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Longtime Assemblyman David Gantt has died

Assemblyman David Gantt talks to reporters in February about his decision to retire.
James Brown
Assemblyman David Gantt talks to reporters in February about his decision to retire.

Longtime local Assemblyman David Gantt has died, his office said early Wednesday evening.

The 78-year-old Gantt had announced in February that, under the advice of his doctors, he would not seek re-election. Gantt had been having dialysis treatments over the last few years.

He was in his 37th year in the Assembly. His current district, the 137th, includes parts of Rochester and Gates. He said at a news conference about his retirement that he intended to use his spare time to work with young people.

“I had a good time,” Gantt said at the news conference. “I’ve done a lot of work. I will absolutely miss it. I’ll miss the work. But I’ll do it. I’ll do it in a different way.”

A statement from Gantt’s family and staff on Wednesday described him as “one of Rochester's foremost civil rights pioneers,” who carried on the legacy of his mother, Lena Mae Gantt, “in fighting unapologetically on behalf of poor people in the Greater Rochester Community for over 45 years.”

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said in a statement that Gantt "was a father to me."

“He loved me unconditionally and inspired me to be who I am today," Warren said. "He saw something deep within me and did everything he could to help me, and countless others, achieve their dreams."

Gantt began his first Assembly term in 1983, becoming Monroe County's first African American elected to state office. Before serving in Albany, he was a Monroe County legislator for eight years. 

Warren said Gantt leaves "a lasting legacy in this community because he always stood up for what was right and for the people he represented." She said he worked for decades to serve the community.

"He worked and served tirelessly to lift up our City and all of its people," Warren said. "He also believed in me when few did. He inspired me, took care of me when I was sick, guided me as (I) built my career and my family. And, he will always be part of my family. He has not only lifted me up, but countless people throughout our community."

She added: " I am proud of him for all that he did to lift as he climbed.  He may be gone but he will never be forgotten.  I will always remember his undying love for the Rochester community.  He fought a good fight, finished his race and now he has gone home to be with the Lord.  I will do all that I can to live up to the expectations he had for me.  He was not just a father to me, but also my political mentor.  I will forever miss him, and on behalf of the City of Rochester, I extend my deepest condolences to his family.  May he rest in peace with the Lord.”

City Council President Loretta Scott, in a statement, called Gantt "a close and trusted friend for over 50 years."

"Our community has lost a transformative leader, a civil rights pioneer, and a fierce advocate for equity," Scott said. "As the first Black leader from Monroe County elected to state office, David changed the landscape of our community and gave a voice to the disenfranchised."

Scott said Gantt "fought for affordable housing, voting rights, access to healthcare, reliable infrastructure, and safe neighborhoods" and he "never backed down in his pursuit of justice."

Rochester City Councilman Michael Patterson grew emotional as he recalled his relationship with Gantt.

“My father just died. Those are my feelings,” Patterson said. “Look, I would be no type of any kind of elected official at all if not for David Gantt. Without his support and his counsel, I would not have figured out how to run for office."

Patterson also said Gantt truly cared for the community.

"David was out here working for everybody," he said. "Contrary to what some people believe, and this may come as a shock to some people, David loved everybody. And he was one of the most forgiving damn people I’ve seen in my life. There were times where he forgave people when I was like, 'What the hell, man?' And he’d be like, 'Mike, you can’t hold a grudge.' "

Former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson said he and Gantt weren't always "on the same side of the issue," but noted that even when they disagreed, "it was in an honorable way."

When Johnson ran for mayor in 1993, he said he wasn't Gantt's "first choice for mayor."

"I wasn't his second choice. I wasn't his third choice," he added. "He worked hard to get his candidate elected and get me defeated. There's no secret about that. That was clear. But once I won that election, he swung around and without me even asking, he said to me, 'Whatever you ask, if I can help you from Albany, whatever you need for the city of Rochester, I will do that. I will get that for you.'

"In 12 years, there was never one single time that David did not do everything he could to help me. Even when he disagreed. Even when it was something he didn't like."

Johnson called Gantt "a very complex man" and noted that some people didn't understand how a politician could be sometimes gruff instead of trying to curry favor.

"That wasn't David Gantt. He didn't like something, he didn't like you – he'd tell you to your face," Johnson said. "But what he liked, what he supported, you knew it. … You knew where he stood. And if he told you -- this is my experience with him -- if he gave you his word, he kept his word.

"He did it his way," Johnson said, "but you see, he wasn't always disagreeable. He wasn't always gruff. He had those things that were important; the northeast section of Rochester, the poorest quadrant in the city, the poorest sector in this whole county, he didn't blush. He was not ashamed to say, 'That's where I was raised. That's where I live. I'm going to do what I can to try to change the dynamic.' "

Vince Felder, minority leader of the Monroe County Legislature, called Gantt "one of the greatest individuals this city has ever produced."

"He has a history of close to 50 years of fighting on behalf of the poor and the downtrodden, of being a strong voice and not backing down and putting the people before himself," Felder said. "He was an example for all of us, and he made it clear to us that these positions don’t belong to us, they belong to the people, and our job is to represent the people.”

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello also spoke of Gantt's legacy of service and activism.

“Assemblyman Gantt was a fighter, a voice for the voiceless and a mentor to numerous community leaders, elected officials and everyday citizens alike," Bello said in a statement. "His impact and advocacy can be seen throughout the city of Rochester and the communities that he was elected to represent for nearly four decades. His efforts in the State Assembly and his strong belief in our community will be felt for many years to come."

Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a statement on Wednesday night saying that Gantt was, “a career public servant who never left his neighborhood and always took care of his community.“

"I've known and worked with David for decades," Cuomo said, "from my father's administration to my time at HUD through my time as governor. Like his mother Lena, David spent his career fighting poverty and advocating for the underserved. We shared a mutual respect for one another, in part because we both came from strong mothers who taught us the value of doing good for others. He was plain spoken and always let you know where he stood, and I will miss his friendship and presence in the Capitol.

"On behalf of the family of New York, I send my deepest condolences to David's family and loved ones during this difficult time."

State Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie said in a statement that he will mourn Gantt and called him "the longtime dean of the Assembly’s Rochester delegation."

Heastie said Gantt had "an unwavering commitment to the people of Rochester" that showed from the time he was a youth counselor in Rochester to his service in the Monroe County Legislature and then the Assembly.

"David was a friend and mentor and I will dearly miss him," Heastie said. "I know I speak for all my Assembly colleagues in extending my heartfelt condolences and prayers to his family and friends. May he rest in peace."

Assemblyman Joe Morelle, a Democrat from Irondequoit, said that, “I join the entire Rochester community in mourning the loss of my colleague and longtime partner in government, Assemblyman David Gantt. Assemblyman Gantt was a dedicated public servant and fierce advocate for Rochester whose passion and tenacity will be dearly missed.”

Monroe County Legislator Ernest Flagler Mitchell, who had Gantt’s backing to run for the 137th District Assembly seat this year, said that, “Words cannot express the hurt and devastation that I am experiencing in my heart, mind and spirit. David was a man after my own heart. David Gantt saw the "best" in me and he began to cultivate his work in me. David Gantt took out valuable time with me and showed me what it means to be a Man of Honor, not only that but a man for the people.”

Gantt's office said details on funeral arrangements will come later.

Includes reporting from WXXI News reporter James Brown and Beth Adams.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's director of news and public affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.