Democratic History Lesson as Dollinger Inches toward Chairmanship

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All that stands in the way of former State Sen. Richard Dollinger seeking to become the next chairman of the Monroe County Democratic Committee is a heart-to-heart talk with his law partners.

"It’s looking good," said Dollinger. "I’m leaning toward doing this."

An executive committee meeting of leading Democrats this week could make his decision final. He’ll likely have to gather support before the full committee votes for a new chair to replace Molly Clifford in the next ten days to two weeks.

As Dollinger inches toward the job one question you may ask is why? Look at the recent history of the chairmanship.

It’s September 2002. The Monroe County Democratic Party has just reappointed Ted O’Brien to be its chairman for two years.

The talk in the Laborers Union hall that day was basically: How does Ted cope with all the bickering between Democrats? County lawmakers from the party battling city leaders. Members of the Democratic Assembly from Rochester feuding.

"Several people have come up to me and said ‘jeez Ted I’m glad I don’t have your job,’" O’Brien said at the time. "But that’s not at all how I feel."

It’s December 2002. Ted O’Brien announces he’s stepping down. He cites long hours. O’Brien supports Molly Clifford as his successor. She says she knows that there are divisions in the ranks but said she’s ready to “work with the strong-willed personalities” of the party.

At a gathering of Democrats for her election, Clifford said that her goal will be to get Democrats to focus less on each other and more on Republicans.

Weeks into her tenure, Clifford holds a press conference to blast Republican County Executive Jack Doyle for remarks he made in the Democrat and Chronicle that they defined as racially-charged.

It was Clifford’s earliest attempt at going after a Republican.

Except that days after the press conference, then-Democratic County Legislator Christopher Wilmot of Rochester sent out a press release that blasted Clifford. He said Clifford excluded him and others on the Democratic caucus of the County Legislature from the press event. He said that move  continued a practice of miscommunication that has led to the squabbling. He even suggested that Democrats hire a professional mediator, someone who could bring all the warring factions together and iron out the differences.

Democrats going after Democrats.

Now we know the latest news about the party. The primaries for party committee seats egged on by Assemblyman David Gantt. Actual fists flying at one Democratic committee meeting. A letter signed by leading Democrats for a Republican – State Sen. Joe Robach – while the party had their own candidate in the race. Even Chris Wilmot became a Republican. 

Last week Clifford left, complaining about the infighting and about how some in the party are all about power.

There is a thread woven in this recent Democratic history. When Clifford was appointed in late 2002, the comment here was that it was not only a test for Clifford but for the leadership in the Democratic Party – the elected officials.

The sudden departures of O’Brien and Clifford are very much an indicator of the long-standing disharmony among top Democrats. It makes the job of chairman a difficult, if not frustrating, one.

Dollinger said Sunday night just prior to the Super Bowl that he believes it is an exciting time for the party. But he’s not kidding himself.

"If the next party chair spends all his time refereeing… well, then I might as well get a zebra suit and blow the whistle and call them as I see them. But that won’t do much good," he said. "I intend to be the quarterback."

And so the question remains as it always was: Do Democrats have it in them to put aside some of the personal feuds and the sniping to unite behind some kind of party structure? Time will tell.

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