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Primaries shape the future of Democrats in the County Legislature


Politics is all about power. Yeah, that’s a little cliché, but it’s also the easiest way to explain what’s happened in the Monroe County Legislature over the past year or so.

Since Democratic County Executive Adam Bello took office in January 2020, two different power struggles have been playing out in the Legislature, where Republicans hold a one-seat majority over Democrats.

Rifts in the local Democratic Party over the selection of an elections commissioner and other matters led four Democratic legislators to break away from their colleagues and form the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus.

Republicans, seeking to bolster their razor-thin majority, pounced on the split to form a mutually beneficial bloc with the breakaway caucus, one that both sides periodically use to undermine or push back against Bello and Democratic legislators.

These divisions have carried over into the forthcoming June 22 primaries. Three candidates, all Democrats cross-endorsed by the Working Families Party, are trying to take out three members of the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus.

In the other races, candidates endorsed by the Democratic Party are squaring off against grassroots, progressive challengers. In some cases, party members from different factions are going head to head.

The primaries won’t determine which party holds the majority in the Legislature, but they will help decide which Democrats serve in the Legislature, regardless of whether they control the chamber or remain in the minority.

As is typically the case, there are no Republican primaries. Only Democrats, it seems, challenge each other this way. Here they are:

14th District (Brighton):

Nelson Lopatin - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Nelson Lopatin

This isn’t Nelson Lopatin’s first shot at public office. He ran for a state Assembly seat in 2020. He’s also got experience in the trenches of campaigns, having worked as technology coordinator for the Congressional runs of the late Louise Slaughter and former Brighton Supervisor Sandra Frankel’s 2015 bid for county executive.

Lopatin wants the county to provide new loans and grant programs to help stabilize businesses that have taken financial hits during the pandemic. He also wants to ensure that the county takes meaningful action on climate change, and citing the digital divide, stresses creating a low-cost public option for high-speed internet.

Lopatin spent 20 years working in hotel management and development and 25 years as an internet consultant. He is now in his eighth year as president of the Brighton Chamber of Commerce.

Susan Hughes-Smith - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Susan Hughes-Smith

Susan Hughes-Smith is the Democrats’ designated candidate in the 14th District.

She’s taught environmental health at SUNY Brockport since 2007 and environmental studies at Rochester Institute of Technology since 2012. Hughes-Smith is also an environmental activist who in 2014 co-founded the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition, now known as Climate Solution Accelerator of the Genesee-Finger Lakes Region. In 2018, she co-founded Roctricity, a small business that works with local governments to procure competitively-priced renewable energy for residents and some businesses.

Hughes-Smith is a member of the county’s Climate Action Plan advisory committee and believes that the county needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and design infrastructure that’s resilient to future climate and weather threats. She also emphasizes a need to expand high-speed internet access and affordable housing.

21st District (parts of the city’s east side)

Rachel Barnhart - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Rachel Barnhart

A familiar face to many after spending 18 years as a television news reporter, Legislator Rachel Barnhart was appointed to her seat in September 2019 and filled out the remainder of her predecessor’s term after winning the seat in that year’s general election.

Barnhart, who is the party’s designated candidate for the seat, has a longstanding interest in bridging Monroe County’s digital divide — she earned a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University and wrote her thesis on broadband internet disparities in Rochester and how to address them. She sits on the Monroe County Advisory Task Force on Broadband, which County Executive Adam Bello launched in late March.

She also successfully urged Sheriff Todd Baxter to provide inmates in the county jail with free calls, though the number of free calls inmates are allowed is limited. She introduced legislation that provided grants to small businesses, and another bill that would have capped the fees food delivery services such as Grubhub or Uber Eats can charge to restaurants. The Republican majority shot down the latter, but Bello issued an emergency order to limit the charges.

Wanda Ridgeway - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Wanda Ridgeway

Wanda Ridgeway has lived in the area covered by the 21st District for 47 years and is the executive director of Rise Up Rochester, an anti-violence program that helps crime victims and families of homicide victims.

She has said that she is running for the Legislature because she wants to create safe neighborhoods and dismantle systemic barriers that keep people in poverty. She also wants to make sure that county services reflect the community’s diversity and that they are responsive to the residents in the district.

Her background is in the human services field. Over the course of 20 years she’s worked as a daycare provider, a secured-treatment aide for the state, and a rehabilitation-certified nursing assistant at St. Ann’s Nursing Home. She is also an intervention teacher’s assistant in the Rochester City School District.

22nd District (Upper Falls, Marketview Heights, half of downtown)

  • Vince Felder

Legislator Vincent Felder is the Democratic Party’s designated candidate in this race. He was first elected to the Legislature in 2015 and became minority leader at the beginning of 2020. Felder still claims the title, but a majority of Democratic legislators voted to hand the post over to Legislator Yversha Roman following internal divisions over, among other things, who should serve as the Democratic Board of Elections commissioner.

Formerly an aide to the late Assembly member David Gantt, Felder started his term as minority leader off by negotiating the repeal of a Republican measure that made annoying a police officer or first responder a misdemeanor crime. His district includes some of the county’s largest arts and cultural institutions, such as Eastman Theatre, and he recently introduced legislation to provide grants to some of the area’s small and midsize arts organizations to help them offset their financial losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Felder has noted that the 19-percent unemployment rate in his district is triple the county-wide figure. For that reason, he’s said he is focused on economic development and on providing affordable and accessible child care in Monroe County.

Mercedes Vazquez - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Mercedes Vazquez

Mercedes Vazquez-Simmons is one the Working Families Party-backed Democrats who are challenging members of the Legislature’s Black and Asian Democratic Caucus as well as 22nd District Legislator Vince Felder, who is not a member of the caucus but works closely with it.

Vazquez Simmons is a boxing and mixed martial arts promoter. Through the company she founded in 2010, Pretty Girl Productions, she handles logistics, marketing, promotion, budget management, and regulatory compliance for fight events.

She also volunteers her time with several local organizations and founded a non-profit boxing program for children aged 5 to 18. Center City Boxing Club’s programs aim to promote health, fitness, self-discipline, and self-respect. It offers after-school recreation, tutoring, vocational training, and volunteer opportunities.

24th District (South Wedge to Brighton)

Rajesh Barnabas - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Rajesh Barnabas

Like Vazquez Simmons, Rajesh Barnabas is part of The People’s Slate, a group of candidates running together for City Council and County Legislature seats. And like other members of the slate, defunding police and directing that money toward community programs, as well as ending mass incarceration, are his top priorities.

Barnabas, an artist, activist, teacher, and former Green Party candidate for county executive, has also called for the county to pass a plan to get to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and to implement a local Green New Deal jobs program.

Though he’s running for County Legislature and not a city board, he has called for the Rochester City School District to implement a residency requirement for teachers and administrators and supports a countywide public school system. He also wants the county to overhaul the way it funds the arts to make the process more transparent and provide money for organizations that currently aren’t getting county assistance.

Albert Blankley - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Albert Blankley

Albert Blankley, the Democratic party’s designated candidate in this race, works as the chief operating officer of Common Ground Health and also serves as leader of the 24th Legislative District Democratic Committee.

As part of his platform, Blankley has emphasized the importance of transparency and accountability from government and elected leaders.

Blankley has also said that he wants the county to make it easier for residents to access the services it offers, something he views as a matter of equity and justice. As the county emerges and recovers from the pandemic, Blankley has said he wants to help connect people with new opportunities that arise in the process.

25th District (southwest Rochester)

  • Dorian Hall

Dorian Hall has said he was first moved to run for office after a 2012 meeting on the Vacuum Oil brownfield project in the PLEX neighborhood, where he lives and where his mother, Dorothy Hall, is a longtime neighborhood leader and activist.

This isn’t the first time Hall has run for office. In 2017 he ran for City Council, also citing frustration with the pace and direction of the Vacuum Oil site.

Hall, who owns an entertainment business and works as a technology support technician for UPS, is using the slogan “Community First” for his campaign and is focused largely on the city’s approach to development. Too often, he has said, the city advances and approves projects that neighbors don’t want.

Carolyn Hoffman - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Carolyn Hoffman

Carolyn Hoffman is the CEO of a consulting firm that strategizes for social movement campaigns. She has worked with several groups in or near the district, including the Police Accountability Board Alliance, Flower City Noire Collective, and the Monroe County Democratic Committee.

In her campaign platform she’s called for everything from a universal basic income and expanded and simplified social services, to replacing police with other public safety alternatives and better funding the Public Defender’s Office.

Hoffman has said she supports rent stabilization and eviction protection programs to stop gentrification; wants the county to expand its mental, emotional, and spiritual health care services and substance use services. She also wants the county to expand public transportation and make better efforts to create walkable and bikeable streets, and fund artists.

Kenneth Muhammad - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Kenneth Muhammad

Kenneth Muhammad has worked in the Rochester City School District for 25 years, currently in a support staff capacity. He’s the county Democrats’ designated candidate and has received endorsements from Calvin Lee, the current 25th District legislator, as well as the Rev. Lewis Stewart of United Christian Leadership Ministry of Western New York.

Muhammad is a member of UCLM as well as several other local organizations — he sits on the planning committee of Ujima Rochester, for example.

As far as Muhammad’s platform, it is three basic ideas wound around the theme of unity: passing responsible legislation, addressing gun violence, and passing laws that enhance community-based education and economies.

Muhammad joined the Nation of Islam in 1987 and for several years has served as Minister Louis Farrakhan’s representative in Rochester, according to the website of the local study group.

Just as Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam have been accused of anti-Semitism, so has Muhammad. One of his challengers, Carolyn Hoffman, has decried memes he has shared on social media for their anti-Semitic content. One of them associated different businesses in Black neighborhoods with specific racial and ethnic groups, listing “slum lord & real estate” as the domain of Jews. The caption, written by the original poster, read, “This is one of main (sic) reasons we can't unite and change. We to (sic) busy supporting people that don't support us.”

The same meme linked churches “on every other block” to Black men.

28th District (parts of northwest Rochester)

Ricky Frazier - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Ricky Frazier

Ricky Frazier’s campaign website makes no bones about why he’s running for the 28th District: the County Legislature has failed its constituents.

His campaign, he has said, is rooted in justice and equity. He wants to work with County Executive Adam Bello and the mayor to implement the recommendations in the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity’s report released earlier this year. Frazier has also said that he will fight for funding to support mental health services and address health care disparities affecting Black and brown people, and that he will advocate for funding for programs to train people for living-wage jobs.

Frazier is the volunteer coordinator for the Rochester City School District and minister at Aenon Missionary Baptist Church. He is among the Working Families Party-endorsed Democrats who are taking on members of the breakaway Black and Asian Democratic Caucus.

Frank Keophetlasy - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Frank Keophetlasy

Legislator Frank Keophetlasy, an incumbent who has the county Democratic Party’s designation in this race, is also a member of the Legislature’s Black and Asian Democratic Caucus.

The son of Laotian refugees and leader of the 28th Legislative District Democratic Committee, Keophetlasy was elected to the Legislature in November 2019.

On his campaign website, he explained that his top priorities include making sure programs that help the vulnerable and address critical needs in the district are included in county budgets, educating constituents about how county government can help them, and ensuring that the county has a diverse workforce.

29th District (parts of northeast and northwest Rochester)

William Burgess - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • William Burgess

William Burgess is the last of the three Working Families Party-endorsed Democrats waging primary challenges against the members of the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus.

For 25 years, Burgess has been a social worker for at-risk youth.

His campaign website is short on policy matters and focuses mainly on his background — that he’s lived in Rochester since the 1970s, and that his parents held jobs with RTS, Kodak, Xerox, and the Rochester City School District that allowed their family to have a comfortable life in an inviting, diverse neighborhood.

He recalled on a post on Facebook, however, that poverty and crime plague the city and, when he asked what he could do, he arrived at running for office.

Ernest Flagler-Mitchell - FILE PHOTO
  • Ernest Flagler-Mitchell

Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell carries a few titles. He is a retired firefighter and instructor, an elder at Word of the Cross Church, and leader of the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus.

First elected to his seat in November 2014, Flagler-Mitchell has championed legislation that would require the safe storage of firearms when they are not in use. He was also a vocal opponent of a now-repealed county law that made it illegal to annoy a police officer or first responder. He also sponsored and passed a measure aimed at diversifying the county’s workforce.

But the last year has been one of scandal for Flagler-Mitchell. He resigned as president of the newly-formed Rochester NAACP after he was accused of sexual harassment for sending a sexually-explicit photo of himself, and other suggestive text messages, to a 19-year-old woman. The woman, now 20, filed a complaint with the District Attorney’s Office and the county’s ethics board. The District Attorney’s Office concluded that no crime was committed, but the county's Ethics Board recently found that Flagler-Mitchell violated the county's ethics code.

This article has been updated to reflect the current status of the ethics case against Ernest Flagler-Mitchell.

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at [email protected].