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POLITICS: Fall primaries have a crowded city ballot

Jeremy Moule

Fifteen Democrats are running for Rochester City Council: three times the number of available seats. For School Board, seven Democrats are going after three seats. And there are primaries for two city-based County Legislature seats.

It's President Obama's fault.

"He energized a whole new group of people who had never been involved in politics before," says Monroe County Democratic Committee chair Joe Morelle, "and I think that that's starting to be reflected in the new faces that we're seeing."

O.K., so that's Morelle's lighter, simplified take on September's city Democratic primary contests. This year does fit a pattern; local elections that follow a big presidential-election year often draw more interest from voters and political activists, Morelle says. But not all of this year's candidates are new faces. Some are incumbents; others are challengers who have appeared on the ballot several times in the past. Some are incumbent elected officials seeking a different office.

Issues are at play as well: some candidates for City Council and School Board disagree with one another on policy.

Just as important: Republicans don't have a strong presence in the city, and this year there are no GOP candidates for citywide seats. That means that candidates who win these primary races are virtually assured of winning in the general election. "This is the election," Morelle says.

And in one race, at least, there are charges of ulterior motives and outside influence. Janice Bowers is challenging Carrie Andrews, the endorsed incumbent, for the 21st District County Legislature seat. But Republican operatives passed petitions for Bowers, which led Democratic Party leaders to speculate that the GOP may be working with Bowers to try to protect its majority status in the Lej. The Bowers camp says the candidate is just taking a stand against party politics-as-usual. Janice Bowers says she's running to help and serve her community.

Although Mayor Bob Duffy is running for re-election, he has no opponent in the primary, so City Council is the main event. A field this crowded presents an opportunity for a newcomer or outsider candidate to defeat an incumbent or a party-endorsed candidate.

Morelle thinks that won't happen, however.

"The people that will have the greatest advantage are going to be people whose names are well known," he says. Regardless of whether candidates received the party's designation, says Morelle, "I think people do tend to migrate towards more familiar names, especially with a big group likes this."

(The City Council primary presents a particularly interesting contest among well-known names. The Democratic Party endorsed incumbents Carolee Conklin and Dana Miller but did not endorse two others: John Lightfoot and Council President Gladys Santiago. The party also failed to endorse Tom Brennan, a School Board member running for City Council.)

The other wild card will be turnout. With no mayoral primary to draw Democrats to the polls, Morelle says, some races could be decided by "a few hundred people" or less.