Legislature primaries precede bigger contest
Local Democrats are making their hardest push in at least a decade to take control of the Monroe County Legislature; the last time the party held the county executive's seat or a majority in the Legislature was in the 1990's.
The party has a full ticket, with candidates for all but one of the Lej seats and strong candidates at the top: County Clerk Adam Bello will take on incumbent Republican County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, and Shani Curry Mitchell is running against incumbent Republican District Attorney Sandra Doorley.
All 29 Legislature seats are up this year, and working the county exec race into the equation, there could be one of four outcomes: a Republican executive with a Republican-controlled legislature, a Republican executive with a Democratic-majority Legislature, a Democratic exec and Legislature, and a Democratic executive with a Republican-led Legislature.
But while Democrats are starting their big push, they're also facing six Legislature primaries. One of them is in a district that covers parts of Henrietta and Pittsford, but the others center on city neighborhoods. The winner in most of those races will not have a general-election opponent.
Democrats have already laid out key points for the general election. They've argued that the Republican-led county government hasn't been honest about the budget and property taxes. They say the county's approach to economic development has been scattershot and ineffective, and they say they want initiatives that are more focused.
They're also arguing that the administration and Republican majority haven't done enough to address understaffing and high caseloads in the county's Children Protective Services division. And they've pledged to better fund county preschool early intervention services and day care subsidies.
And that's the background against which the Democratic Legislature primaries are occurring. The candidates in those races differ less on issues than on personality, approach, and background. A few of the races have been contentious.
The 23rd District has the only three-way race of the bunch, and the candidates have all been campaigning hard in its neighborhoods. The district's Democratic committee designated Linda Hasman for the seat, but Scotty Ginett has picked up endorsements from some key party leaders, including City Council Vice President Willie Joe Lightfoot and City Council member Mitch Gruber. Todd Grady, the third candidate in the race, is running a grassroots campaign.
Victor Sanchez, the designated candidate in the 21st district, is up against a well-known challenger, former journalist Rachel Barnhart. The two squared off during the designating process, and some of Barnhart's supporters protested the outcome due to what they said were voting irregularities. They asked the party to refrain from designating a candidate in the race, but leaders argued that the process was above board and stood by the outcome.
Barnhart and Sanchez turned their focus to campaigning quickly. Sanchez has stuck to a theme of working with other Democrats to accomplish a mutual agenda, and he's appeared at events with some of the party's prominent office holders.
Barnhart is running the same sort of grassroots, social-media-savvy campaign she has in previous elections. She continues her emphasis on government accountability, getting money out of local politics, and making better use of the county's fiber optic network. To her supporters, Barnhart's willingness to confront people in power is appealing, but privately some Democratic legislators say they're concerned that Barnhart may not be a team player if she's elected.
The 26th District race is a rematch of the 2015 general election contest between Yversha Roman and Tony Micciche, but with a twist. Micciche was first elected to the Legislature as a Republican, and he won the 2015 race as a Republican. He joined the Democrats in October 2018, however, saying he was frustrated with his party.
Roman, who describes herself as a lifelong Democrat, had a strong, immediate reaction to his switch. In a statement, she said she was troubled by Micciche's decision to join the party "after years of bashing our values." When Micciche launched his 2017 mayoral campaign, he said he was running to challenge "legacy of failed Democrat philosophy," according to a Democrat and Chronicle report on the event.
Micciche also has the Monroe County Libertarian Party's backing, so he could appear on the November ballot even if he loses the Democratic Primary. The same is true of Roman, who has the Working Families Party line. There's also a Republican candidate in the general election: Orlando Rivera.
Parts of Henrietta and Pittsford
Yudelson is the party-designated candidate in the race and should be familiar to Henrietta residents. He's a former Republican who served as the town's recreation department director and as a town board member. He was town supervisor from 2008 through 2013, but he lost a Republican primary to Jack Moore. Yudelson joined the Democratic Party in October 2013.
Prior to his time as Henrietta supervisor, Yudelson was operations director for the Center for Youth Services. He's currently the executive director of Temple B'rith Kodesh, a position he's held since late 2016.
Steg, who has a master's degree in mechanical engineering from RIT, is a project manager for Harris Corp. Steg ran unsuccessfully for the Pittsford Town Board in 2013. He's also a volunteer at the city's Verona Street Animal Shelter, and while he emphasizes many of the same issues and ideas as other Democratic candidates, he also incorporates animal welfare into his platform.
Specifically, he wants a county law prohibiting animal abusers from owning or adopting pets in Monroe County. Other Democratic legislators have proposed similar laws over the years.
North Winton Village, Beechwood, and Bensonhurst neighborhoods
Sanchez is the party-designated candidate in this race. He works for Wegmans in the company's development group, where he's a building information modeling coordinator. He's also co-chair of the RocCity Coalition young professionals group, and he represents the coalition on the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council and on the ROC the Riverway advisory committee. He's also on the Reimagine RTS advisory committee.
Sanchez, who is gay, volunteers with the Human Rights Campaign and is on the board of Trillium Health.
Barnhart has a high level of public recognition because of her years as a hard-charging reporter; she spent most of her 18 years on television working at either WROC Channel 8 or WHAM Channel 13. She entered the world of politics in 2016, when she primaried Assembly member Harry Bronson; she lost that race, as well as the 2017 mayoral primary and the 2018 primary for the late Louise Slaughter's House seat, both of which she ran in.
She's positioned herself as a progressive, independent-minded Democrat who's not tied to the party's top leaders; she's often critical of them, particularly when it comes to matters of money in politics. In general, Barnhart uses her profile and platforms to speak out on government ethics, campaign finance reform, mass transit, and economic development practices.
Monroe Avenue, Park Avenue, Cobbs Hill, Browncroft, a sliver of Brighton
Hasman is the designated candidate in this three-way race. She's currently the assistant director for research and clinical development at the University of Rochester Medical Center's Miner Library and previously worked at the National Institutes of Health's clinical research library in Bethesda, Maryland. She's pursuing her master's degree in public health at UR.
In her campaign, Hasman has linked the health and safety of children, the aging, and other vulnerable populations with key county social service programs. Hasman is also a former member of the ABC Streets Neighborhood Association board.
Ginett is a branch operations coordinator for M&T Bank and previously held several positions in a staffing and job recruitment company, though he emphasizes his volunteer and advocacy work. Last year, he began serving on the City of Rochester's ethics board and before that he was on the young professionals' advisory board of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Ginett, who is gay, helped the Center for Youth raise funding to establish a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth, and in 2016 and 2017, he organized memorials for the Pulse Nightclub shooting. For eight years he organized a World AIDS Day benefit concert.
Grady's background is in journalism, in public relations and marketing, and in real estate. He spent seven years writing about business for the Democrat and Chronicle; the county economic development agency and airport were parts of his beat. He's also a former communications director for the Rochester Business Alliance – now the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce – and was involved with the launch of Unshackle Upstate, a coalition that advocates for upstate business interests and against tax and fee increases.
Grady currently works in residential real estate sales. He emphasizes collaboration and non-partisanship to address issues in county government and in the community.
High Falls, Corn Hill, Plymouth-Exchange, Parts of South Wedge and Center City
(No website found)
Bryant is a community integration manager at Lifetime Assistance and is a former US Marine, as well as a small business owner, according to a flier for his campaign. He emphasizes several of the same issues as other Democrats running for Legislature seats, though in a flyer he promises to advocate for "advanced transportation services" through Monroe County.
(No website found)
Lightfoot is the party's designated candidate for the seat. He has served as the 25th District legislator since 2012 and served on City Council from 2006 to 2010. In 2013, he was one of the Democratic representatives on the County Legislature's Charter Review Commission. He's also assistant leader of the Legislature's Democratic caucus.
Charlotte, Maplewood, parts of Gates and Greece
Micciche is the incumbent in the race. He was first elected to the seat in 2011 as a Republican, unseating a Democratic incumbent. He was reelected in 2015, again as the GOP candidate, when he faced a challenge from Democrat Yversha Roman.
He joined the Democratic Party in October 2018, saying he had become disillusioned with the local Republican Party. Micciche worked for General Motors for 25 years and invests in City of Rochester residential properties. He's also a member of several community organizations.
Roman is the party's designated candidate. She works at United Way as a relationship manager and formerly was assistant director of school-based programs at the Center For Youth.
Roman began advocacy and organizing work in her community when she was 13, starting a youth group at St. Michael's Church. At 15, she worked as an HIV and AIDS peer educator through Action for a Better Community. She's currently the leader of the city Legislative Districts 7 and 26 Democratic Committee.
19th Ward, Dutchtown
Dukes works for Buffalo-based Person Centered Services as a care coordinator for children and adults with developmental, intellectual, and mental health disabilities. Before that, she worked in the Urban League of Rochester's developmental disabilities department and as an assistant program coordinator at Quad A for Kids.
She currently volunteers with Action for a Better Community's New Directions Program. She emphasizes the need to develop policies aimed at dismantling system poverty throughout Monroe County.
LaMar was recently appointed to the Legislature's 27th District seat after the incumbent, LaShay Harris, resigned to fill a vacancy on City Council. She is project coordinator for the Community Engagement to Reduce Victimization (CERV) project at RIT's Center for Public Safety Initiatives.
She also chairs the education committee of the ROC Against Gun Violence Coalition and is the assistant director of Rise UP Rochester, an all-volunteer group that promotes non-violent culture and provides support to families of homicide victims. LaMar also has an accounting background and is a proponent of development without displacement.
School board candidates face a skeptical public
Every election has twists and turns, but this year's election for Rochester school board is among the strangest in recent memory. The election is taking place at the same time that Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren is calling for the state to get rid of the board and take over the district for a few years.
In the June 25 Democratic primary, 10 candidates are running for four of the board's seven seats, including three of the incumbents: Judith Davis, Willa Powell, and Beatriz LeBron. Incumbent Liz Hallmark, who is completing her first term on the board, is not seeking reelection.
Davis, Howard Eagle, Andria Bryant, and Clifford Florence are running as a slate. Also running, independently: Robert Hoggard, Amy Maloy, and Ricardo Adams. (Board president Van White is running for City Court judge. And if he wins, another school board seat could become vacant in January 2020.)
All of the candidates object to the proposed state takeover of the district. The improvements needed in city schools, they say, must come from community-driven, home-grown solutions rather than a state intervention.
And some of them argue that many of the problems facing Rochester's children and their families – violence in their neighborhoods, lack of affordable housing, and lack of job opportunities – are areas Warren should be focusing on because they, too, are affecting students.
Each of the candidates say they agree with most of the findings in Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino's report concerning the district's problems. And they say they want to help the district's new superintendent, Terry Dade, implement Aquino's recommendations.
But the next board, which potentially could have several new members, will face some of the most serious challenges in recent memory. And that's if the board exists six months from now.
The board has long been the target of sharp criticism, some of it legitimate, some not. But a report on the district's failures in special education followed by an investigation into the death of School 12 student Trevyan Rowe shook the community.
After Aquino's stinging report on the district's problems was released last fall, confidence in the Rochester school board sank to a new low. The district's past problems will make it extremely hard, maybe impossible at this point, to convince some voters that an elected school board can lead the district.
Here's why: Among Aquino's concerns was board members' inability to work together, lack of understanding of their role, lack of accountability throughout the organization, and frequent changes in leadership.
Many critics say the board's job is to set policy, not get involved in day-to-day operations. But some current board members argue that claims of micromanaging the superintendent and intervening into daily management are overblown. Board president White insists that state education law doesn't prevent school boards from having a heavy hand in school district management. And the state education laws delineating the "powers and duties" of school boards vs. superintendents aren't crystal clear.
If anything, White says, the board has sometimes given superintendents too much autonomy and approved their requests without questioning them.
And he says improvements in graduation rates and reductions in suspensions have been minimized, if not dismissed. The graduation rate is on the cusp of breaking 60 percent, he says.
But White's efforts to repair the board's image have been plagued by infighting. Some board members have gone rogue, holding their own press conferences and writing op-eds and letters to state officials that publicly disparage their fellow board members.
Longtime board member Willa Powell says a big problem the board dealt with during the last few years was a result of multiple changes within the board itself. Natalie Sheppard won election to the board in 2017, replacing longtime board member Jose Cruz, who did not seek re-election. Two other board members – Mary Adams and Malik Evans (now a member of City Council) left before the end of their terms, and in January 2018, Beatriz LeBron and Melanie Funchess were appointed to replace them. In the November 2018 election, however, Judith Davis defeated Funchess.
The frequent change made relationship building difficult and a division developed between some of the old and new board members, Powell says, and it's taken time to develop working relationships.
The current school board candidates, then, are trying to prevail in an emotionally charged time. And regardless of the controversy about the district's future, the next school board will have to deal with some serious issues. Of the district's 48 schools, 14 are in "receivership," meaning that they've been persistently among the lowest performing in the state. While the state took seven schools off the receivership list this year, it added 10 new ones.
There's also the challenge of keeping the schools that have made progress from slipping backward.
The district is getting pressure to adopt a variety of different reforms. Some parents and residents want neighborhood schools. Some want community schools with wrap-around services. Some activists want schools to be more autonomous and to be led by teachers.
Costs that have little to do with instruction are rising rapidly. Transportation costs, for instance, are now running close to $100 million annually, according to Interim Superintendent Daniel Lowengard. And many families, especially those advocating for neighborhood and community schools, are pushing for busing all students, which could raise the costs further.
Though Distinguished Educator Aquino recently praised the district for making substantial improvements in special education, many problems remain in that area.
The next board will be working with a new superintendent, who is not only new to the job, but also new to Rochester, its students and families, and the community. He'll need plenty of support settling into the job and the area.
Voters, many of whom are clearly frustrated and tired of hearing about the district's problems, face some tough decisions. Some candidates have a lot of experience, but others have little. If White leaves, the board will have even fewer experienced members.
And new board members will have a steep learning curve, learning about district operations and building productive relationships with each other and the superintendent.
In addition, the next board will have someone watching them who wasn't a voter: State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, whom they'll have to convince that they can implement Aquino's recommendations and put the district firmly on a path to success.
The slightest hint of infighting, grandstanding, and foolishness will give Elia, the regents, and the district's many critics clearance to go to lawmakers and demand action.
School board candidates
A volunteer in city schools for the past eight years, Adams is married to former school board member Mary Adams. They have three daughters, two of whom are still in city schools.
"I have a sense of obligation to this community," Adams says, "and this is what I have to do. I'm in the schools and I'm in touch. I see what's working and what's not. I don't have an agenda."
"I'm not a miracle worker," he says. "But I can bring people together, and that's what we need right now. We need to work together for our kids. They are depending on us."
A day-care provider in her home, Bryant is the mother of four children who have graduated from city schools. She's now a grandparent.
"I'm doing this out of a love for the children," Bryant says. "I believe in the report that the distinguished educator gave us. I believe in that report 110 percent."
Bryant says she was a single mother raising four children and she knows what many district parents face. They love their children, but they're working hard and don't have a lot of time, she says.
The district has not done enough to reach out to parents, Bryant says. "I never had anybody come to me."
An incumbent, Davis was elected last year to complete former board member Mary Adams' term, defeating appointed board member Melanie Funchess. She is running for a full term now, on a slate with Howard Eagle, Andria Bryant, and Clifford Florence.
Davis voted against the 2019-2020 budget. "I came to the conclusion that we didn't have a strategic plan," she says, "and the budget was supposed to reflect the plan, but we didn't have one."
She has focused a lot of her attention on the effect racism has on city schools, students, and families. "I don't think that we can ignore that we've all been raised in a society with racism," Davis says. "Our over-suspension was based on implicit bias, a belief system of white principals and teachers."
A long-time community activist who has run for school board several times, Eagle is a member of the Take It Down Planning Committee, Faith Community Alliance, and Movement Anti-Ministry Action. He is the father of three sons who have attended city schools; one will soon be graduating from East Upper High School.
"When I ran in 2013," he says, "I had sworn I wasn't going to run again. I wanted to engage in a process that would groom other candidates." But he was more or less drafted in an effort to take all four seats as a slate, he says, "because that's how decisions are made: it takes four votes."
"Our focus is to implement what Dr. Aquino has laid out in his report, all 11 points. We need systemic change."
The associate minister of the Central Church of Christ, Florence has over 25 years of service in the church, according to his website. He is active in community outreach, particularly in the areas of youth development, school reform, and parental involvement. He is currently chairman of Community Advocates for Educational Excellence.
Florence did not respond to requests for an interview in time for this article.
Hall has a daughter in city schools and a son who attends a charter school. He works with the City of Rochester as a Youth Intervention Gang Specialist.
"We intervene in disputes in schools and in the community," Hall says, "and we try to work with victims to find wrap-around services. And we try to defuse things so there are no future attacks."
Hall says he is concerned that so many of Rochester's black and brown children have so little opportunity. "The only way Rochester will thrive in the future is if we help our children succeed," Hall says. "A lot of companies don't come here and set up shop because of our schools and low graduation rate."
Because of his extensive work with families, he says, he thinks he could be a bridge between the district's families and the resources they need.
A full-time graduate student working on a doctorate degree at the University of Rochester, Hoggard is, as he says, "the youngest person in this race."
"Normally, he says, "a PhD student wouldn't be doing this. But I looked at the Trevyan Rowe report and the investigation into his death and then the Aquino report and what's happening to our children, and I had to step forward."
He says he's focusing his campaign on poverty, lack of affordable housing, and lack of opportunity. Many things outside of the classroom are making it harder to educate city children, he says.
"Central office is too big," he says, and "there are not enough social workers."
An incumbent, LeBron was appointed to the board in early 2018 to fill a vacancy left when Malik Evans joined City Council. She ran again in November 2018 to complete Evans' term and is now running to keep her seat on the board.
LeBron is a community health worker with Rochester Regional Health and is a parent of three children, one of whom is still a student in the district. She says her work with Rochester Regional Health and her board service have given her an insight into the district, its teachers, administrators, and families.
"I've worked in shelters and non-profit agencies advocating for people, mostly families and children, needing services," she says.
The board's focus needs to be on supporting new Superintendent Terry Dade, she says, and on policies and the budget. "I'm always asking 'Can we afford this? Is there data that supports this?'"
A teacher for the past 20 years, Maloy currently teaches in the Brighton school district. Her four children attend city schools.
She says the school board needs to be more unified and says she considers herself "very collaborative."
"I was inspired to run because of the board dysfunction," she says. "I don't think a board should rubber-stamp things. But undermining the superintendent's leadership causes more chaos and more instability."
Many good things that happen in all schools that never get reported, Maloy says. "We have some real gems. I would like to see School 58's experiential learning model replicated. We're starting to see some great community schools like School 17. And there's the East-UR partnership, and I think that kind of partnership is the future."
It's too easy to blame teachers for problems in the district, she says. "I see how hard they work."
An incumbent who has been elected to the school board five times, Powell has served on the board for 20 years. Her four children have attended city schools.
Critics "want to blame the old timers," Powell says. "But the scrutiny that the district has been under makes it really difficult to get truly qualified candidates to run for office."
"Now is not the time to walk away," she says. "I offer a steady hand of experience, wisdom, and collaboration at a time when the board lacks experience and team building."
Like the other candidates in the race, Powell opposes the proposal to have the state dissolve the school board and take over the district's operations. "When liberal, progressive people say democracy is a small price to pay as they dissolve an elected body," she says, "that's really, really dangerous, particularly at this time."
Dinolfo v. Bello: the primary is no preview
It's tempting to look at the June 25 Independence Party primary in the county executive's race as a preview of the general election; that's what one local TV news crew did. After all, the two candidates in the general election – Democratic County Clerk Adam Bello and incumbent Republican Cheryl Dinolfo – are fighting it out for the party's line.
But the race is hardly a preview of the coming general. Monroe County has approximately 457,000 registered voters, but only 4.5 percent of them – around 20,500 – are registered in the Independence Party. By contrast, 41.4 percent of county voters are registered as Democrats, 27.6 percent are registered Republicans, and 24 percent aren't registered in a party at all.
Only the fraction of voters registered in the Independence Party can vote in its primary. And it's unlikely that all of them will.
What's really at stake in this race is a strategic advantage.
The Independence Party line can help candidates win general elections, because some voters associate it with billionaire founder Tom Golisano's prolonged campaign against high property taxes, but also because some voters mistake it as "independent."
That's why Bello and Dinolfo both sought out and – through an arcane bit of New York State election laws – received the party's designation. Dinolfo got the local committee's backing and Bello got the state committee's blessing. Judges at a couple of levels of the state court system ruled that both designations were valid, clearing the way for the primary.
New York political parties will hold primary elections for numerous local offices on June 25, selecting their candidates for the November general election.
Among them will be Democratic primaries for four Rochester school board seats and several County Legislature seats, and an Independence Party primary for county executive.
Polling hours for primaries are shorter than for general elections: noon to 9 p.m. In New York State, to vote in a party's primary you have to be registered in that party. So in the Democratic primary for City Council, only registered Democrats can vote. In the Independence Party primary, only people registered in that party can vote. And it's too late to change party registration for this primary.