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Postmortem for a primary


It's less than 48 hours after the Democratic primary for mayor --- the party's most contentious primary in over a decade --- but you wouldn't know that from a glance around the party's headquarters.

The furnishings are still Spartan at the spacious new digs off University Avenue, but a rack of campaign literature has already been changed to reflect Tuesday night's results. Gone are keycards for the party's designated mayoral candidate, Wade Norwood, and City Council hopeful Lovely Warren. In their place are flyers for successful challengers Bob Duffy and John Lightfoot. And the routine, workaday atmosphere gives no indication that the party has just emerged from such a bruising contest.

One reason for this may be the finality of the primary. Barring a major surprise, Bob Duffy will be Rochester's next mayor. Democrats enjoy an overwhelming advantage in registered voters in the city. Duffy's victory in the Democratic primary all but ensures it in November. (Two other Democrats --- Tim Mains and Chris Maj --- will be on the November ballot on third-party lines, but they pulled a small percentage of votes in the primary. Attorney John Parrinello is the Republican candidate.)

What's less certain is the effect Duffy's victory will have on the internecine politics of his party. Nearly everybody with an official position in the party --- or the campaigns --- released immediate words of goodwill and called for party unity. And Chairman Joe Morelle betrayed only the slightest hint of hesitation using the phrase "Mayor Duffy" in a conversation about the party's plans for the future.

But speaking on WXXI election night as the numbers sealing Duffy's win rolled in, School Board member and sometime pundit Jim Bowers made this pronouncement: "The big loser in this is Joe Morelle."

The third party chair this year, Morelle supported Norwood first as co-chair of his campaign and then --- shortly after Norwood won the party's designation at its spring convention --- in his official capacity as chair. Bowers --- a Duffy backer --- says Morelle's support for a losing candidate will cost him credibility and maybe even his job. (That's a suggestion other Duffy supporters have privately made as well.)

"The party had to deliver" for candidates it designated at its convention, and when they lose, "that hurts the party," Bowers says. And that in turn hurts Morelle's chairmanship, he says: "That has to weaken people's expectations of him."

But Bowers is describing a party where Morelle and Gantt work the system to produce candidates aligned with them. The reality is more nuanced. Morelle and Gantt may be political allies for the time being, but the two have had their feuds in the past. And as often as not, Morelle has sided against Gantt and with Molly Clifford and others now in the Duffy camp.

Morelle takes predictions of his demise in stride.

"I'm not sure my political career is over, but I'll let other people decide," he says. But he does not seem worried. At Duffy's victory party, he says, plenty of his hitherto opponents pulled him aside to congratulate him for the job he's done as party chair. Morelle's term runs through next September, after which he's entertaining plans to run for another two year term.

"I'm not wedded to it, but it's my expectation," Morelle says.

As for the idea that he'd face resistance before then, Morelle has little patience.

"I'm not going to waste my time thinking about Jim Bowers or others who want a change," he says. "I think there'll be people in each of the camps who will have their personal agendas and will try to lay that over what's happening here." Then, as if in deference to his role as the party peacemaker, he adds: "We're going to work very hard to bring them together."

Morelle, along with many party-minded Democrats, will be saying things like that a lot in the next few months. If they're serious, they'll have to grapple with one obstacle to unity that dwarfs the rest: race.

Speaking to the Democrat and Chronicle in the aftermath of his protégé Wade Norwood's defeat, Assemblymember David Gantt cited race as the deciding factor. And that's true --- to a point. The districts Norwood took are majority black districts, just as those Duffy carried tend to be mainly white. But a closer look at the numbers shows that Duffy made inroads into predominantly minority communities; Norwood's margin of victory in the three districts he carried was less the Duffy's in many of his districts.

And race wouldn't be as huge an issue for the recuperating party if it hadn't been actively used in the campaign.

City Councilman Adam McFadden drew heavy criticism for creating Norwood shirts bearing the slogan "Don't sell out." They were widely viewed as being targeted at African Americans considering voting for Duffy. The comments section of WHAM radio talk-show host Bob Lonsberry's website sprouted racist attacks on Norwood. That in turn prompted the Norwood campaign to criticize Duffy for not distancing himself from Lonsberry. And Norwood received the last-minute blessing of civil-rights activist Al Sharpton. (Whether this helped or hurt is unclear; in New York City, which is big enough to have regular polls on this kind of thing, Sharpton's eleventh-hour endorsement of Fernando Ferrer appears to have hurt him more among whites than it helped him among blacks.)

Perhaps the biggest act of racial politics was reserved for the final days of the campaign, when a flyer bearing Gantt's photo instructed recipients to vote only for a slate of six candidates. All but one were black, and prominent white candidates, like Bill Pritchard and Carolee Conklin, who were also designated by the party, were left off.

That caused some, including Bowers, to see a "race-based strategy" on the part of Gantt and his supporters. Morelle downplays such notions. "I think race played less of a factor than people think," he says. But he is severe in his denunciation of the flyer.

"That piece of literature did not represent the feelings of the Democratic Party," he says, and then a moment later says it again. The flyer "was frankly just wrong," he adds.

Even if everybody in the party agreed with that, healing party divisions that have swelled to encompass racial animosity will not make the task of building unity any easier.