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Switch hitter: A lefty gets it right?


Bill Smith still remembers the moment he began to think that one of his Democratic colleagues in the county legislature might make a good Republican.

Recalling a casual policy discussion he was having with Chris Wilmot, the Republican majority leader describes Wilmot's dialogue as "very lucid and a very insightful analysis of what the core issues were."

"I kind of stopped for a second after he [spoke] and I said, 'You know, you're starting to sound a lot like a Republican.' I said 'You'd better be careful where you say these things; you're going to get in trouble with the Democratic Party.'"

A year and a half later, Wilmot need no longer worry about getting in trouble with the Democratic Party; last Friday, the term-limited county legislator announced he's switching his party registration to Republican.

Wilmot's involvement in the Democratic Party dates back to one of Gary Hart's campaigns for president in the 1980s: "Even though it wasn't successful, it was an exciting time in my life." Wilmot's tone verges on the wistful as he adds: "I loved the Democratic Party and I believed in it, and even today I still believe in it in many respects."

But that love affair has been waning for a long time; Wilmot had been contemplating a move across the aisle for more than a year. While admitting that he made his decision partly on "personal" grounds, Wilmot cites feelings of alienation --- along with his sense of a growing philosophical rift with the party --- as his primary motivation to make the switch.

"I felt kind of pushed out of the party in certain respects, and felt like I've been treated like an outsider in some respects," he says.

Perhaps the final straw came last month, when county legislators Carla Palumbo and Calvin Lee were elected assistant minority leaders, a post Chris had held for years. Though both Wilmot and party leadership stick to the statement made at that time --- that Wilmot and Fred Amato (also term-limited) stepped down to make room for fresh blood --- the move also freed Wilmot to reconsider his place in the Democratic camp.

"It gave me a new opportunity to take a real look at what I want to do in politics during my final year in the legislature," says Wilmot.

That's when his thoughts likely turned to the issue that divided him from the rest of the local Dems: his fiscal conservatism.

"In terms of economic and tax issues and job issues, I've been trying in the local Democratic Party to create a bit of a sea change, if you will," he says. But Wilmot felt stymied in those efforts by a party he feels doesn't agree with the value he places on helping the private sector.

"I think that both parties, but especially the Democratic Party, should have a better eye on what the business community needs," since businesses, not government, are the primary economic engines, he says. "I do think that the local Democratic Party has not done enough to reach out their hand to business and say 'Without giving away the store, what can we do to help you create jobs?'"

And while he shies away from directly attacking his recent Democratic colleagues, his conviction on the issue comes through clearly.

"I don't think the local Democrats are necessarily anti-business, but I would say this: I don't think they're pro-business," he says. "There are times that I've felt that the local Democratic Party is too beholden to, and too frightened by, the public employees unions locally and at the state level." As a consequence, he adds, "it's difficult for Democrats to get out in front on issues of streamlining the size of government, making it less costly."

Those are twin assertions that Monroe County Democratic Committee Chair Molly Clifford flatly rejects.

"I don't know what he's basing that on," she says. "We're the ones that talked about consolidating government last year."

Clifford is also skeptical about another reason Wilmot gave for his switch.

Wilmot hopes to legislate more effectively as a member of the majority: "In my last year in the legislature I'd like to assist my urban district in a way that I could not as Democrat in the minority," he says. "I still would be considered, I think by anybody, a social liberal; I haven't changed any of my core values. I'm still pro choice and anti-death penalty and I still favor public school reform so that city kids can get a better deal."

But Clifford says she has "a hard time believing that the Republicans are going to embrace the things that Chris has stood for."

Democratic Majority Leader Stephanie Aldersley agrees: "I did think that it was ironic that Chris complained to me that he was unhappy that Democrats did not support all his ideas and proposals. But, in point of fact, Republicans have supported none of them," she says.

But Republicans counter that their acceptance of Wilmot --- and his liberal social values --- simply proves that they've become what Democrats once were: the party of the big tent.

"I think he'll fit in well," says Smith. "The reality is that the Republican Party is a big tent party when it comes to a lot of these matters. There's probably more diversity of viewpoints on things like [reproductive] choice in the Republican Party than there is in the Democratic Party."

Steve Minarik, Monroe County's Republican chairman, also used the phrase "big tent" to describe his party. "We have all kinds of people in our issues spectrum," he says. "So I think Chris, as a pro-choice Republican, represents the city of Rochester; they tend to be more moderate to liberal on social issues so I think Chris has a home." But won't that cause conflict within the Republican caucus, which includes some socially conservative members? "No," repeats Minarik emphatically.

Wilmot, for his part, sees only smooth sailing ahead. "The Republicans, in my opinion, accept me as I am," he says.

Not everyone shares his optimism. "I think that Chris prided himself on being somewhat of a maverick. And it's a lot easier being a maverick in the Democratic Party than it is in the Republican Party," Clifford says.

If that's true, perhaps evidence of Wilmot's first encounters with the local Republican Party's legendary discipline can be found in his statements about entering the mayoral race. Though Wilmot, Minarik, and Smith all say they've spoke of a possible bid only in passing, it's clearly on the minds of Rochester's political set in the wake of Wilmot's party switch. Wilmot won't make an announcement about whether he'll run until next month. But, he says, "I can guarantee this: I will not primary any Republican for mayor.

"I won't enter as a dark horse or as a renegade," Wilmot says. "And if I'm the selected candidate, I won't anticipate any primary if I'm the Republican nominee. That's something I think the Republican Party usually does a little differently."