A handful of new legislators from the Rochester area have hit the ground running in their first legislative session, passing a plethora of bills while avoiding being enmeshed in the turf wars that divide their hometown’s Democratic Party.
Monroe County politics break down to three main groups. Rural areas tend to favor Republicans. Then there are the two Democratic factions led by Mayor Lovely Warren and Rep. Joe Morelle. Her camp is based in the economically depressed urban core, while his allies typically come from whiter and wealthier suburbs like Irondequoit.
Local Democrats historically fall into one category or the other. Assembly Member Harry Bronson, a six-term incumbent whose ouster the mayor backed last year, is part of the Morelle faction. The late Assembly Member David Gantt was the original leader of what is now the Warren faction. This paradigm has survived for years, but the situation was changing even before Warren lost the Democratic primary in a landslide to City Council Member Malik Evans.
But five new Democratic members of the state Senate and Assembly have avoided getting too close to one side or the other. “One of the interesting things I've seen with the delegation in Albany is that they do not have some connection to one camp or the other,” Jeremy Moule, who has covered local politics for the Rochester City Newspaper, a monthly magazine and online news outlet, since 2007, said of the freshmen legislators. “They're not really part of this political drama that you see around here.”
Republicans held two state Senate seats representing the city until the longtime incumbents retired last year and Democratic state Sens. Jeremy Cooney and Samra Brouk flipped the seats representing the west and east sides of the city, respectively, and surrounding areas. Assembly Member Jen Lunsford defeated Republican incumbent Mark Johns in the eastern suburbs of Rochester. Assembly Member Sarah Clark won the former seat of Jamie Romeo, a Morelle ally who is now Monroe County clerk, to represent a district that surrounds the city like a backwards letter C. Assembly Member Demond Meeks won a special election for the seat formerly held by Gantt in a district stretching from the city center to the western suburbs. Bronson, meanwhile, won reelection in a district that includes the southwestern outskirts of the city as well as a strip of neighborhoods that extend into the city like a question mark.
Out of this morass has arisen the largest legislative Democratic delegation between Buffalo
and the Hudson Valley. Call it the Rochester Six.
According to interviews with each of them and a dozen other people knowledgeable about Rochester politics, they have created a unified delegation within the Democratic supermajorities in Albany and that has made Monroe County more important than ever in the state Senate and Assembly dealing with the political aftermath of COVID-19, police violence, protests, riots, and growing crime in Rochester and beyond.
“You've got an entirely brand-spanking-new legislative delegation, (and) the factionalism and infighting that existed in past years is gone,” Democratic political consultant Evan Stavisky said in an interview.
The Rochester Six have outsized importance in the Democratic supermajorities within the 63-member state Senate and 150-member Assembly. Republicans demonstrated their enduring competitiveness on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley last year, when they flipped two state Senate seats and an Assembly seat, but Democrats made up those losses and expanded their state Senate majority upstate.
Brouk and Cooney won their races in districts gerrymandered to favor Republicans, while Lunsford beat Johns, a five-term incumbent. These victories gave Democrats the ability to redraw legislative districts unilaterally, but they can only spare one seat in the state Senate if Long Island Democrat Todd Kaminsky wins a November special election for Nassau County district attorney.
Despite the fact that some of them represent potentially competitive seats, the Rochester Six have already obtained committee assignments that allow them to address local issues such as housing and child care, and they are already having a demonstrated impact.
An analysis by City & State found that the five freshmen legislators as a group passed bills this year at a faster clip than the Legislature overall. Some examples include efforts led by Cooney and Bronson to establish housing courts and fund $475 million dollars’ worth of school improvements in Rochester. Legislation sponsored by Clark aims to increase safety at restaurants in response to the 2019 death of a local toddler who drowned in a Tim Hortons grease trap. “Even as a freshman, we were right in there in the mix of things and feeling like we could actually get stuff accomplished,” Clark said in an interview. A $475 million infrastructure plan for the city’s notoriously struggling schools passed after stalling for years. Brouk, chair of the Mental Health Committee, passed a bill establishing a 9-8-8 suicide hotline. A bill championed by Lunsford could allow people to qualify for unemployment if they have to quit their jobs to take care of their children. The five freshmen as a whole sponsored more than 140 bills in their first year, with about one-quarter of them passing both chambers, compared to a passage rate of about 1 in 16 for the state Legislature as a whole.
Clark ascribes her success to lessons learned from her past work for elected officials. “Hillary was literally the most prepared person,” said Clark, who worked for U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Kirsten Gillibrand. “(Hillary) read her briefs." One bill Clark sponsored that passed both chambers via the committee would require local social service agencies to use direct deposit to pay child care providers. Bronson was named chair of the Committee on Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry. A billion dollars in aid for small businesses is one example of how this could have importance in a long struggling Rust Belt city dealing with the economic side effects of COVID-19.
Some of their successes were part of wider victories by the Democratic majorities this year. Rochester schools are receiving $84 million in more school funding as part of a $3 billion deal between lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo that passed in the state budget, ending a yearslong funding dispute between the two sides. The six lawmakers also voted in favor legalizing recreational marijuana that passed both chambers – fulfilling expectations of what electing new upstate Democrats would mean in a state Legislature that continues to move leftward.
Weekly meetings and WhatsApp messaging have helped them coordinate their efforts, according to Bronson, a six-term incumbent who began his role as de facto leader of the group following the November election. “They're all younger than me,” he said in an interview. “Being the old guy – that's what makes me the dean.”
The Monroe County Democrats have also brought what is arguably the most diverse legislative delegation ever to the Capitol. All of the freshmen are women and/or people of color. Cooney is the first Indian American and Brouk is the first Black woman to represent upstate in their chamber. “It's very refreshing,” said Bronson, the first openly gay man elected to the state Legislature from upstate. “We have these diverse voices that will be involved in making decisions on policy, budget and investments. The community deserves nothing less.” That has especially been the case at a time when police violence and racial inequality have become prominent issues in Rochester. Big companies like the Eastman Kodak Company once made it a place where the middle class could depend on a steady job for their whole careers, but such opportunities were primarily enjoyed by the white majority. Those disparities have continued in a post-industrial city that is now nearly 40% Black.
Brouk said in an interview that a February incident when Rochester police pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old girl was among the moments when she realized what her newfound power could accomplish. “When you have a story, so cut and dry like that, it's pretty clear that that protocol is broken,” she said. A bill she sponsored with Meeks would ban law enforcement statewide from using pepper spray and tear gas against children under 18. Another bill, sponsored by Brouk and Bronson, would create new mental health response teams to have fewer police respond to incidents like the one that led to Rochester officers suffocating 41-year-old Daniel Prude in March 2020 – an event that sparked massive protests after it came to public attention. Neither of those bills passed before the scheduled legislative session ended on June 10, a reminder to the freshmen lawmakers of how slow the legislative process can be.
One notable quality of the Rochester Six is support from a relatively wide swath of the political spectrum. “I'm not even a Democrat,” local businessman Sanjay Hiranandani, an immigrant from India who has contributed thousands to Cooney, Brouk and Clark, said in an interview, but he is impressed by the technological savvy and engagement that distinguish those three young lawmakers from their predecessors. “We had a lot of representation from folks ... who had never used Google Sheets or Uber or Instagram or Facebook, other than having a staffer do it for them.”
Groups on the political left like New York State United Teachers and the Working Families Party have also expressed satisfaction with the new contingent of Rochester Democrats. “You have legislators who are deeply tapped into the community and getting what it needs … as well as advocating on a statewide level for the kinds of progressive reforms that we want to see,” Ravi Mangla, a spokesperson for the WFP, said in an interview.
The Rochester Six aren’t pleasing everybody though. Republicans have their obvious electoral and ideological reasons, but some of the freshmen are also facing criticism from the left wing of their party. Cooney and Meeks are the only two members of the delegation who are not sponsors of the Climate and Community Investment Act, which would implement a statewide tax on carbon emissions to help fund the state transition to renewable energy. “The calls I got were overwhelming from constituents that ‘we don't want you to sign on to this legislation,’ and I take that seriously,” Cooney said of the bill. He added that he initially supported the concept. He has also earned the ire of tenant advocates who are not pleased with the thousands of dollars in campaign donations that he has taken from the Real Estate Board of New York and his withdrawal of formal support for a “good cause” eviction bill that would limit rent increases to either 3% or 1.5 times the inflation rate in a locality, whichever is greater. “It’s not a happy result for us,” Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC, said in an interview of the political donations and support the advocacy group gave to Cooney’s campaign.
Legislators say that one big lesson from their freshman year has been learning how to compartmentalize areas of disagreement with colleagues, constituents and advocates while getting stuff done in other policy areas. Sometimes it is a matter of principle, according to Lunsford, and other times it is a matter of considering how one bill or another fits into the bigger scheme of things in a state of 19 million people. “There are times where I need time to sell something to my district to convince them why I believe my principles are correct,” Lunsford said in an interview. “If you are a person who can demonstrate that you are reliable, and that you are reasonable, then when you have a tough sell to make, you've credentialed yourself as someone that can be trusted, and someone that is effective, and has the overall wellness of the (Democratic) caucus at heart.”
While the Rochester Six are still making a name for themselves in Albany, they are already getting some recognition back home for common cause despite the factional politics of Monroe County. “This group is focused on working with each other and working with other legislators,” Moule said. An electoral defeat for Warren and political allies in the recent primary elections does not mean peace is coming anytime soon to Demoratic politics in Monroe County. The cleavages between the city and the suburban factions is just a fact of political life, say people on both sides, but that does not mean that freshmen legislators have to get involved. Members of both factions say they would rather see the freshmen legislators just stick to what they are doing. “Why would they get in the middle of something having nothing to do with them that would cost them support on either side,” said Vince Felder, a member of the Warren faction who recently lost his reelection bid for the county legislature. “I would do the same thing.”
With reporting by Maryam Rahaman and Sahalie Donaldson.