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Henrietta becomes a Democratic Party battleground

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Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association, calls himself a “city boy” and has lived in an apartment on East Avenue in Rochester for years.

But since March, the union leader has quietly held a seat on one of the dozens of neighborhood-based Democratic Party election districts in Henrietta that help guide party policy there and cultivate candidates for office.

In a recent interview outside his home, Urbanski acknowledged that his position as a party office holder in Henrietta has raised eyebrows among political observers.

“Being in Henrietta kind of looks weird because I’m . . .” he trailed off and motioned to his residence behind him. “I mean, I sometimes take a ride to stores in Henrietta, but I’m a city boy.” 
Monroe County Legislator Michael Yudelson is the leader of the Henrietta Democratic Committee. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Monroe County Legislator Michael Yudelson is the leader of the Henrietta Democratic Committee.

Urbanski is one of at least 10 people who live outside of Henrietta and were recruited over the winter to occupy election district seats there by a faction of the party aligned with Assembly Member Harry Bronson in an effort to wrest control of the Henrietta Democratic Committee from its boss, Michael Yudelson.

That effort will play out in unprecedented fashion in June, when enrolled Democrats in Henrietta will for the first time cast primary ballots for scores of contested elections district seats that have never before been challenged and until recently were considered so insignificant that most sat vacant.

The flurry of political activity suggests that growing pains within the broader Democratic Party of Monroe County — aches that pit a burgeoning base of activists loyal to Mayor Lovely Warren against elder party statesmen — has spilled into the suburbs.



Once rare, Democratic election district contests have occurred with some regularity in Rochester since 2012, the year before Warren was elected mayor. Never have they unfolded in a suburb on the scale that they are right now in Henrietta.

‘KIND OF ODD’


Yudelson, a current Monroe County Legislator and former town supervisor, is the father of Alex Yudelson, the chief of staff to Warren and the county Democratic Party’s candidate to replace Bronson.
Assembly Member Harry Bronson. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Assembly Member Harry Bronson.

Bronson is challenging the younger Yudelson in the June primary for the party’s designation in the general election for the 138th Assembly District, which encompasses Henrietta, Chili, and parts of Rochester. Bronson has held the seat for five terms.

Also on primary ballots in Henrietta will be 101 candidates vying for 56 seats in 14 election districts — slivers of land often the size of a single neighborhood — like one that Urbanski holds.

There are 35 election districts in Henrietta, each with four seats. Their collective 140 seats make up the Henrietta Democratic Committee and set agendas for the direction of the party and, more importantly, weigh in on which candidates for elected office the party will endorse.

Urbanski will not be on a primary ballot because he obtained his seat through a petitioning process and was not challenged. But some candidates who, like Urbanski, live in Rochester, will be on the ballot.
Alex Yudelson. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Alex Yudelson.


There is nothing illegal about any of them holding an election district seat in Henrietta. State Election Law allows for anyone who lives within the boundaries of the Assembly district that represents the town — in this case the 138th — to run for an election district seat.

But the optics and practical effect are viewed with skepticism by some.

“We have people who are in primaries who don’t live in Henrietta looking to displace people who do live in Henrietta and that is kind of unprecedented,” Michael Yudelson, the town Democratic leader, said.

“It raises the question of, when we move forward to endorse candidates for things like Town Board and supervisor, we’re going to have people who live outside of Henrietta weighing in on who can run,” Yudelson added. “That’s kind of odd.”

UNHAPPY WITH LEADERSHIP

Yudelson, a former Republican, was a crucial figure in resurrecting the Henrietta Democratic Committee.

When he switched parties in 2013 at the tail end of what would be his tenure as town supervisor, the town party was practically moribund. It had gone so long without a treasurer that it had lost access to its own bank accounts.

Two young Democrats, Simeon Bannister and Mike Kennerknecht picked up the mantle, and Yudelson, who eventually became the town leader, was helpful in drawing new members. 
Simeon Banister (right) and Mike Kennerknecht (left) have led efforts to resurrect the Henrietta Democratic Committee. - PHOTO BY JOHN SCHLIA
  • PHOTO BY JOHN SCHLIA
  • Simeon Banister (right) and Mike Kennerknecht (left) have led efforts to resurrect the Henrietta Democratic Committee.


The party found renewed interest particularly in Democrats who were eager to oust the Republican supervisor, Jack Moore, who had unseated Yudelson. The party was successful in 2017, when Stephen Schultz defeated Moore.

But since then, some Henrietta Democrats, including the assistant town party leader, Millie Sefranek, have cast Yudelson’s leadership as tyrannical.

For instance, they have accused him of declining to install some of the most active party members in election district seats, which a town party leader can do by fiat between election cycles with the blessing of the Monroe County Democratic Committee.

Schultz, who as a sitting town supervisor and a Democrat would normally occupy a prominent role in the town party, does not occupy an election district seat and is now waging a primary to get on one.

More recently, though, they accused Yudelson of stacking election district seats last fall as a means of helping his son, Alex, secure the county Democratic party’s designation over Bronson, who has represented Rochester as an elected official for 15 years. 

A few months prior to the county party’s nominating convention in December, of which town and city committees weigh in to endorse candidates, just 72 of the Henrietta Democratic Committee’s 140 election district seats were occupied.

Yudelson recruited 30 new members, most of whom threw their votes behind Alex Yudelson, who went on to barely edge out Bronson in an upset that shocked and infuriated many Democrats.

STAGING A TAKEOVER

Sefranek, a supporter of Bronson, helped organize many of the new candidates vying for election district posts in June with an eye toward removing Michael Yudelson.

No tactic was off the table as long as it was within the law, including recruiting out-of-towners sympathetic to Bronson who, under state Election Law, were eligible to represent election districts in Henrietta and, thus, have a seat on the Henrietta Democratic Committee.

“Ideally we would have people that actually live in Henrietta to represent the district,” Sefranek said.

“The issue really is we needed to have enough voices on the Henrietta committee so that when we go into our reorganization meeting we can vote Yudelson out so people can be treated more equally,” Sefranek said.

Michael Yudelson denied ever declining to assign any active Democrat an election district seat, and chalked up Schultz’s absence to a miscommunication.

Allan Richards, a spokesperson for Bronson who acknowledged advising the effort to recruit supporters of Bronson’s to the committee, said he saw no issue with city residents sitting on the town committee.

Indeed, some election district seats in the city are held by party loyalists who reside in other parts of the city or even outside the city limits, but are eligible to hold the seats because their Assembly district overlaps those election districts inside the city border.
Supporters of Assembly Member Harry Bronson wave signs at the Monroe County Democratic Committee's designating convention at Workers United Hall in Rochester on Saturday, February 1, 2020. - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • Supporters of Assembly Member Harry Bronson wave signs at the Monroe County Democratic Committee's designating convention at Workers United Hall in Rochester on Saturday, February 1, 2020.

Richards noted that state elected officials often represent districts that span multiple towns. Bronson, who lives in Rochester, is one of them. Another is longtime Assembly Member David Gantt, who also lives in Rochester and represents the city as well as the suburb of Gates.

“Just because Harry Bronson doesn’t live in Henrietta or David Gantt doesn’t live in Gates doesn’t make them unqualified to represent people in those areas,” Richards said.

“People were unhappy with the leadership (in the Henrietta Democratic Committee) and there’s one sure way to change the leadership out there,” Richards added. “You get those to vote with you who can vote with you.”

Alex Yudelson called the effort “a step in the wrong direction and a step backward in uniting Henrietta around Democratic candidates.”

“To try to retaliate (for my nomination) by trying to add people to the committee who live outside of Henrietta and won’t impact my race at this point but who will impact races in Henrietta is undemocratic and wrong,” Yudelson said.

LOOKING FOR A WAY OUT

Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski.
Urbanski said he could not recall who approached him to occupy an election district seat in Henrietta, but that the idea was pitched to him in a passing conversation as way to help Bronson.

“I’m a strong supporter of Harry Bronson. I would like to see him re-elected,” Urbanski said. “So, I said, ‘Yeah, whatever I can do to help Harry would be fine with me.’”

Party activists passed a petition around Henrietta with Urbanski’s name on it and gathered enough signatures to get him a seat. Urbanski said he only learned later that it meant he would represent Henrietta as a member of that town’s Democratic party.

“I didn’t even sign up for it. Somebody else signed me up for it,” he said. “So, I initially said okay without understanding much about the dynamics involved.”

Urbansk said he has since written the Monroe County Board of Elections to remove his name from the committee, but that he has yet to receive a response.

“I rethought it and thought it would be an unnecessary distraction, the fact that I’m somehow on the committee,” he said. “I have no interest, have never had any interest, in being on a Democratic committee.”

UPDATE: This article was updated from its original version to more accurately reflect when Democratic election district races began with some regularity in Rochester. It was 2012, not 2014.

David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.