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Politics: The price of influence


Democrats who voted to oust José Cruz as minority leader of the County Legislature hoped his demotion would grant them freedom. That is, freedom from the influence Democrats at the city and state levels were exerting on their caucus. Instead, the uproar from that vote may have freed them from the opportunity to advance their political careers this year.

            Cruz's critics complained that he didn't communicate enough with Democrats inside the caucus --- and that he communicated too much with Democrats outside the caucus.

            "The change in leadership was also an expression of the caucus's desire to operate as a free and independent body, not one beholden to any particular faction within the Democratic Party," new Minority Leader Stephanie Aldersley wrote in a July 11 op-ed piece in the Democrat and Chronicle. "In recent months, it has been clear that some party officials were attempting to exert an influence within the caucus that the majority of us were simply not comfortable with."

            In an interview, Aldersley said some caucus members were particularly uncomfortable with heavy-handed lobbying on behalf of Cruz before he was elected minority leader last November. "I had three different [caucus] members tell me they have been told by outsiders that if they didn't support José, their political careers would be ended --- they would be, quote-unquote, 'crushed,'" she said.

            Aldersley said she values collaboration among Democrats serving in different levels of government. But when it comes to making leadership decisions within each level, she said, those choices should be free of outside influence. "What if I decide, 'Gosh, I have a good friend on City Council,'" she said. "As minority leader, to come to City Council and say, 'That person should be head of City Council,' that would be improper."

            "Intergovernmental communication is important, and even intergovernmental influence," Aldersley said. "When it becomes less effective is in the use of cronyism. That ultimately leads to decision-making being concentrated in a small circle of close friends. You don't get the breadth of wisdom you need to make good decisions. To say to individuals, 'You vote for my friend or I'll see to it that you're ruined,' that is not appropriate political action."

In a scathing June 26 letter to Aldersley and the "conspirators" who voted Cruz out, Mayor Bill Johnson took his fellow Democrats to task. What happens in the Democratic caucus "is my business," Johnson wrote. He cited his fundraising and political work on their behalf and said: "I made a personal investment in most of you, and asked for only one thing in return: that you act with integrity and intelligence. You did not act with integrity when you blind sided José Cruz."

            "It is my business that you know how to ask for money," Johnson wrote, "but not for guidance and advice before doing something that was so incredibly stupid that it defies logic."

            In her D&C piece, Aldersley cites Johnson's letter as "proof" of Johnson's "desire for control" of the caucus. But in the interview with City Newspaper, she said she wasn't aware of any lobbying the mayor did himself. Rather, she mentioned Johnson's friend and political supporter, Ken Warner, and Democratic Assemblyman Joe Morelle of Irondequoit as pro-Cruz lobbyists.

            Johnson did not return calls seeking comment. Morelle says he did advocate for Cruz's leadership in conversations with caucus members, but he denies ever using threatening language. "I don't have the ability to 'crush' anybody," he says. "I don't use that language." Offering advice, however, "is part of my responsibility as an elected official and a concerned Democrat."

            Warner, a Democratic operative who works for the Rochester Building Trades Council, also agrees that he advocated for Cruz among caucus members. But he denies making political threats and downplays any influence he may have. "Do I try to help José? Yes," he says. "Have I walked the streets for him and gone door-to-door handing out his literature? Yes. Does he listen to my every word? No."

            Concerning some County Legislators' discomfort with intra-party advocacy, Warner says: "Special interests are only bad when they're not your interests. Cooperation and working together are called 'influence' when it's not on your side."

            Morelle and Aldersley seem to find themselves on different sides these days, but neither politician professes to know why. Both mention a falling out last summer, when Morelle quit as manager of Aldersley's legislative campaign after the two disagreed about --- of all things --- the proper size of a campaign postcard.

            "He told me ordering a postcard he didn't like was evidence I would not do as he said," Aldersley says. "Because he wanted us to be friends, he said he thought it better that he not run my campaign. But I don't know what had happened, really."

Morelle didn't elaborate on the postcard tiff. But he did say he suspects that Aldersley is unhappy with leadership advice he gave her --- at her request --- after she won re-election last November. Morelle says he advised her not to seek the minority leadership post because her re-election victory was too narrow (she won by 66 votes), and thus she had no mandate to lead the caucus. He says he suggested an assistant leadership post, instead.

            Of course, when Aldersley announced last spring that she was considering challenging Morelle in a primary for his Assembly seat, it's safe to assume he was less than thrilled.

            Instead, Aldersley has decided to run for Congress against Republican James Walsh of Syracuse. Aldersley may have hoped that becoming minority leader would help her Congressional bid more than angering Morelle would hurt it. But the flack that's erupted over Cruz's removal has cast a cloud over that race, as well.

            A June 30 D&C article quoted Johnson declaring that he would "not waste a penny" on Aldersley's challenge to Walsh, a campaign Johnson called a "hopeless political race." In his letter to Aldersley, he wrote: "I do not know how you can expect anyone outside of your small circle to support you and your colleagues ever again."

            "The mayor has a very important political role to play in the entire region," Aldersley says. "In terms of my own Congressional race, would I be delighted if the mayor and I make amends and move forward? Of course I would." All the same, she noted that the newly drawn district she hopes to represent does not include the City of Rochester.

            Another fall election campaign will involve portions of the city, however: the race for the 56th district state Senate seat. Democratic County Legislator Christopher Wilmot --- who also voted to oust Cruz --- considered running for that seat, but decided not to. Aldersley says the falling out with the mayor "played a role" in Wilmot's decision. Wilmot wouldn't go so far as to call it "a factor," but did concede that it "wouldn't have helped." Wilmot is now considering running for Rochester mayor in 2005. (Johnson has said he won't run for re-election.)

            "Relationships are always two-way streets," says Morelle, whose Assembly district overlaps with the state Senate district Wilmot was considering representing. "If someone wants support for a role in the state Senate after going through a very secretive process that upended someone important to the party, you take a second look at that."

            "If there's maybe one good lesson" that came out of the whole affair, says Wilmot, it's this: "It's best that we all try to stay out of each other's business as much as possible."

            Commenting on the effect the Democratic spat might have after this year's political season, Aldersley says, "Unfortunately, but sometimes fortunately, we politicians have short memories."