Avoiding Primary Hypocrisy

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A month ago you would have counted Rick Dollinger among the Democrats who wanted to see City Councilman Wade Norwood elected mayor.

That was the Rick Dollinger who was a former state senator, who worked within the party as a kind of wizened elder, who stayed in the public eye as a kind of political pontificator.

That was before Rick Dollinger became poised to become chairman of the Monroe County Democratic Committee, thrusting himself right in the middle of the political arena.

What does Dollinger, the likely party committee leader, say now about the potentially combustible primary for Rochester mayor – one that could feature a primary scrum between Norwood, fellow councilman Tim Mains and Police Chief Bob Duffy?

"I’m not going to take a position until the party’s designating convention," said Dollinger. "Then I will endorse the choice of the convention."

Most observers say Norwood will take the designation. The designating convention is a party insiders’ affair where committee members vote in a weighted system for candidates. The winner doesn’t have to pass petitions to get on the ballot.

Anyone else looking to run would have to get the necessary number of petition signers. And Duffy, who comes in to this race with high approval ratings and the makings of an organization, will have no problem getting in the primary race.

Mains has a long history of running in the city as an at-large candidate and surely would have little problem getting into a primary battle. And Mains has made it clear he will wage a primary.

Some political party chairs have worked hard to avoid primaries. Would Dollinger? No, he said.

"It’s the way a party defines itself," he said. "It’s part of what the party process is all about."

Take it from a man whose political career took off by running as an outsider in a primary.

In 1992, the Monroe County Democratic Committee designated Ralph Quattrociocchi as the party’s candidate for state senate. He was a conservative Democrat from Greece. He was an incumbent.

Dollinger, then a county legislator, went ahead and challenged Quattrociocchi in a primary.

He then went on to beat the party’s designee, and then beat him a second time in the general election (Quattrociocchi ran as a conservative. Dollinger also beat Republican Tracey Long).

Dollinger said it would be a "gross act of hypocrisy"  to tell Duffy, or anyone else, not to run in a primary.

"I would never say ‘you can’t do this.’" he added.

He could also add the party’s designee for mayor the last time the seat was open – County Legislator Kevin Murray – was soundly defeated in the primary. 

It probably wouldn’t be wise for the likely new Democratic Party chairman to alienate anyone who might be the next Democratic mayor for Rochester.

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.

The Drumbeat of a Sales Tax hike

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Listen to the drum beat of sales tax increases in New York.

Erie County’s Legislature has approved an increase in the sales tax by a penny to 9.25%. Now it goes to the state legislature. Erie County says it needs the money to cover rising Medicaid costs passed down by the state.

Oneida County’s request to bump up its sales tax to 9.75% has the approval of the state legislature and only needs the signature of Gov. Pataki. The move will cover the Medicaid increases, local officials there say.

They are the latest in a string of counties, big and small, who are relying on the sales tax to cover the mounting Medicaid costs.

Meanwhile Pataki visits our region this week shilling for Medicaid reforms that some critics say isn’t enough to slow the growth of Medicaid costs on counties.

County Executive Maggie Brooks says she will work to have Pataki’s reforms, and his budget, approved.

But the question remains – does Brooks truly believe this will be enough to deal with the multi-million dollar Medicaid increases? Does Brooks and the Monroe County Legislature hear the distant drum beats of sales tax increases?

It’s too soon to forget that former County Executive Jack Doyle proposed a sales tax increase for 2004, which was shot down then.

How soon before we hear the leaders in Monroe County raising the idea of raising the sales tax?

The Clifford Question

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Want a reason for Molly Clifford’s departure as head of the Monroe County Democratic Party?

Look no further than a letter sent on behalf of Republican State Sen. Joseph Robach last October.

It was titled "Democrats for Robach." It was signed by a number of Democrats including Mayor Bill Johnson. It was signed by former Democratic Party Chairs Fran Weisberg, Nathan Robfogel, Rob Brown.

All this while the Democratic Party, chaired by Molly Clifford, had a candidate running against Robach, Bob Ertischek.

Back then the notebook called the "Democrats for Robach" letter refreshing – a bipartisan reach across the aisle.

But take it from Clifford’s point of view.

She was in the position of supporting and backing a challenger against Robach.

And some of the biggest leaders in her own party were openly supporting the Republican opponent.

"It undermines the party," Clifford said just prior to her resignation Monday. "As a (Democratic) public official, supporting a Republican sends the message that we don’t care about our Democrat candidates."

Clifford said some who signed that letter did so for "noble reasons," mentioning Mayor Johnson. But she added that they didn’t "think about the impact it would have on the party."

Others, she said, should have known the position it would put her in (meaning the former party chairs).

Of course the more publicized reason for Clifford departure is the inter-party battles that have risen up largely because of Assemblyman David Gantt. You saw them last year – Gantt-sponsored challenges to Democratic committee members, the clash over the school board special seat.

Clifford wrote in resignation letter that some Democratic elected officials put power before the party.

When asked at her announcement if she meant David Gantt, her reply was the quickest "yes" ever uttered.

Gantt insists that he has not tried to take over the party. He says he took action because African-Americans haven’t gotten a fair voice in places like the 21st Legislative District Committee. He says that Clifford could have gotten more involved.

"I play by the rules and do my job. That’s it," Gantt said.

Clifford supporters say that too little attention was given by the media on the Gantt actions – and on the ultimate defeats of those Gantt-sponsored candidates.

Bottom line is that Clifford’s resignation doesn’t put an end to the squabbling in the party.

Instead the Clifford resignation is a very loud question posed to the top Democratic officials of Monroe County – to those like Gantt and Mayor Johnson; to mayoral candidate Wade Norwood and, possibly, Bob Duffy.

The question: What do Democrats want their county committee to be?

Do you want it to be the central organizing influence that helps build a cadre of committed people with like ideals? Is it the place to air differences and find common ground?

Or is the label "Democrat" just a name?

The Republican Party in this town has had more than its share of infighting and disagreements. But at the end of the day, they use the party structure to hammer out the problems and continue pushing the agenda forward. There is structure.

There’s little structure in the Democratic Party, where everyone seems to be casting about like free agents during baseball’s off-season.

Clifford wanted to turn it around. It didn’t happen. She wasn’t allowed to do it. The arguments will rage about this. But one thing is clear with this resignation – a most important local election year has now become absolutely critical for a party in search of its moorings.

What’s in a Poll?

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You’ve heard about the poll commissioned by those who want Bob Duffy to run for mayor. It’s the one that has him up in a head to head contest with Wade Norwood by as many as 30 percentage points.

You’ve probably also heard that the full poll was posted on a website by the Duffy for Mayor group.

Do yourself a favor – take the poll with a pound of salt. It’s done too early in a race where no one (not even Norwood) calls himself or herself an official candidate.

But there are some fun elements of this poll. One segment is quite a sales pitch for Duffy. There are no less than seven Duffy selling points dressed up as questions in it ("If elected, Robert Duffy would make creating jobs his top priority…"). The respondents are supposed to say whether these are credible claims. There isn’t a similar set of questions for Norwood or any other candidate.

Then there are the negative questions. Those are done for both Duffy and Norwood. People are asked whether these statements would cast doubt on the candidate. They include:

–Duffy hasn’t done enough to reduce crime.

–He has done enough, but he doesn’t have experience to be mayor.

–Duffy switched parties, moving from the Republican Party in 1991

–Norwood would be too beholden to Albany because he was a staffer for Assemblyman David Gantt.

–Norwood hasn’t done anything to solve Rochester’s problems while serving 15 years as a city councilman

–Norwood is against the Fast Ferry takeover by the city.

This is an amusing poll. Just don’t take it too seriously.

Brooks Sobers up State of the County

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Monroe County Executive Brooks deserves credit for a few things.

One is putting sanity back in the State of the County address, which had taken a strange path from being an end-of-year wrap up to being a middle of the year extravaganza.

Former County Executive Jack Doyle took to holding them in May. He made them into traveling road shows that would be held in corporate office building lobbies and factories.

Brooks has put a little sanity back in the process. She held hers in (gasp) January… as if the previous year had actually just ended. She did it in the Monroe County Legislative chambers.

And Brooks is getting her kudos for being more willing to reach across the aisle. Even the speech seemed to suggest this conciliatory tone. During the talk, she surprised the audience by embracing a law that would mandate 48-hour notification for commercial pesticide spraying. This is a decidedly anti-Republican proposal.

Too bad that Brooks, couldn’t also make mention that Democratic County Legislator Lynda Garner Goldstein had long been a proponent of this plan, and had submitted legislation in years past that had been summarily ignored by the GOP legislature.

That would have really been a bipartisan bridge-mender.

But at least we heard the words at the beginning of the year, and in a place where government is conducted.

Minarik would love Pirro candidacy

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Don’t take this the wrong way, but reporters up in the Rochester area still have the edge over the New York City media gang when it comes to covering Minarik.

Eventually they’ll get to know Minarik. And they will soon lap us upstaters.

But for now, the media here has the advantage.

For example, stories came out this week about Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro mulling a run for state Attorney General.

Press reports there stated that Pirro is close with Pataki. And that relationship would drive the new GOP chairman Minarik to support Pirro’s candidacy.

In truth, Minarik would salivate over the prospect of running Pirro.

He has long pushed the Republican Party in Monroe County to run women in key races. That history includes: running former County Clerk Margaret DeFrancisco in the mid-1990’s against Assemblyman David Koon when he still thought he could win that seat (that didn’t work). In 2003, the top of the Monroe County ticket was Maggie Brooks for county executive and Ann Marie Taddeo for district attorney (he was one for two there).

I wouldn’t be shocked to see him pushing County Executive Brooks for Lt. Governor in 2006.

Jeanine Pirro is a downstater with upstate roots. She grew up in Elmira and went to college in Buffalo and Albany. She would be right up Minarik’s alley, even with the baggage that her husband’s legal entanglements bring.

The press gaggle in NYC will figure him out soon enough.

Steve Wants Rudy?

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Steve Minarik wants Rudy Giuliani to run against Sen. Hillary?

This news, as reported by the New York City press, has to make you chuckle. Minarik – the Monroe County GOP chairman and newly christened state party chair – hasn’t always been so amorous of the former New York City mayor as Republican standard-bearer.

When Giuliani was running against Clinton in 2000, Minarik could barely conceal his indifference. Giuliani was (and still is) a classic "moderate Republican," the kind that the more conservative Minarik doesn’t exactly embrace.

There was also Giuliani’s tendency to go off the reservation – and to do his own thing. This is also not something Minarik appreciates.

In 2000, Giuliani blew off a GOP event in Rochester to attend opening day for the Yankees that year. Minarik was openly miffed.

When Giuliani bowed out, Minarik embraced the more conservative Rep. Rick Lazio as a Clinton foe.

But here’s the thing; Minarik is a practical politico. And he prizes, above all else, the win. So Minarik probably sees Giuliani as a guy who has the instant stature, who could raise money and could compete against Clinton.

So on that level I suppose it makes perfect sense. It’s still rather amusing, though.

Cuomo-esque

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A New York Democrat would seemingly do well to emulate Mario Cuomo.

Cuomo was a politician who had his share of electoral setbacks. He wasn’t the party favorite in 1982 for the nomination as governor (Ed Koch was).

We all know what happened. Cuomo won, and held the governor’s mansion for 12 years.

Heck, a Democrat like Bob Duffy would do well to follow his lead, right?

Problem is that Duffy hasn’t yet made his choice on whether to get in to the race to replace Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson.

And, to some, he is striking a Cuomo-like pose that remains Mario’s worst political legacy.

Who could forget Cuomo playing Hamlet when it came to the presidency – "To run or not to run?" In 1988 it almost looked certain that he was in… and then he backed off at the last minute, confounding those within the Democratic Party.

Now here is Police Chief Duffy. He wrote a letter to Democrats last month, not for support, but to ask them about issues that ought to be important to the next mayor. Kind of a Hillary Clinton listening tour by mail.

Last week he visited Democratic Party committees, although it was only to talk about crime issues as chief.

And there is that exploratory political committee that spent $15,000 on polling that showed Duffy would do well in a run for mayor.

Critics say that Duffy is having it both ways. He’s doing everything he can to prime a candidacy for mayor, but isn’t giving up the trapping of being police chief.

Duffy says that there are always going to be those who spin things. He said that if he were looking at another job in the private sector, no one would cast negatives motives to his careful deliberation. Duffy argues that he’s going to take his time for the right reasons – and he’s not going to use his job as chief for political gain.

"I’m very cautious with things we do in the police department," he said. "I would never, ever take advantage of my position."

But Duffy should understand something. The longer he takes, the more time he gives to political rivals who could say that, when it comes to making throwing the hat in the ring, he’s "Cuomo-esque."

Maybe in the end it won’t matter. But maybe it’s the kind of thing that could nick his candidacy.

NORWOOD ON THE PAST

It appears that mayoral candidate and City Councilman Wade Norwood isn’t too concerned with an endorsement from the current occupant of the mayor’s seat: Bill Johnson.

During a recent interview with Norwood on WXXI’s Need to Know, Norwood said that the city has not been able to turn big ideas into action. He was asked if there was something different in his personality from Mayor Johnson’s that would bring about action.

Norwood said: "I think that what we are seeing right now, and what we have lived with in this town for the last decade is a style and a concept of leadership that has not only created stark positions but also created bad relationships."

I asked if that included Mayor Johnson.

"Mayor Johnson’s included. Many other players are included. And I think what I offer to this community is a very different type of leadership, a leadership that’s based on the belief that … disagreement and debate are important parts of governing and (that) there is nothing wrong with finding compromise."

First of all, there had been a long history of contentiousness between the city and county when Johnson and County Executive Jack Doyle were at the helm. So the commentary would seem appropriate.

Except that in the last year Johnson and the new county executive, Maggie Brooks, have played much nicer.

Clearly Norwood isn’t that concerned much about whether or not Johnson will take issue with such a comment. (No word yet on what the current occupant of the office thinks).

Perhaps Norwood is simply trying to show that he is his own man.

LOSING POWER

A New York court ruling last month limits what the state legislature can do to alter the governor’s budget. They can shave money from a particular proposal or add money to it. They could get rid of a spending item.

But lawmakers can’t, as they have in years past, alter the substance of a proposal.

As Albany correspondent for NPR Karen Dewitt explained, in years past, the state legislature beat back Gov. George Pataki’s attempts to change the formula to fund education by altering the language in the budget bill. No more, thanks to the courts.

Lawmakers are fuming about the power storage. One assemblyman, Richard Brodsky of Westchester County, said this may force the legislature to hold the budget hostage.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong — but hasn’t the Albany government been "holding the budget hostage" for various reasons for the last 20 years? There is always an excuse for why the April 1 deadline can’t be met.

Now, it appears, some legislators have a new one.

But here is the irony.

The New York State Legislature exercised little power back in the days of Nelson Rockefeller. But toward the end of Rocky’s reign, the legislature began to assert itself more in the budget making process, and made that the accepted way of negotiating.

And in that time the Albany budget negotiations have been sluggish, contentious and dysfunctional.

One might say that, when it comes to calling for equal power, the state legislature squandered any high ground it might have had.