As a firefighter, Ernest Flagler saw families in crisis from various traumas.
“When we go to a scene, there are not the services that deal with the mental health of children and families affected by the trauma,” said Flagler, who retired from the Rochester Fire Department after 20 years. “I believe trauma travels from generation to generation. We need to have measures … that deal with trauma that many see on a daily basis.”
Flagler is running for the 137th District seat in the state Assembly in part to focus on mental health issues but also to promote education and job creation.
Flagler, who represents the 29th District in the Monroe County Legislature, said those issues extend beyond county borders.
“The county is looking like it’s going in the right direction,” Flagler said. “To assist the county, I think it’s important to be an Assembly member.”
Flagler declared his candidacy Jan. 7, a few days after Natalie Sheppard, a commissioner on the Rochester City School District Board of Education, announced her intention to run. Both are Democrats.
The seat has been held for nearly 40 years by David Gantt. For the past two years, he has been dealing with health issues for the past two years that limited the amount of time he could be in Albany. The 78-year-old has said he is deciding whether he will run again.
Flagler said that Gantt’s staff remained active even if he wasn’t present at a legislative session. “A lot of that wasn’t being reported on,” he said. “The work was still being done.”
In the news release announcing his candidacy, Flagler called Gantt a friend and mentor who built a legacy by standing up for vulnerable people. People close to Gantt have said he has not indicated what he’s planning to do and they won’t speak on his behalf. Flagler said he was going to run regardless of Gantt’s intentions.
“After talks with my family, we believe this is the best time,” said Flagler, a father of eight. “I just feel its best for me to step out and try to make an impact in the legacy of those who came before me. Constance Mitchell, David Gantt and all of them.”
Flagler is 41 years old and Sheppard is 33.
“The tide is shifting,” Flagler said. “The changing of the guard is taking place. Younger folks are risking up.”
Flagler said that in addition to mental health, he wants to influence policies that affect education and job creation. He said small businesses and minority-owned businesses need to be able to compete for contracts. He said that without access to living-wage jobs, families can get caught up in cycles of poverty.
Flagler said that as an African-American politician, he sees his role in breaking down barriers. He advocated for minority representation in the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. Over the past two years, the department has added an African-American commander and placed a female African-American deputy on the road patrol.
Among other bills, Flagler sponsored county legislation for safe storage of firearms.
Brittaney Wells, chairwoman of the Monroe County Democrats, said there has been considerable interest in the 137th, but no other candidates have yet come forward. She said already having two people, independent of what Gantt decides, shows the strength of the party.
She said the party is in the process of endorsement interviews and is scheduled to announce on Feb. 1 the candidates it will be supporting. However, candidates who don’t get party backing still can run.
“I believe in primaries because I believe people should be able to make the choice on who their representative should be,” Flagler said.
Republicans have not always run a candidate in the general election for the 137th.
Bill Napier, head of the Monroe County Republican Party, said that even if Gantt chooses not to run, conventional wisdom says the 137th is a relatively safe Democratic district. “But I wouldn’t want to sit there and forfeit the race by not entertaining people who want to come forward.”
Napier said there is a potential candidate, but he declined to give a name. “I had a conversation the other day with someone who expressed an interest, but it’s a little premature.”
Candidates can start gathering signatures Feb. 25 for their petitions.
This story was updated Jan. 10 with comments from Bill Napier of the Monroe County Republican party.