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LaMar, a Democrat, to caucus with GOP and preside over split Legislature

In a video message, Democratic County Legislator Sabrina Lamar announced that, while she will remain a Democrat, she will caucus with Republican legislators and that they agreed to support her as Legislature president.
Screen capture from provided video
In a video message, Democratic County Legislator Sabrina Lamar announced that, while she will remain a Democrat, she will caucus with Republican legislators and that they agreed to support her as Legislature president.

Sabrina LaMar, a rogue Democratic Monroe County legislator, was named the Legislature’s first Black female president on Monday after cutting a deal with Republicans, dashing the hopes of her own party to finally have control of the chamber in which they’ve been sidelined for decades.

LaMar, an anti-violence advocate whose district is anchored in the 19th Ward, insists she is a Democrat and will remain so, although for the previous year and a half she was part of the Legislature’s Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, which voted as a bloc with the GOP majority.

That majority ostensibly changed hands in the last election, when Democrats won 15 of the 29 seats — the first time members of the party had done so since 1992.

But LaMar was elected Legislature president with her vote and the support of the 14 Republicans. The 14 other Democrats voted for their caucus leader, Yversha Roman.

While it remains to be seen how LaMar will govern the Legislature, in practical terms the Democrats could have just as difficult a time getting their agenda to the floor as they did over the previous 30 years. LaMar is starting her third year in the Legislature and her ascent is a reflection of the divisions and politics of the body.

“I am not afraid to reach across the aisle to deliver results for my constituents,” Lamar said in a statement early Monday announcing her pending election. “I represent a district that is largely African American and one with a significant number of residents in poverty and I sincerely believe I can best serve my neighbors as the president of the Legislature.”

Her statement went on to read that she intends to “rise above partisan politics” and instead be “a bridge between 'politics as usual' and getting things done.” She also pledged to be even-handed with legislators, regardless of party affiliation.

But the Legislature is a political animal. Over the decades, the Republican majority frequently froze out Democratic proposals, either preventing them from reaching the floor for a vote or reintroducing slightly modified versions of legislation as their own.

In winning 15 of the 29 seats, Democrats have a one-seat majority on paper. But a majority in a legislative body so closely divided is vulnerable to an individual legislator, or coalition of legislators, swaying the agenda. That was the case with the Legislature’s Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, which formed a bloc with Republicans.

All of the caucus’s members, save for LaMar, have been ousted. Former members Ernest Flagler-Mitchell and Frank Keophetlasy were defeated in primaries, as was former Legislator Vince Felder, who was allied with the group but was not a member. Legislator Calvin Lee did not seek reelection.

The caucus emerged from a rift between those five legislators and the eight other Democrats in the chamber over who should serve as the county’s Democratic elections commissioner. Ultimately, former City Council member Jackie Ortiz, who was backed by the majority of Democratic legislators, was elected to the position by Monroe County Democratic Committee members.

The losing faction then caucused with Republicans to form a veto-proof supermajority that often stymied the agenda of County Executive Adam Bello, who was politically aligned with the majority of Democratic legislators, several of whom are white and from the suburbs. The Republican caucus is entirely white and suburban.

LaMar has not shied from upsetting the Democratic establishment.

In July 2020, LaMar called for Rep. Joe Morelle to resign, claiming that he tried to get her fired from her job at Rochester Institute of Technology, where she oversaw the Community Engagement to Reduce Victimization initiative.

A representative of Morelle’s congressional campaign office had complained to RIT regarding LaMar’s appearance in a video posted to Brighton Town Board member Robin Wilt’s Facebook page. At the time, Wilt, a Democrat, was running a primary against Morelle.

LaMar kept her job and accused Morelle of using his position to try to get her fired. Former Mayor Lovely Warren spoke in support of LaMar, claiming that Morelle was seeking retribution against LaMar for calling his son, Joe Morelle Jr., a racist. It was unclear in what context or when that accusation occurred.

In other developments, several key Legislature positions were filled Monday. Brew will continue to serve as majority leader, since the GOP plus Lamar equals out to 15 of 29 votes, and Roman will continue to serve as minority leader. David Grant, who had been the Legislature clerk during the prior session, was reelected to the position. Keophetlasy was elected deputy clerk by Republicans and Lamar, with the other 14 Democrats voting for another candidate.

Lamar selected Republican Legislator Brian Marianetti, the Republican caucus's former leader and Greece town attorney, to serve as vice president.

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached

Jeremy Moule is a deputy editor with WXXI News. He also covers Monroe County.