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Lovely Warren's next challenge: uniting the Monroe Democratic Party


Last week's mayoral primary in Rochester was yet another indication of the deep division in the local Democratic Party, which has crippled the party and is solidifying the Republican stranglehold on county elected offices.

The division pits Warren, her mentor David Gantt, and their supporters against a predominantly white group of longtime Democratic leaders. If it doesn't end, the party will continue to be weak. And that will make it harder for Democrats to push for progressive policies in the county. It will make it harder for them to push for support for the city and its neediest residents: for more funding for child care, for instance.

There are bright, progressive people in both factions. But the divisions are personal, and they've gone on for years.

In the days after the election, I called several Democrats who have been watching this feud and asked whether the two sides need a mediator – and if so, who they think it might be. Former Mayor Bill Johnson, who has been a strong Warren supporter, thinks Warren will have to do the healing herself. And that she'll have to take the first step.

She needs to reach out to the Latino community, Johnson said, and to union leaders, many of whom supported Sheppard. She needs to reach out to the City Council members who supported Sheppard.

"Even to her staunchest enemies," Johnson said, "she needs to reach out."

"Don't have them come to City Hall," Johnson said. "Go to them."

And he suggested that Warren do what some high-profile politicians have done: bring some of her opponents into her administration.

Warren's a strong, talented, proud person. She has accomplished a lot, professionally and politically. And as the margin of her primary-election vote shows, the local Democratic Party now belongs to her. She wouldn't be the first politician to feel she doesn't owe her opponents anything at all.

Besides, even if Warren's willing to do the kind of outreach Johnson suggests, would her critics be receptive, given the length of the antagonism – and its depth? ("Some of them," said Johnson, "have told her to her face: You'll never be my mayor.")

Johnson said he thinks the critics might soften – "if she takes the initiative, and it's genuine."

In her victory speech on election night, Warren was both feisty and conciliatory. "To those Rochesterians whose support I have yet to earn," she said, "like President Obama said in 2008, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I heard your voices, and I am your mayor, too."

"Mending our party is critical," she said, "because we are a party that is progressive, a party that defends those among us who are defenseless, a party that stands against oppression, and a party that truly believes our diversity is our strength."

"I want our party to be strong and successful," she said, "and I am committed to working to make that happen."

Only Warren knows whether her interest in uniting the party is – to use Johnson's word – genuine. I can understand why it might not be, but I hope it is. It's time to set aside the past, time to let others share credit for hard work.

Warren has the potential to be an exceptional leader now, and the people of Greater Rochester badly need one.

Warren, says Johnson, has the opportunity to use the time between now and the November general election to show the community what kind of mayor she's going to be in her second term – "to prove that her words the other night are more than rhetoric, that she is a mayor that listens, that's receptive to new ideas."

I hope she listens to Johnson (who says he's already delivered that message to her in person). And I hope, too, that her opponents are willing to give her a chance.

An awful lot is riding on her success.