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How local Democrats came to back the mayor's chief of staff over a five-term Assembly member

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That Harry Bronson, the five-term Democratic Assembly member from Rochester, would face a primary election this year from an upstart with close ties to Mayor Lovely Warren was expected.

What might not have been expected, however, was that Bronson would be the challenger in the primary for his 138th District seat, because party leaders declined to endorse him.

That happened over the weekend as the Monroe County Democratic Committee threw its weight behind Alex Yudelson, the mayor’s chief of staff and the son of Michael Yudelson, the Henrietta town Democratic boss and a Monroe County Legislator.

The development at the Workers United Hall on East Avenue over the weekend did not sit well with some party loyalists, prompted cries of nepotism and rule-bending, and provided further evidence that the party’s power center now rests with supporters of the mayor.

HOW IT HAPPENED

Yudelson’s designation was the culmination of a controversial — and arcane — process that played out among local Democratic committees comprised of party loyalists that sit within the boundaries of the 138th Assembly District. Those committees number six in the city, one in Henrietta, and one in Chili.

The committees vote for their preferred candidate and whichever candidate gets the most votes wins the party’s endorsement.



Sounds simple, right? Not so fast.

The committees are weighted based on turnout and the size of their vote within the Assembly district. And if no candidate gets 50 percent of the weighted vote after the ballots are cast, the race is then decided by the single votes of the leaders of those committees.

In the case of the 138th Assembly District, the two committees with the most weight — so much weight that a candidate cannot win the designation without the support of at least one of them — were each led by a spokesperson for the mayor, Patrick Flanigan, and Yudelson’s father.

Roughly 70 percent of the rank-and-file in Flanigan’s committee, the 24th Legislative District on the east side of the city, voted for Bronson in the initial voting. But Flanigan, the committee leader, threw his committee’s support to Yudelson, with whom he works at City Hall.

The hall erupted. “Lies!” someone shouted from the back of the room.

Likewise, Yudelson’s father was greeted with a chorus of boos from sign-carrying protesters when he cast his committee’s vote for his son.

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.
THE REACTION

After the vote, Yudelson called wresting the party’s endorsement from a five-term incumbent “pretty unprecedented.”

Bronson and his supporters viewed the development as unprecedented, too.

“The system was manipulated and that’s very unfortunate,” Bronson said.

Members of the Henrietta Democratic Committee, led by Yudelson’s father, said he should have recused himself from the designation process in light of his son being a candidate.

Some also complained that he added 29 new people to the committee without input from other rank-and-file members, a move that had the effect of stacking the committee in his son’s favor. Adding members is a common practice of committee leaders that has critics across the county.

“There’s no clear rule-breaking, but the by-laws are set up in a way to allow this unfairness to still happen,” said Courtney Finnerty, a Henrietta Democratic Committee member. “I feel that people should be ethical and make good decisions regardless of the by-laws.”

THE BACKSTORY

There’s some noteworthy backstory to the Bronson-Yudelson contest.

Bronson and Warren have clashed over Rochester City School District governance. Warren wants state legislators to remove the elected school board and to replace it with an appointed one. Bronson has refused to go along with the idea, saying her call “abdicates our responsibility to lead.”

Yudelson shares the perspective of Warren — his boss and a powerful figure in the party — and has said that a change in district governance needs to be on the table.

Flanigan, who has been a member of the 24th District committee for 10 years, said Tuesday that he cast his vote for Yudelson  because he "wanted a debate on schools," and that he voted his conscience.

In an e-mail to the members of his committee, he wrote that "Education reform is an issue I have cared about deeply for almost 20 years and my vote Saturday was a vote to ensure that issue gets the highest possible platform."

Democratic party loyalists gathered at the Monroe County Democratic Committee designating convention at Workers United Hall in Rochester on Saturday, February 1, 2020. - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • Democratic party loyalists gathered at the Monroe County Democratic Committee designating convention at Workers United Hall in Rochester on Saturday, February 1, 2020.
VOTE COUNTS QUESTIONED

Some 200 committee members cast ballots in the first round. How is it possible that neither Bronson nor Yudelson won at least 50 percent of the vote?

Bronson supporters contend he did have 50 percent of the vote — a claim Yudelson supporters deny.

Party officials explained that two people signed in to the city's 24th Legislative District designating meeting but didn't cast ballots. That sounds minor, but those two non-votes were factored into the totals and made enough difference to knock Bronson down from 50.6 percent of the weighted vote to 49.9 percent.

Because Yudelson wound up with 49.12 percent of the vote, the pair were subject to a run-off in which only the committees’ leaders’ votes counted.

Bronson argued that under the party’s by-laws, the two non-votes shouldn’t have been calculated in the total tally of the first round.

Nathan Van Loon, the county Democratic Committee’s attorney, disagreed. The party has to account for everyone who signs in to designating meetings and has to include them in calculating vote percentages, even if they didn’t vote for a candidate, he said.

This same issue has come up in the past, just “not where it counted,” Van Loon said.

In 2018, Van Loon explained, a committee was voting on whether to designate David Gantt and Ann Lewis as the Democratic candidate for an Assembly seat. Officials came across one blank ballot, which brought both candidates’ percentages down.

PREPPING FOR A PRIMARY

Yudelson, who worked for the Obama administration in public and intergovernmental affairs before arriving at City Hall, said he was “really excited to have the party’s support.” At the same time, he acknowledged that party’s bylaws could use clarification and said he was willing to help.

Bronson, who has been a longtime advocate of gay rights and a reliable ally of labor, said he would “absolutely” wage a primary.

A primary could be close. Bronson last faced a primary in 2016 and won with 55 percent of the vote over his challenger, Rachel Barnhart, who was recently elected a Monroe County legislator.

Jeremy Moule is CITY’s news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.

This story has been updated to correct and clarify the explanation of how neither candidate reached a 50 percent threshold of votes. Comments from the 24th Legislative District  committee leader were also added.