Sabrina LaMar will become the president of the Monroe County Legislature today, crossing party lines to caucus with the Republicans and become the first black woman to lead the body, and the first city legislator to wield the president’s gavel in more than 30 years.
The move comes after an election that saw the Democrats win a narrow 15-14 majority in the legislature, ending a generation-long reign by the Republicans.
Or so it looked when the ballots were counted.
But events over the last six weeks – for Republicans – and the last five days – for Democrats – cemented the switch, elevating LaMar and maintaining Republican control of the Legislature.
Though, at its core, it goes back further than that.
It goes back a year and a half to a letter written by Monroe County Democrat boss Congressman Joe Morelle, a letter in which many believed he tried to get Sabrina LaMar – her family’s breadwinner – fired from her job at a local college. In the storm that ensued, LaMar filed an ethics complaint against Morelle, and the official to whom Morelle wrote eventually left her position.
That happened in the context of a breakaway caucus of mostly black Democrat legislators who voted with the Republicans, and a years-long perception by some black Rochester politicians that Morelle worked against the interests of themselves and their constituents – culminating in a string of his endorsed white candidates defeating black opponents.
That left Sabrina LaMar with a burn.
And when the election put Democrats ahead 15-14, that left her with all the power in the world.
Republicans seem to have realized that immediately, and Democrats seemed never to have realized it fully. Republicans began talking with Sabrina LaMar right away, and Democrats delegated the responsibility to Yversha Roman, who was the Democrat minority leader. Both Roman and LaMar are legislators of good character, but it doesn’t seem that Roman had the authority to engage in the horse trading necessary in a situation like this.
The Republicans opened discussions by sending in their county party chairman. LaMar felt disrespected in the face of a pretty meager offer, and the requirement that she register as a Republican. Subsequently, the Republican majority leader, Stephen Brew, coordinated the discussions. Ultimately, a tentative agreement was reached that Sabrina LaMar would caucus with the Republicans, she would be the Legislature president, and Brew would be the majority leader.
That general understanding seems to have been in place for quite some time.
For their part, the Democrats mostly presumed that LaMar would caucus with them. They also received some assurances from Yversha Roman that LaMar was on board.
But by and large, the Democrats took Sabrina LaMar for granted. They didn’t really pay her any attention.
Instead of making sure they really had a majority, the Democrats fell into an inside fight between progressives and moderates.
And so it was that on Thursday of last week, when the incoming Democrat legislators met to select the new Legislature president, nobody apparently caught on when Sabrina LaMar said she wanted to be a presidential candidate. Instead, she cast the lone vote for herself, and the other votes went to Yversha Roman – 10 – and Michael Yudelson – 4.
Then John Burns Baynes raised the issue of who would be the majority leader – the Number 2 position in the caucus. The only declared candidate was Rachel Barnhart. It was communicated, most in attendance thought, that the Michael Yudelson votes would not go to Yversha Roman if Barnhart was going to be majority leader. Instead, it was argued that a suburban Democrat should have that position. They threatened to shoot down the Yversha Roman presidency if they didn’t get to pick the majority leader.
That leaves us at yesterday, when the Democrats met to vote for majority leader.
Ominously, Sabrina LaMar was not in attendance.
That voting ended after three ballots showed the caucus deadlocked at 7-7 between Rachel Barnhart and Michael Yudelson.
Those numbers are probably reflective of the breakdown between moderate and progressive Democrats in the caucus. Moderates are adamant that giving prominence to progressives – like the cop-haters on City Council and people like Barnhart in the Legislature – will scuttle the re-election prospects of Democrat County Executive Adam Bello and cost the Democrats seats in the Legislature. That division is, according to people in the caucus, raw and real, and threatens to permanently and significantly divide Democrats.
All of which becomes far less significant to county governance by the announcement today by Sabrina LaMar, coming in a pre-recorded video statement, that she is building a “bridge” with the Republicans and will form with them a “Majority Caucus.”
The move brings a legislative prominence to her progressive, urban priorities, it makes her 19thWard constituents a lot more powerful than they would otherwise have been, it puts a black person in charge of the Legislature for the first time since 1987, and it earns her an extra $54,000 a year.
It also rebukes the political machine of the congressman she believes tried to get her fired.
And it spares the county the legislative consequences of the Democratic civil war.
And it may also lead to better relations between the Legislature and the county executive. Sabrina LaMar is more prone to agree with Adam Bello’s liberal priorities, Stephen Brew wants to work with Bello whenever principle allows, and the narrow margin of control ought to push government to the middle.
If the executive wants partnership, the new leadership in the Legislature is more apt to give it to him.
Finally, there is also the story of Sabrina LaMar. A year and a half ago, the political world tried to crush her like she was meaningless. Today, she is arguably the second most powerful person in county government. There is something satisfying about that, and a reminder of what can happen when you don’t give up or sell out.
There is also the fact that legislation favorable to black Democrats in the city is going to be possible this Legislature – just like in the last Legislature – thanks to a partnership with white Republicans in the suburbs.