LONSBERRY: Judgeship Has Big Meaning

A black woman was elected to countywide office in Rochester, for the first time ever, and it didn’t make the evening news.

That’s too bad, from a historical perspective. It also shows a lack of insight into the changing winds of Monroe County control and the dynamic of Democratic and race politics in the Rochester community.

Fatimat Reid overcame an election-night disadvantage to edge Nicole Bayly out of a Monroe County Family Court win. Reid will join Alecia Mazzo in victory in the four-candidate race, and both will take the bench in January.

Mazzo’s win may be the last Republicans see countywide for a while. With a 50% enrollment advantage, and a seemingly galvanized constituency, Democrats look very strong in all races on the horizon.

That growing Democrat dominance was a part of Fatimat Reid’s win, but it doesn’t explain all of it, and it overlooks subtleties that speak to the strength of Reid and her supporters.

The first is that, surprisingly to some, Reid’s candidacy was opposed behind the scenes by Mayor Lovely Warren, herself an African-American female. In what insiders have described as an agreement with Conservative Party Chairman Tom Cook, Warren promised to suppress the Democratic candidates in order to help Cook’s candidates – Mazzo and Bayly – win.

Mazzo and Bayly were both exceptionally well qualified candidates. And getting them elected was a priority for Cook, who has helped arrange Monroe County judicial elections for decades.

But the deal put the black female mayor – who often speaks of the importance of increasing black political power and interests – in the position of opposing two black female candidates – Fatimat Reid and Zuleika Shepard.

Assemblyman David Gantt, the patron of Mayor Warren, had a surrogate challenge the nominating petitions of Reid and Shepard, trying to get them kicked off the ballot. Gantt has built his career around the assertion that he is a force for black political power.

The opposition of Warren and Gantt was all the more surprising because the political forces that put Reid and Shepard on the ballot were specifically focused on their race and gender and personal background. Very active and passionate Democrats, mostly women of color, believed that the life experiences of Reid and Shepard as black women gave them an insight that was missing and crucial on the Family Court.

Reid especially, raised in Nigeria and herself a foster child separated by Family Court from her birth sister, was rallied around as a champion of non-white female representation. At some public appearances, the introductions she was given by supporters hit that point hard and passionately.

She was a cause candidate.

And she won.

Which means her cause was taken to heart by voters.

And for those voters, especially for those who saw her as a champion of a group, this win is very big.

The fact that Lovely Warren, herself a racial-identity candidate to a degree, would quietly oppose Reid and Shepard can be seen as an act of betrayal, or – more accurately – as a building level of sophistication within Rochester’s non-white political community. Nobody would be surprised if a white politician did not support a white candidate, so why is it a big deal if a black politician did not support a black candidate?

But to those for whom race, culture and background were important, Reid’s win is big.

Reid doesn’t have much experience as a lawyer in Family Court. She is the chief of staff at the Rochester City School District, used to work for the City of Rochester, and was well-regarded by Brighton town officials – she did tax work for them – and by the Davidson Fink firm, where she was a successful associate.

And now she is to be sworn in as an elected countywide judge. 

That is a very significant victory for her personally, for those who supported her in the face of bipartisan opposition, and, ultimately, for the Democratic Party itself.

It may well signal the beginning of a takeover of Monroe County judgeships by the Democrats, if they become more focused on selecting and supporting candidates. Their large and probably growing enrollment advantage demonstrated itself in this Family Court race, where two very well financed and organized Republican candidates were essentially played to a tie by Democrats who had small budgets and kitchen-table organizations.

Just as the Democrats control all City Court judgeships, in passage of time they could reasonably dominate countywide judgeships. 

Which spills over into non-judicial elections.

With the county executive and district attorney on the ballot next year, Democrats have to think their chances are pretty good of taking those offices.

Which raises the reasonable speculation that Alecia Mazzo may be the last successful countrywide candidate the Republican Party sees for a while.

Bob Lonsberry

Bob Lonsberry

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