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Principles over party: New Democratic Legislature president on caucusing with GOP

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Gino Fanelli
/
CITY
Monroe County Legislator Sabrina LaMar.

After the absentee ballots were counted in Monroe County, Democratic County Legislator Sabrina LaMar approached both the Republican and Democratic caucuses with a proposal: She would align with either side, giving either party a razor-thin majority, if they made her Legislature president.

On Monday, the Republicans obliged, making her the first Black woman to hold that role. She said a person with her recent political history needed the top job.

“I firmly believe that in order for my voice to be heard, which is important when trying to represent my district, I needed to be pushed to the front of the line in order to be able to do that,” LaMar said. “I’m sure you know about the rift that has happened over the last year and half and not party support from my colleagues would really hurt my constituency.”

LaMar is the last member standing in the Black and Asian Caucus, a splinter group of Monroe County Democrats who voted with Republicans for much of the last two years. All of their districts are in the city of Rochester. That alliance formed a veto-proof supermajority in the legislature.

During that time, the caucus and former Legislature Democratic leader Vince Felder had skirmish after skirmish with other Democrats. The clashes included a lawsuit about the selection of the Monroe County Democratic Board of Elections commissioner.

Despite saying she’s unsure whether the rift would continue, she said she sees no reason to leave the party, even citing the principles of Frederick Douglass as part of her rationale.

“I have always been a Democrat. I plan to remain a Democrat. I plan on being nothing but a Democrat,” LaMar said. “Frederick Douglass was never loyal to a single party, but he was loyal to one platform and that was achieving the improvement, freedom, equality, and equity for all and that's the stance I'm taking as well.”

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James Brown
/
WXXI News
The chambers of the Monroe County Legislature.

When the complexion of the Legislature became clear in early December, Democrats held a 15-14 majority. Legislator Yversha Roman, the Democratic caucus leader, said her caucus considered Lamar’s proposal about a month ago and had discussions over the last few weeks. Initially, Roman said, LaMar did not want to follow their process.

“The way that the Democratic caucus functions, everyone has the ability to communicate their wants, their desires, in regards to leadership and originally Sabrina did not want to do that,” Roman said. “We have been engaging in good faith conversations to ensure that we brought some cohesion to the Democratic caucus of the legislature.

“The unfortunate reality is that that we’ve seen a deal that has left the Democrats in the minority again, when in fact we should have majority status in the Legislature,” Roman continued.

Ultimately, the caucus picked Roman as their choice to be Legislature president. Both LaMar and Roman say they’re willing to work with each other. Roman is cautiously optimistic about the future.

“I choose to believe that everyone has good intent, especially as elected officials. What we see in the upcoming year or two will continue to shed light on if in fact individuals are just out for themselves or paying attention to the needs of the community,” said Roman.

In the short term, LaMar said she’s turning her focus to finalizing the redistricting process. In the longer run, she’ll push for reform at in the District Attorney and Sheriff's departments and would like to play a large role in choosing the county’s next public defender.

“Some of those departments are still working as if it was 1999 and its 2021, so that the unique differences need to be addressed. You know what was going on then, it's not going on now,” LaMar said.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.