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Four Democrats Seek Independent Caucus in County Legislature

Patti Singer

Monroe County Democratic Legislator Ernest Flagler with colleagues Frank Keophetlasy, Calvin Lee Jr. and Sabrina LaMar, on Aug. 26 announces a request for a new caucus. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

Four Democratic Monroe County legislators said they want to establish an independent caucus to focus primarily on issues affecting communities of color.

Ernest Flagler-Mitchell, currently the assistant minority leader in the legislature, announced a request to amend legislature rules to create and fund the Black and Asian Caucus.

Legislators Calvin Lee Jr., Sabrina LaMar and Frank Keophetlasy also signed onto the proposed amendment.

The group made the announcement at a news conference Aug. 26 in legislative chambers at the County Office Building.

It was the most recent in a series of events that has fractured the Democratic party and potentially imperiled the agenda of Adam Bello, the first Democratic county executive in a generation. While the parties have collaborated on some bills, Republicans hold a 15-14 majority and could block legislation along party lines.

For months, Democrats have been feuding over the selection of a permanent Democratic commissioner for the Board of Elections. The dispute led to Democrats suing each other and has turned into a fight over their leadership in the legislature.

On Aug. 25, nine Democratic legislators voted to elevate Yversha Roman to minority leader, replacing Felder. That led to legislature President Dr. Joe Carbone adjourning that night’s meeting, in which legislation was to be moved out of committee.

Carbone said he was not picking sides and was adjourning the meeting until there was clarity. However, Felder is claiming to still be the minority leader, and the elections commissioner seems to remain the flashpoint for conflict.

The legislators who supported Roman announced a meeting for Aug. 27 to appoint Jackie Ortiz as commissioner after she was elected by members of the Monroe County Democratic Committee. Legislator John Baynes said he expected that Ortiz would be confirmed.

Felder issued a statement under the letterhead of the minority leader that said any meeting not called by leader would be invalid. He said that the four Black and one Asian member of the legislature were not involved in the deliberations regarding the Aug. 27 meeting.

“It should be clear to everyone why we saw (Aug. 26) press conference,” Felder said in the statement. “I am doing my best to try and hold this caucus and the Monroe County Democratic Party together, but these rogue individuals appear to be hell-bent on doing everything they can to destroy it.”

At the Aug. 27 online meeting, nine members of the Democratic Caucus — Rachel Barnhart, Joshua Bauroth, John Baynes, Linda Hasman, Howard Maffucci, Joe Morelle Jr., Roman, Justin Wilcox and Michael Yudelson — voted to appoint Ortiz. Felder, Flagler-Mitchell, Keophatlesy, LaMar and Lee were not present.

As for the Democratic caucus, Roman would be the first Latina to be Democratic minority leader.

The contentiousness could disillusion voters. Roman said over the past few months, she’s noticed more people talking about county government, which is important because the county affects so many people’s lives. “In terms of the hierarchy of government, the county supersedes the city. What I tell voters is that we’re going to continue to push for what’s right and that is ultimately different from what has happened for a really long time.”

At the news conference, Flagler-Mitchell said the Black and Asian Caucus would promote a “bold aggressive agenda for our most vulnerable citizens.”

He cited data from a recently released report from ACT Rochester, which analyzes data including poverty indicators, showing that Blacks and Latinos continue to struggle in areas such as income, home ownership and children’s education.

“Decades have gone by and our children are still suffering,” he said. “Our seniors are still suffering. Our homeless are still suffering. Our families are still suffering. Most of all the working poor, and we do mean the working poor, are suffering the most.”

Flagler-Mitchell said the Black and Asian Caucus would reject what he called “go along to get along” expectations.

“Tyler Perry taught us we don’t need to sit at anyone’s table but instead we can create our own,” Flagler-Mitchell said. “Today we are introducing legislation that would allow us to create our own table where there will be room for all our people and where we can safely address their unique interests and needs.”

Flagler-Mitchell said the Black and Asian Caucus would work with Republicans and Democrats on issues of concern: minority and women-owned business; the criminal justice system and diversion programs; physical and mental health, county employment; indigent burials; child protective services; and impoverished seniors.

“Frederick Douglass said, ‘I will unite with anyone to do right and with no one to do wrong,’” Flagler-Mitchell said. “In the spirit of Mr. Douglass, the time is to do right by our neighbors.”

It was not clear when the proposal would be taken up, although the legislature is scheduled to meet Sept. 8. Flagler-Mitchell did not take questions.

This article was updated Aug. 28 with the vote on the appointment of Jackie Ortiz as Democratic commissioner of the Board of Elections.