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Commentary: Monroe County's Defective Democrats

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Democrats in Monroe County should be appalled at the shambles that is their party.

Less than a year ago, they came within a hair’s breadth of seizing both branches of county government for the first time in a generation, winning the county executive’s race and falling just one seat shy of taking the majority in the County Legislature.

The victories should have unified Democrats to work toward finishing the job in the future while pressuring Republican legislators to push a progressive agenda in the meantime.

Instead, the party has unraveled in spectacular fashion, spurred by a knock-down, drag-out brawl over who would be the party’s next county Board of Elections commissioner.
ILLUSTRATION BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • ILLUSTRATION BY RYAN WILLIAMSON

Recently, a majority of Democratic legislators ousted their ranking member, Legislator Vincent Felder, as their minority leader — a move that Felder, as of this writing, has refused to recognize as legitimate.

Then, in a startling display of chutzpah, four Democratic legislators who were tight with Felder declared themselves an independent caucus, effectively breaking away from their party colleagues.

To solidify their defection, they introduced a bill that would allow them to siphon to their bloc some $65,000 in funding that had been allocated to the Democratic legislative office to pay for clerks, computers, and other things the minority needs to function.



The defectors cast their split as a racial divide. They claimed to need their coalition, which they called the Black and Asian Caucus, to push “a bold progressive agenda” sensitive to the needs of people of color that they said have been ignored by County Executive Adam Bello and the mostly white legislators who ousted Felder.

They laid out a platform of diversifying county government, improving social and child protective services, and reforming county probation and criminal justice programs.

But make no mistake: Reform and progressivism had nothing to do with it. The mostly white Democratic legislators who ousted Felder have no record of voting against that platform and some of the planks were central themes of Bello’s campaign last year.

This is about a faction of Democrats aligned with Mayor Lovely Warren and the recently deceased Assembly member David Gantt that is losing control and devising ways to retain control. It is about holding on to power and the patronage jobs that come with it.

Over the course of Warren’s tenure as mayor, political operatives in the Warren-Gantt orbit found their way into key positions in local governments, mainly through formidable get-out-the-vote efforts mobilized by Gantt.

Felder, a legislative aide to Gantt, and the four defector Democratic county legislators were among them. Warren’s campaign manager, Brittaney Wells, became the chair of the Monroe County Democratic Party.

In the last year, though, candidates backed by the Warren-Gantt machine for a variety of offices did not fare well, losing to insurgents of all racial and ethnic stripes who galvanized progressive voters fed up with what they perceive as party-boss politics.

Even the Assembly seat Gantt held was lost.
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It is worth noting that insurgent candidates have also disrupted the other powerful Democratic machine in Monroe County operated by Rep. Joe Morelle and his protégés, namely Bello.

Against this backdrop, the job of Democratic elections commissioner opened up in March and was filled on an interim basis by Lashana Boose, a protégé of Warren and Gantt. She filled in by virtue of being the deputy commissioner, a post she had been given with little experience just six months earlier.

Installing Boose on a permanent basis was a chance for the Warren-Gantt camp to consolidate power. The post oversees about 25 patronage jobs, many of which Boose filled during her interim tenure.

As of this writing, however, the Democratic legislators who ousted Felder appointed City Council member Jackie Ortiz, whom members of the county Democratic Party elected to be the next commissioner.

September will likely see the breakaway Democratic legislators contest that appointment and the ouster of Felder; the Republican legislators, who would be crazy to pass up a chance to sow discord among the opposition, hand the defectors the independent caucus want, and a lot more chaos in a Democratic Party that was poised for a resurgence.

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