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.