No Coronation

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Howard Dean, the former presidential hopeful, has had to slug it out to become the chairman of the national Democratic Party. Check the notebook

It appeared as though Rick Dollinger, the former state senator, would have no such problem. He was the only local Democrat willing to take over as the new chair of the county Democratic Committee.

That was until Tom Wega appeared. Wega doesn’t have the lofty credentials of a Dollinger – he has been a Democratic town leader in Pittsford, he ran for the county legislature unsuccessfully.

He also is a Deaniac – an active member of dfaRochester (part of the Democracy for America movement, which sprang up after Dean’s withdrawal from the presidential race).

Wega initially figured he would be the ONLY candidate for the job. And he said that he respects Dollinger and interim chairman Jim Vogel (who will also put his name into consideration for the permanent post).

Wega said he knows that Dollinger will be the favorite for the seat. But he’s going to keep his name in the mix because he’s following a Dean dictate – let no race go unchallenged.

In a letter to Democrats in the committee, Wega wrote: “We must remake our party into one that wins elections at all levels. Before we can win the presidency and Congress we must win state, county, town, school board and village elections and before we win town halls, we in the rank and file must win back our party”

It’s not the equivalent of a scream after the Iowa caucuses.

But it is a polite shout by one local Democrat that the appointment of a new chair not be a coronation.


Sales Tax, Take Two

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An earlier edition of this column focused on the allure of the sales tax for cash-strapped counties. More specifically it pointed to Erie County, where the county legislature had approved a penny hike in the sales tax and then got approval for the increase by the state.

Well then Erie County lawmakers took the unusual step of backing off. One of the legislators who approved the notion of sending the sales tax increase to the state legislature backed off giving final approval in order to get more concessions from the county administration on cutbacks.

But Erie County’s hesitancy doesn’t negate the obvious point – counties in need of revenue will go any place except the property tax to get it.

And the sales tax is the most palatable place to go.

And while Erie County’s schizophrenia with their sales tax hike is odd, there is no such problem in our area.
Monroe County has already paved the way for sales tax increases. While our neighbors to west wrestle with issues like sales tax sharing, Monroe County has the Morin-Ryan agreement from the 1980s and the Doyle-Johnson update from the 1990s that creates a plan for sharing the money among municipalities.

And former County Executive Bob King proved back in the early 1990s that a sales tax increase is a much easier sell to voters in an upstate community than a property tax hike.

So the only question is whether other counties in upstate New York are in the same boat as Erie.
Well maybe the Erie County vessel is taking on water at a greater rate.

But the crashing waves of ever-increasing Medicaid costs are flooding the boats of other counties.

Just look at Genesee County where the Buffalo News reported that legislators donned red baseball caps in an effort to plead for a cap on Medicaid costs being passed down from the state.

The sales tax is a last refuge for counties.

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.