News & Opinion » Columns

Power play

An outsiders guide to the insider politics of the mayors race


It's all about David Gantt. It has nothing to do with David Gantt. Or maybe it's about Eliot Spitzer. It depends on who you ask.

In the Democrats' primary campaign for Rochester mayor, there are the politics you see, and then there are the politics you don't see. As people take sides, there's a lot more at stake in this race than the issues. Specifically, the balance of power within the party could be up for grabs. After a 12-year hiatus, the contest for the city's highest office --- and the highest local office easily available to a Democrat --- is something of an Olympics for the party's factions. And it's all but impossible for people active in the party to stay on the sidelines.

Talk to almost any Democratic Party insider, and the rap on outgoing Mayor Bill Johnson is that he wouldn't play politics. To most of us, that might not sound like a bad thing. But when your most prominent elected official doesn't raise money for the party or work to recruit candidates, the party activists say, that leaves the door open for factions to flourish.

"If he had exerted more control over the party, we might not be in the situation we are now," says outgoing School Board member and St. John Fisher political science professor Jim Bowers.

No matter whose side you're on or what you think of him, the single most powerful guy in the room is the dean of the region's state delegation, Assembly member David Gantt. For the past several years, Gantt and leaders viewed as loyal to him have controlled the votes at the county Dems' nominating convention.

Gantt professes to have little interest in being Rochester's kingmaker. But he's frequently been a polarizing figure. He ran a candidate against a sitting School Board member and fellow Democrat, Domingo Garcia, angering Hispanic Democrats and many non-Hispanics. He sparred with the school district over state aid. And he has particularly turned off some of the party's elite. Many of them cite the prospect of Gantt's influence over Wade Norwood, his former legislative aide, as their biggest turn-off to Norwood's candidacy for mayor.

"Wade can't separate himself from David," says School Board member and former party chair Rob Brown. And that, he says, leads him and others to fear "that David will control the city's policies."

Even if that's true, would it be a bad thing? Critics say yes, but the reasons are harder to come by and tend to be based on politics more than policy.

Among Norwood supporters, the argument is tainted by the assumption that Norwood and Gantt are inseparable.

"In some respects I find it very racist that because Wade Norwood is a black man and he's worked for David, that they're the same person," says County Legislator Bill Benet. "Lots of people who've battled with David are supporting Wade," including himself, he says.

But if the race has nothing to do with Gantt, why does his name keep cropping up?

Benet's explanation: "There are some people who don't like David who are using that to drum up support for Duffy" [former Police Chief Bob Duffy]. And he hints that some in the Duffy camp may be pitching a "David versus the party" narrative to the media to harm Wade by association.

Black and white,or shades of gray?

"People may not want to talk about it," says Gantt, "but this race is about race." Gantt has been around the party longer than most, which means he has a long memory of the party's internal struggles over the issue of race. He points to past incidents where African Americans were hampered in their attempt to serve on district committees, or redistricting that he says hindered representation in predominantly black neighborhoods.

But a conversation about race isn't welcome in the party, Gantt says.

"The leadership tried to shut me down when I tried to talk about it," he says. "If you wonder why I give this party hell, it's about justice and fairness."

He points to the slate of City Council candidates he's backing: a gay white man, a black man, a black woman, a white woman, and a Latina woman. "That's a balanced slate," says Gantt. "Look at it. There's real justice."

If he was motivated simply by race, he says, he could have assembled an all-black slate. That didn't happen "even though I had the votes to control it," he says.

But not everyone shares Gantt's view of race politics in the party.

"Contrary to how some would like to see it, it's not racially motivated," says Jim Bowers. "People against David aren't racially motivated."

Instead, he casts the conflict as purely a power struggle between two different groups of established players within the party.

The more powerful of the two --- at least for now, by Bowers' reckoning --- is the group around Gantt, a group that's backing Norwood.

The other, which recruited former Duffy to run, includes far fewer elected officials and currently doesn't hold much power in the party.

"They've been to the table, but they've not been full partners at the table," says Bowers. But the group Bowers calls the "old establishment" --- by which he means Norwood and his supporters, including most City Council members and Gantt --- aren't eager to relinquish any power.

Since Mayor Bill Johnson was a political loner who didn't have the backing of either faction when he won his primary, both have waited 12 years to control City Hall, says Bowers.

Courting Eliot Spitzer

Other kinds of political power at stake, too. State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is polling well against most potential Republican opponents in next year's race for governor. That means Rochester's race for mayor is also a fight to be the person Spitzer works through locally, assuming he's elected in 2006.

Local real estate agent and party activist Mark Siwiec is widely known to have ties to Spitzer and other prominent state Dems. He's also one of the group that recruited Duffy to run in the first place.

Meanwhile, the party's new chair, Assembly member Joe Morelle, needs to cement his relationship with Spitzer. Morelle is backing Norwood. The backer of the next mayor could be in a position to broker favors, like fundraising and appointments, flowing to and from a Spitzer administration in Albany.

"Joe is one of the smartest, most strategic guys around," says Rob Brown. "Morelle will see himself as a conduit to Spitzer."

Who cares?

All this may make for entertaining reading, but why should anyone care about these scuffles? As Brown says, "political infighting among the cognoscenti irritates" rank-and-file Dems.

Bowers answers the question with another question: "Which faction can be more of a threat to the Republicans in this county?"

For Bowers, that person is Duffy, who's been mentioned as a candidate for county executive down the road. (Duffy says he's not interested.) Others say Norwood's ability to bring together old foes like Morelle and Gantt shows he can forge a unified party with the ability to confront Republicans in the suburbs.

For proof that Dems need to refocus their efforts outward rather than inward, Bowers offers last year's county cut of school nurses in the predominantly Democratic city.

"The Republican majority could do it without touching their constituents," he says. That, says Bowers, is why Democrats should care about the factions in their party --- and about finding one that can effectively challenge Republicans at the county level.