and working as a team; Romeo and Warren are talking about how the party moves forward, Romeo says. And she says that the committee's door is open to anyone who wants to work with their fellow Democrats.
But leaders also say that they can only unify people who want to be united. In other words, the party's future depends on county Democrats setting aside their differences and working for MCDC's greater good. That responsibility isn't just on the mayor and her supporters, but on the other party leaders and members who are at odds with them.
Voter turnout is another major issue, Romeo says. Roughly 29 percent of registered voters in Monroe County cast a ballot in the county executive race, slightly below average for a non-presidential, local election year.
"What are we doing?" Romeo says. "People in this community feel so beaten down, or whatever it may be, that they don't think that their voice actually matters. That's a problem. That's a problem not just for Democrats; it's a problem for everybody."
The party needs to get out and talk to potential voters, Romeo says, to find out why they aren't casting ballots. During an appearance on WXXI's Connections, Henrietta Democratic Leader Simeon Banister, who lost his bid for a County Legislature seat, says that his committee plans to do just that. It's important for local Democrats to talk to people in their community outside of elections, he said, and to build relationships with them.
Banister also said that the party needs to refine its messaging. It needs to explain issues in a way that sticks with voters, he said, instead of frequently veering off into policy wonk territory.
But the party has little time to get its affairs in order before the 2016 campaigns pick up. Slaughter will be up for re-election, and she'll face another challenge from Gates Supervisor Mark Assini, who she barely beat last time. All state Assembly and Senate seats are on the ballot, too.
Next year is also a presidential election year, and the public is generally more engaged in the political process during presidential elections. Romeo says that county Democrats need to try to translate some of that interest into future interest in local elections. A more politically engaged public could mean more voters, a bigger candidate pool, and more party volunteers, she says.
"It's the one beautiful thing about politics: it never ends," Romeo says. "There's another cycle."