Longtime Democratic Party activist Molly Clifford succeeded Ted O'Brien as chair of the Monroe County Democratic Committee last December. Unlike O'Brien, who served in the position in a more-or-less part-time capacity, Clifford will helm the county party full-time.
She'll need every minute she can spare.
The 37-year-old Clifford, whose most recent paying job was as the public affairs manager for Rural/Metro Medical Services, will now have to market a party trying to respond to its own share of emergencies: a Democratic city school board at one another's throats, a caucus in the county legislature still divided after last year's leadership coup, and a county executive race for which the party still has no clear candidate.
County Republicans --- who themselves have yet to announce a candidate for county exec --- publicly ridiculed Mayor Bill Johnson's indecision over a possible exec run by sending a party activist dressed in a chicken costume to cluck outside City Hall during lunch hour.
Clifford recently took the time to sit down with City for an interview, and we began by getting her reaction to that little shenanigan.
City: What do you make of the chicken incident?
Clifford: I really don't want to spend a lot of time talking about it, because I do think it is pretty ridiculous. I guess, to me, it is just an example of how the Republicans treat the county these days. The fact that on the same day [the Democrat and Chronicle] had a headline saying that the unemployment rate was the highest that it's been in December in 20 years, they're dressing up a guy in a chicken costume? It just seems that the level of arrogance is not going out with [County Executive] Jack Doyle. I think it's, I guess, kind of pitiful.
City: What's your timeline for picking a county executive candidate?
Clifford: There really isn't a timeline. Really, the only deadline we work with is our convention in May, because we have to be ready to pass petitions in June.
Now, obviously, I think everyone would love it if we had a candidate to announce now. Certainly the media is interested. But, in fact, if there were ever a time that we wanted to take our time deciding who's the best candidate, now is the time. The problems that the county faces are so dire, and it's such a big decision, but we're not holding anybody back. We have a great bunch of candidates who are out talking to their supporters and really trying to assess what their futures will hold, and that's OK.
City: Doesn't the delay put the candidate at a disadvantage, in terms of fundraising and exposure?
Clifford: I don't think so, and here's why. One, I'm a newly elected chair, and it's a good time for me to be able to go out and talk to Democratic Party supporters, start raising the money, start putting the organization together, so that when we have a candidate, we're really ready to go --- and that's what I have been doing.
While I think it's certainly nice to have a longer period of time to do all of that [fundraising and campaigning], it also can be more difficult, in that when you have a candidate, the campaign starts. People start saying, "Oh, that person shouldn't be saying that," "He shouldn't be saying this." It extends the life of the campaign in a way that maybe isn't the best way to go.
I'm not concerned.
City: What qualities should that candidate have?
Clifford: Obviously, they really need to have a plan and have a vision for the county. I think what we have seen over the past eight years is really a lack of vision, certainly some irresponsible fiscal policies that have left us with some terrible choices over the past couple of years, in terms of what our county budget picture looks like. So, they really need to display the leadership and the vision, because we know we're going to have significant financial challenges. They have to have the experience to be able to deal with the budget and with economic development, and be able to put those plans in place.
City: What do you mean by "vision"?
Clifford: For me, I believe that the way the Republicans have run things has been pretty much to convince people that government has no place in Monroe County, that the only thing people care about is no increase in the property tax. [County Republicans] have given terrific deals to their supporters, and at the end of the day, the county looks no better than it did eight or 10 years ago.
I think Mayor Johnson is a person like we would like our candidate to be, who started out his campaign in 1993 saying, "This is what we want in this city. We want a place that's livable. We want a place where neighborhoods are vibrant. We want a place where there are businesses on our street corners that are viable." That really puts together a specific plan. It's quality of life.
City: What should be the candidate's stand on taxes: raise them or keep them steady?
Clifford: I think it has to be both. I think they have to look at doing everything they can to keep the property tax as low as possible, but they can't rule [an increase] out as a matter of course, like the county executive has done. That's just an irresponsible way of dealing with government. I think that's why we've seen the [county's] credit rating downgraded the third time in a year.
There's a reality here that it takes more than just saying "No new taxes," because it's going to hurt us in the long run. It's already going to affect the cost of borrowing, and really have an impact on pretty much every measure of our financial success.
City: Who will the Republicans pick, [County Clerk Maggie] Brooks?
Clifford: I just have a hard time believing that after at least two years of grooming her, and her appearing for Jack at millions of events and being on the radio --- both politically and governmentally --- that they would go with anybody else. I suppose it's possible, but I don't see who that would be. Certainly, to me, they've made an investment of time and money in her. They don't seem to be the kind that just walk away from that.
City: Given the business community's desire for the mayor and county executive to get along, is Mayor Johnson too divisive a figure?
Clifford: I don't think so. I think if we look back, the Republicans have played much more divisive of a role. And, in fact, Bill Johnson was able to work with [Republican State Senator] Mike Nozzolio to get the fast ferry deal put together, and the soccer stadium deal put together. So, if you really look back at the history of the relationships there, it's been the mayor who's really tried to find a way to work around the Republicans.
You know, sometimes I think we'd all wish he might choose his words a little more carefully, [but] that's what we like about him. And that's nothing new about Bill Johnson. Bill Johnson has been a progressive, outspoken, firm leader in this community for 25 years... That's why he got elected, because he's not afraid to speak his mind. You don't like to be on the other end, but at the same time, I think there's a good core of people who go, "All right, Bill, you tell 'em. You give it to 'em." Which doesn't necessarily always make the party leader's job very easy, but... [laughs].
He, above all things, is honest about the way he feels and the way he deals with people. That may have been some of Jack's problem, too.
City: What will be the main issues of the exec race?
Clifford: Jobs, jobs, jobs. And rightly so, given the number of layoffs in pretty much every sector in the county... Along with that, I think education, to an extent, although it's much less of a county issue. I think that always affects people. Health care will continue, maybe more so, to be an issue for us, just given the fact that we have a very strong health care community, and I think it can be a very important part of our future. But also, obviously, the overwhelming cost of Medicaid and other social services. That's really a problem that's going to have to be addressed.
City: How can your party attract more suburban voters?
Clifford: Over the past few years, we have not been as aggressive as we could be in really talking and targeting town races and working with suburban voters. That's something that I'd really like to change.
I don't think it's something that we can do all in one fell swoop. Different suburban communities in the county have different issues that they're facing, and to me, some of them sort of lend themselves more to a Democratic vision. Some of our towns obviously are facing huge problems with development and traffic and sprawl and unchecked planning. I think those are places where the Republican administrations have not been very open and not done a lot to reach out and answer concerns that their citizens might have. So I think we have some opportunities in those places.
City: What strengths would suburban politicians like [State Assemblyman David] Koon [of Perinton] or [Brighton Town Supervisor Sandy] Frankel bring, as opposed to Johnson?
Clifford: Certainly they have a track record in being able to have non-traditional voters vote for them, and that is a strength. But I think that probably goes both ways. They're also lesser known in the city, so they would need to bring up their name recognition there. Similarly, Mayor Johnson would need to go out to their base and prove his case there, as well.
City: What's the state of relations in the Democratic caucus in the county lej? Has it gotten any better?
Clifford: I think it has gotten better. Their coming-together on the county budget was a good step forward.
Obviously, there are still hurt feelings over what happened, and I'm not sure that the level of trust is there yet, but that's not to say that it won't be. And given that everybody knows that the county executive's race is very important to us, it's important for us to all move forward. People, for the most part, are willing to put that behind and really focus on what the issues are.
City: Has José Cruz's ouster as minority leader caused lasting damage, as the mayor feared, or will it be forgotten by election day?
Clifford: I guess it's too early to tell. We have a number of very active Latino Democrats and elected officials. Both Jose and [City Councilwoman] Gladys Santiago and some of our activist types are very close to what goes on in the party and are really actively working to make sure that we hear their issues and that we're on the same page.
I think it's hard for some of those active Democrats to think about what happened and not take it a bit personally. But as with anything else, they want to work with us, we want to work with them.
We have some proving to do, I guess. This was a random thing. It's not indicative of the party's view of Latinos. In fact, we are very open; we have a good record of electing Latino candidates and being inclusive, so we need to continue that.
City: What, if anything, can you do to improve relations between Democrats on the school board?
Clifford: This is another case that, while we wish everyone would get along all the time, obviously it's not happening in this case. What it comes down to is, at the moment, you have two groups of people who really feel strongly about the way the school board ought to operate. I see my role --- because, in particular, it's an election year --- [as making] sure that the Democratic Party process and primary is as open and fair as it can be.
I have met with most of the school board members now, and I have said, "You've taken positions, and you need to defend them or explain them or talk about them as you would in any campaign or any election." And that "it's really up to our committee members and up to the voters to decide which direction they want their school board to go." That's not a bad thing.
In the Democratic Party, we are inclusive, and we do, in fact, occasionally encourage that open dialogue. Sometimes it gets maybe a little more heated than we would like, but that's not necessarily bad.