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Under the big tent

Can county Democrats get their act together?

by and

Instead of griping about the property tax increase, maybe Democrats in the Monroe County legislature should send the GOP flowers.

            By most accounts, the brutal budget process that just finished has given Democrats the upper hand. After swearing up and down that they wouldn't raise taxes and after running a county executive candidate on exactly that pledge, Republicans voted unanimously for the largest property tax increase in memory. By doing so, the GOP may have handed their rivals all the ammunition the Democrats need to regain the majority in the legislature for the first time in over a decade.

            "When it comes down to it, the Republicans lied," says Democratic Party chair Molly Clifford. "They knew all along that the deficit problem could not be solved by anything other than tax increases, huge service cuts, and layoffs. But they continued to maintain that there was some magical plan."

            Social service cuts --- with companion stories of suffering tailor-made for the media --- have not won the Republicans any friends, either.

            So the Democrats clearly have momentum. But do they know what to do with it? And can they use it to advance the party and the party's agenda, or will they follow their usual course to self-destruction?

            "You know the old famous [saying], 'Take 12 Democrats, put them in a circle, and they become a firing squad for each other'?" says former county Democratic elections commissioner Betsy Relin. "We've always had divisions in the caucus."

A commissioner for 20 years, Relin saw it all.

            The worst Democratic in-fight, she says, happened during the 1990s reapportionment in the county legislature. Two Democratic plans emerged. Plan A extended some districts into the suburbs. Plan B kept them contained in the city. Plan A would dilute Democratic power, but with the longer-term goal of extending the party's reach to the Republican-controlled suburbs.

            "There were major, major fights over those two plans," Relin says. "It caused a huge rift in the Democratic Party. Republicans, of course, wanted Democrats' power contained in the city, so the Republicans worked with the group that supported the city plan."

            There were public hearings and court battles, but the city plan won out.

            "What it did is weaken the Democrats," Relin says. "So they really have not had a chance to control again."

            The 1993 mayoral primary further cracked the caucus, with some members supporting legislator Kevin Murray's campaign and others supporting former city council member Ruth Scott.

            "Bill [Johnson] was not supposed to win. It was supposed to be Ruth or Kevin," Relin says. "Of course, legislators split behind those two."

            Democrats took another shot at self-destruction during last summer's ouster of José Cruz as minority leader in the county legislature. By a vote of 7 to 4, the caucus elected Stephanie Aldersley to take Cruz's place. The coup played out on the public stage after Mayor Bill Johnson took his fellow Democrats to the woodshed, calling those who participated in the ouster "conspirators." The coup, Johnson said, brought "shame and ridicule" on the party.

            "Now it is the José group and the Stephanie group," Relin says. "But it's my understanding through this budget process they have been working together, been conciliatory, working with each other instead of against each other."

            The caucus is also said to be divided along supporters of Assemblyman David Gantt and supporters of Assemblyman Joe Morelle. The two men are engaged in a constant power struggle, Relin says, over who leads the state delegation.

            "They've always had clashes over funding, where funding is going to go, and who gets more funding," she says.

            Longtime Republican legislator Ray Santirocco says that county Democrats are notoriously fractured. He believes that is the case to this day because, he says, of the comments he hears Democrats make about each other. He would not elaborate.

So what is it with Democrats? Are they hard-wired for divisiveness? Santirocco thinks so. There is something about the progressive mindset, he says, that encourages and rewards the "get out and fight" attitude. If Democrats can't find Republicans to fight with, he says, then they'll fight amongst themselves.

            Democrats say that the diversity of the party's members lends itself to differences of opinion.

            "The great thing about the Democratic Party is that we're a big tent. The hard thing about the party is that we're a big tent," Clifford says. "We have conservative Democrats and we have liberal Democrats, and we manage to get along most of the time. But I think that at the core, we are all Democrats and we all do want to succeed."

            There may be some Democrats, for example, who particularly want to protect social services. Other Democrats might be more business friendly.

            Republicans, Relin says, don't have the same problem.

            "It's like they all go to the same school," she says. "They are a more homogeneous group. It must be the nature of the beast. Locally, statewide, and nationally, they are all unified. They set their table early. They know what their goal is, they know what their message is. They are consistent and stay with it. And we don't do it as well as they do."

            The lack of unity in the caucus is natural for a minority party, be they Republican or Democrat, says majority leader Bill Smith. There's no pressure to gather the votes needed to pass anything, he says, so members are freer to "go off and do their own thing."

            Democrats, too, insiders say, lack a political leader with the power of Republican Party chair Steve Minarik. Minarik, they say, controls his party through the purse strings --- raising great gobs of money and controlling its distribution --- thus inspiring great party discipline.

            Minarik did not return City's calls for comment.

It's about the message, Relin says, and Democrats haven't always been clear on what their message is. Or particularly adept at getting it across.

            Democrats have allowed Republicans, she says, to unfairly paint them as the tax-and-spend party.

            "I'm sick of hearing Republicans tell me, 'Well, people have to help themselves,'" she says. "There are people, unfortunately, in this community who can't help themselves."

            "We are the more credible party. We have to convince people that if we say we are going to raise taxes, it's because we have to. We're not going to lie to you and do it anyway."

            For years, Democrats at all levels of government have allowed the GOP to portray them as a party of free spenders, says former Democratic Party chair Ted O'Brien.

            "We need to do a better job of showing how the Democratic policies are actually more fiscally conservative and intelligent than Republican polices of what really is borrow and spend or squander and spend," he says. "A sensible tax policy can make the world a more affordable place than just a no-tax policy."

            "I think there's been a great squandering of opportunity here locally by the Republican administration with respect to tobacco settlement money and all the different monies that we've had available," O'Brien adds. "We've lost opportunities to [do] projects that could really help identify Rochester as a great place to be. When you look at the great counties and the great cities in the country and in the world, nobody says that New York City is a great city because they have flat property taxes. Or San Francisco. Or Chicago."

            The Democratic message, Clifford says, goes back to the needs of middle-class families. It's about economic development, responsible planning in the towns, and the core values of education, health care, and "making sure that opportunities are available to all."

            But can you put that on a campaign card? After thinking a moment, Clifford responds. "Democrats balance budgets," she says, would look good on a bumper sticker.

            Smith argues that it's to the Democrats' advantage not to have a clear message.

            "My opinion is that Democrats succeed politically to the extent that they obscure their message," he says. "The [clearer] they are about their real goals, the less support they're likely to have."

            Pressed for a specific example, Smith chooses taxes.

            "Basically, people on the Left want to raise taxes," he says, and voters don't want to hear that.

            Smith expects Democrats to trash his party over the new property tax increase. But he says it's not a valid criticism because lawmakers all over the state are finding themselves in similar financial straits as Monroe County and they are "coming up with the same solutions."

During her campaign, County Executive-elect Maggie Brooks said she can balance the budget by outsourcing, combining services, and reviewing the budget thoroughly for pockets of fat. Brooks' Democratic rival, Mayor Bill Johnson, said the possibility of a property tax increase had to be kept on the table.

            Brooks defeated Johnson by nearly a two-to-one margin.

            "They sold us a campaign message that was not credible and it was a lie," Relin says. "And I think we almost have to attack the credibility [of the Republicans] now because the voters have been duped."

            Indeed, Democrats are saying they are fired up in a way they haven't been in quite some time.

            "We really are very united right now. I couldn't be more pleased," Aldersley says.

            Working together on Johnson's campaign and the shared outrage over the county budget has brought the caucus together, she says.

            "We're ending the year in a very bad way, I think, with school nurses being cut. They cut road funding in the city," says longtime Democratic legislator Kevin Murray. "I think what I would call the arrogance of the way things were handled is a negative for the Republican Party."

            More than a year after the Cruz ouster, Aldersley says her relationship with the mayor has undergone something of a healing.

            "We chat more than we used to," she says. "We get along a little better than we used to."

            The bitter feelings over the ouster, Democrats say, are relegated to the past.

            "We've gone beyond that at this point," Cruz says. "We're looking toward the future. We don't have time to go back and worry about the past."

            Taking their first steps toward that future, Democrats are in the process of crafting a new agenda. They held their first meeting earlier this month. More meetings are planned.

            "We will have a strong agenda," crafted with input from all members of the caucus, Aldersley says.

The Democratic Party in Monroe County is growing, according to Democratic elections commissioner Tom Ferrarese.

            Johnson's campaign resulted in record-high fund raising. Democrats picked up a city court seat and took the Mendon town supervisor seat from Republican Jeanne Loberg in the November elections.

            The party was also able to get Mike Green elected in a bitterly contested battle for district attorney.

            "I think you're going to see a lot more activity on their part and continued growth," Ferrarese says.

            The growth Ferrarese is talking about shows up in enrollment figures. Democratic enrollment in Monroe County is virtually even with Republican enrollment. As of October 16, there were 143,131 registered Democrats in the county, compared to 143,644 Republicans. Compare that to 1999, when there were 137,589 registered Democrats and 145,715 Republicans. Democrats have narrowed the gap consistently over that five-year period.

            Republicans will argue that enrollment doesn't mean much. Democrats, they say, aren't able to translate those figures into votes. But that's not necessarily true.

            In 2000, then vice-president Al Gore, a Democrat, carried Monroe County over George W. Bush by 20,000 votes, according to O'Brien. The following year, underdog Joseph Valentino, a Democrat, defeated Republican Mary Doyle for a seat on state Supreme Court.

            "Everyone surmised that Democrats could never win a Supreme Court seat because the eight counties in the seventh judicial district [are] so overwhelmingly Republican," O'Brien says. "In that race, we carried Monroe County so heavily, that even though Judge Valentino lost in every other county by a little bit, he carried the district because Monroe County supported Valentino over Mary Doyle by 35,000 votes."

            Mary Doyle's loss, however, could also be attributable in part to the diminishing popularity of her husband, County Executive Jack Doyle.

            Another sign of the health of the party, O'Brien says, is the changing face of the county legislature. In 2001, the makeup of the lej was 19-10, in favor of the GOP. Republicans currently have a 16-13 majority.

            "In my view, while the county executive's race was tough for Democrats, I think the larger trend continues to be towards Democrats," O'Brien says. "You can find that at the voting booth and in voter registration."

Assuming Democrats can decide on a message, communicate it effectively, and continue to work together, what does the party need to do to capitalize on this new opportunity?

            Everyone is in agreement on one point: Democrats need to run strong candidates.

            Moe Bickwheat's victory in the Mendon town supervisor race shows that Democrats can be competitive anywhere in the county, O'Brien says.

            "If you've got a good candidate and you run a good campaign and work hard at it, Democrats can be successful," he says. "There are so many areas where we've almost broken through. We finally broke through in Brighton. Morelle in the assembly always carries Irondequoit. It's certainly a town that's willing to vote Democrat."

            "The challenge to Democrats is to continue to attract good quality candidates to run, and we will break through," he adds.

            Clifford has talked about the party's work to recruit strong candidates and to energize town committees. In addition, there will be three seats contested in the county legislature next year. Taking two of those would put Democrats in the majority for the first time since 1991.

            "We intend to contest those seats very energetically," Aldersley says.

            The party has started an open search for the candidates. Expect a mix of party players and newcomers, Aldersley says. Town Democratic leaders and local committees, she says, will be crucial in the selection process.

            Both Relin and O'Brien talk about the need to get suburbanites to see Monroe County as one community.

            "We need to continue to work together as a community, because we live and die as a community," O'Brien says. "I think people understand that a healthy city makes everybody stronger."

            People and businesses won't come to a county, O'Brien says, with "a hole of urban decay" at its center.

            Johnson's defeat doesn't mean people don't care about the city, he adds. The loss, he says, was a "negative reaction" to a number of things, including Johnson's talk of a property tax hike.

            People in the suburbs might wake up, Relin says, when they see the impact the new tax increase has on their property tax bill.

            "If they just lost jobs or something, that increase is going to look them right in the face when their payments on their houses go up," she says.

            The 2004 presidential election should also be good for Democrats, Relin says. The party traditionally does well across the board when Democrats have a good, active campaign for the presidency.

            "More people come out to vote. More city voters come out," she says. "Of course, the [legislative] districts we're talking about happen to be in the suburbs, but hopefully, Democrats in the suburbs will come out."

Although they're at the forefront of politicians' minds, most voters aren't thinking about the 2004 elections. So the question remains, can Democrats keep the caucus together? And are they prepared to once again emerge a formidable political force in Monroe County?

            They can. And they are, Clifford says.

            The difference between a year ago and today, she says, is that while differences may still exist in the caucus, members are much better at keeping their dirty laundry out of public view.

            "There's a greater level of trust among people now," Clifford says. "When they have issues, they are feeling comfortable in talking to each other about them, rather than talking to the press. And I think that's a good thing."

            Privately, however, some Democrats say that bitter feelings linger over the Cruz ouster and other issues.

            The ouster, they say, diminishes Aldersley's legitimacy as caucus leader. There are also ill feelings, insiders say, about the mayor's very public outrage over the coup and his way of doing business. Johnson's personality, they say, is off-putting to the public, as well as to members of the Democratic caucus.

            Concerns remain, too, over "outsider" influences on the caucus, namely Johnson, Gantt, and Morelle. Aldersley's installation as minority leader was widely thought to be orchestrated by Gantt. Cruz was viewed as being under the influence of Johnson and Morelle --- Gantt's arch enemy.

            "There's always going to be issues and I'm sure we'll have disagreements again," Clifford says. "That's not necessarily a bad thing. We don't have to be one big happy family."