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Revolving chair


For Joe Morelle to assume the Democratic Party's reins is either its death knell or the first step toward recovery.

The state assemblymember from Irondequoit is next in line to brave the revolving door that is the party's top job. Molly Clifford resigned as Monroe County Democratic Party chair three months ago, and two weeks ago --- just days after a contentious designating convention --- so did Rick Dollinger. Last Thursday, Morelle announced that he wants the position. And he pretty much has it locked up: Several people mulling a bid dropped their plans after he went public.

When Morelle takes over, he'll inherit a party that --- to put it bluntly --- is struggling. For starters, the Monroe Democrats don't exactly have money to burn. In fact, they're in debt to the tune of "a couple of grand," according to Colleen McCarthy, their press secretary. McCarthy wouldn't offer a specific amount, but she says that with the rapid turnover of chairs, the party has fallen behind on fundraising. Normally by this time of year, Democrats have held three fundraisers. This year's grand total? Zero.

"We're totally behind the eight ball," McCarthy says.

Then there are the bitter divisions within the party.

"The political will of our party has never been stronger," Morelle said in his Thursday press conference. What he didn't say --- but could've --- is that Dems are using that political will against one another as much as against the Republicans. Choosing a leader just as a three-way mayoral primary is heating up is unusual, to say the least. The divisions that split along the fault lines of that race will inevitably define the beginning of the new chair's tenure.

Morelle, in fact, has been at the head of one of those fault lines, as co-chair of Wade Norwood's campaign. At the press conference, he said that as party chair, he'll "step back" from chairing Norwood's campaign. But he'll have to do more than that to keep Dems working together.

His strategy? "The best thing that you can do is have a forum where people can be heard," he says. "It's about mutual respect, mutual understanding, and a common purpose."

It's also about money. Besides creating divisions, the mayoral primary will expend plenty of campaign contributions that could have been spent in other races.

"The primary role of the party is to provide resources for candidates," Morelle says. The quality and length of his tenure will depend as much on whether he can provide those resources as on his ability to bring competing factions together.

On that count, almost everyone sings his praises.

"He has the extraordinary ability to raise money," says Rob Brown, retiring school board member and a former chair himself.

"The guy is good," says County Legislature Minority Leader Stephanie Aldersley. "The guy is really, really good. Our worries about not having money are over."

That may or may not be the case, but as Aldersley knows well, there's one more hurdle for Morelle to cross. Once that money is raised, he has to distribute it in ways that benefit the whole party. As CountyLej candidate George Moses puts it, "The party is always more important that the individual."

That's something local Republicans learned a long time ago under the leadership of Steve Minarik. (In fairness to the Dems, the fact that their stronghold is mainly in the heavily Democratic city makes it far easier to wage primaries against each other than to mount a coordinated campaign to control the towns and the CountyLegislature.) To refocus attention on the good of the entire party and make inroads in the suburbs the Dems may need a leader who can enforce some discipline. Can Morelle do that?

"I'm sure he's capable of it," says term-limited County Legislator Kevin Murray. Morelle may be one of the few local leaders with the base to wield that kind of power; he has closer ties to business than many Dems, and reportedly has good relationships with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and state party chair Denny Farrell. He's also "generally well-liked within the party," says Brown.

Still, he'll have to carefully tread a middle path while he's earning trust party-wide; "well-liked" may not cut it if candidates or committee-members feel Morelle's putting his own political career ahead of the whole party's good. (Some in the party are convinced Morelle is positioning himself to make a run for Congress or be in a position to broker favors flowing from an Eliot Spitzer state administration.)

"If you become chair, those interests go out the window," says City Councilmember Adam McFadden.

Is Morelle up to the task? Only time will tell, but most Dems are lining up to support him enthusiastically a week before he's officially chair. And most observers say that Morelle wouldn't have taken the job if he thought he couldn't handle the risks.

"He's certainly one of the most savvy politicians in the Rochester area," says Brown.

If savvy's not enough? A failed Morelle chairmanship could push a struggling party over the brink of irrelevance.