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Bello campaign ad attempts to tie Assini to 'Juneteenth party' couple

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello (D, WF) and Republican challenge Mark Assini (R, C), debate Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, at WXXI in a Voice of the Voter debate.
WXXI/Voice of the Voter
Monroe County Executive Adam Bello (D, WF) and Republican challenge Mark Assini (R, C), debate Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, at WXXI in a Voice of the Voter debate.

The re-election campaign of Monroe County Executive Adam Bello sent a text message Friday to enrolled Democrats claiming the Rochester couple accused of throwing a racist Juneteenth party is supporting his Republican opponent, Mark Assini.

Assini, the former supervisor of Gates, denied the allegation in an interview and said the political ad reeked of a desperate campaign.

The text included a black-and-white image of Assini wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat overlaid by headlines from news articles about, and quotes related to, Dr. Nicholas Nicosia and his wife, Mary Znidarsic-Nicosia.

The couple became social pariahs and made international news last year when a Rochester firefighter revealed that he had been made to attend while on duty a party hosted by the Nicosias at their East Avenue mansion that he contended parodied Juneteenth and was racist.

Public outrage worsened in the ensuing weeks, whenthe couple called a news conference at which Znidarsic-Nicosia denied being racist but acknowledged running a “blatantly racist” Twitter account.

Ringing the image issued by the Bello campaign was a headline that read: “Look Who’s Supporting Mark Assini. With friends like this, it’s clear that Mark Assini is unfit to be County Executive.”

Sponsor Message
An ad from the Bello campaign links Republican Mark Assini to the Nicosias, the couple who  allegedly hosted a mock Juneteenth party at their East Avenue mansion last year.
An ad from the Bello campaign links Republican Mark Assini to the Nicosias, the couple who allegedly hosted a mock Juneteenth party at their East Avenue mansion last year.

The image was accompanied by a text message that never mentioned the Nicosias by name but read that the couple who hosted “a racist party mocking Juneteenth” attended an event in support of Assini.

“Republican Party leaders rely on city voters staying home during local elections, that’s why they don’t run candidates in the city,” the text concluded. “But Local Elections Matter. That couple will be voting this year — will you?”

The event in question took place the afternoon of Oct. 22 at a Cascade District loft owned by Arnie Rothschild, a political marketing consultant for Assini, and chairperson of the Rochester Broadway Theatre League.

The gathering doubled as a Buffalo Bills-New England Patriots-watching party and fundraiser for Assini. As the game unfolded, people dropped in to meet Assini and some of them donated to his campaign, according to people who attended the event and campaign finance filings on record with the state Board of Elections.

In an interview Friday, Assini acknowledged that the Nicosias attended. He said he met them there for the first time, and that he was dismayed at their presence.

“I was cordial and polite, but at the opportune moment, I pulled my friend (Rothschild) aside and I told him that I was disappointed and that I would not accept any money from them,” Assini said, adding that he left the fundraiser shortly thereafter.

“In life, there are times that you can’t control the circumstances you’re in or who is in the room with you,” Assini said. “But you can control your own behaviors and how you address those issues. I chose to stand by my principles without hurting my friends and other people at the party and doing it in a quiet and firm fashion. I didn’t want to make a scene.”

Rothschild in a phone interview confirmed the exchange between he and Assini took place.

The event raised $3,600 for Assini from 13 contributors, including the husband of the Orleans County Legislature chair and former Assemblymember Brian Kolb, according to campaign filings.

Assini, who trails Bello in money raised and spending by a wide margin, said the text message from the Bello campaign linking him to the Nicosias “goes to the heart of what is happening in their campaign.”

“The campaign is falling apart, and they are desperate to find anything to pin on me, even if they make it up, and this is completely made up,” Assini said.

NOTEWORTHY TIMING

The Bello campaign’s text to Democrats comes on the heels of the Bello administration’s refusal to defend a county legislator, Rachel Barnhart, in a defamation lawsuit brought against her by the Nicosias.

The timing of the text and its claim that the Nicosias threw “a racist party” is noteworthy becausethe Nicosias have sued Barnhart for portraying their gathering, and by extension them, as racist.

Barnhart has been a vocal critic of the Nicosias’ party, which was held in July 2022.

The Nicosias have defended their gathering as political in theme, not racist, and have noted that invitations for the fete referred to it as the “1st Annual Liberal Smashin Splish Splash Pool Party.”

Barnhart declined to comment on the Bello campaign’s text and referred questions to her lawyer, Michael Higgins.

Higgins declined to comment specifically on the Bello campaign's text message.

Last month, Barnhart sued the Bello administration for refusing to defend her in the defamation suit.

Documents filed with her complaint noted that the county’s attorney, John Bringewatt, reasoned that Barnhart was not entitled to a defense by the county because her criticism of the Nicosias did not relate to her official duties as a county legislator.

“The (Nicosia) complaint does not reference any county business, does not reference Legislator Barnhart engaging in any county legislative work, and does not sue Legislator Barnhart in her official capacity,” Bringewatt wrote in a letter to Barnhart.

In her complaint against the county, Barnhart contended that her speaking about the Nicosias, including calling for an investigation into the incident, was in her capacity as an elected official.

The party and the firehouse at which the firefighter who attended the gathering was stationed were in Barnhart’s legislative district.

“Legislator Barnhart’s duties include working with partner governmental entities including the City of Rochester, pressuring other municipalities to fully and fairly investigate allegations of misconduct, ensuring that all municipalities including the city of Rochester engage in fair and equitable employment practices that benefit her constituents, providing services to constituents in need, and investigating the adequacy of current legislation, policies and practices, and informing the public about matters of public concern,” her complaint read.

Barnhart, in a statement, said the county’s refusal to fund her legal defense sets a dangerous precedent for elected officials’ public speech.

“I filed this lawsuit seeking an impartial judicial determination about whether the county is required to defend me,” the statement reads. “I believe that they are required to defend me, and any decision to the contrary will chill the speech of legislators in the future who will have to fear legal costs every time they speak publicly about controversial topics.”

With reporting by Jeremy Moule.

David Andreatta is investigations editor. He joined the WXXI family in 2019 after 11 years with the Democrat and Chronicle, where he was a news columnist and investigative reporter known for covering a range of topics, from the deadly serious to the cheeky.
Gino Fanelli is an investigative reporter who also covers City Hall. He joined the staff in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.