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In Democratic primary, Meeks sees a challenge from Lightfoot

Incumbent Demond Meeks will be challenged by City Councilmember Willie Lightfoot in the sole major election in this year's Democratic primary election.
Incumbent Demond Meeks will be challenged by City Councilmember Willie Lightfoot in the sole major election in this year's Democratic Primary election.

The race for the 137th District seat in the state Assembly stands as the sole contest for a state office in this year's Democratic primary election.

Incumbent Demond Meeks and his challenger, Rochester City Council member Willie Lightfoot, are well-known figures in Rochester politics.

Meeks, a former labor organizer with 1199 SEIU, was elected in 2020 while running on a largely progressive platform, emphasizing housing reform and labor rights. Lightfoot, a retired Rochester firefighter and current barber, has been a fixture of local government. He was a county legislator from 2005 to 2015, and was elected as an at-large Rochester City Councilmember in 2017, a seat he still holds.

The two will square off in the primary on June 25. The winner faces Republican Marcus C. Williams in the general election.

Demond Meeks

New York State Assemblymember, Demond Meeks, at Baden Street Settlement for an announcement of a multi million dollar investment by the state in Baden Street facilities and programing.
Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
New York State Assemblymember, Demond Meeks, at Baden Street Settlement for an announcement of a multi million dollar investment by the state in Baden Street facilities and programing.

Demond Meeks' victory in the 2020 Democratic primary marked a pivotal moment for Rochester politics. Meeks had challenged former County Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell for the seat, which was formerly held by the latter’s mentor, the late Assemblyman David Gantt.

Gantt had been something of a kingmaker in Rochester politics over his decades in office. His political stewardship brought figures like Flagler-Mitchell, former Mayor Lovely Warren, and former Legislator Vince Felder into office.

In vying for his third term in office, Meeks seeks to continue advancing progressive initiatives. On the housing front, he supports bringing rent control to Rochester and passing Good Cause Eviction protections, saying Rochester is in a “housing crisis.”

Meeks also supports increasing financial literacy programs to assist first-time homebuyers.

“We see thousands of Rochesterians that are paying their rent on a monthly basis, right?” Meeks said. “If these individuals can afford to pay that rent, we can also look at ways to set those same individuals on a track to being an actual homeowner, where they can build equity and wealth.”

On the public safety front, Meeks supports policies like the Bail Elimination Act of 2019, often referred to as “bail reform.” He is a proponent of policies focused on “restorative justice,” aimed at stamping out the root causes of crime.

“We have to be looking at the perpetrator of the crime as well as the victim of the crime,” Meeks said. “Sometimes what we find is things can continue on from one generation after the next as far as violence is concerned.”

Meeks also supports implementing a progressive income tax in New York to help pay for things like expanded Medicaid and educational opportunities.

Last year, Meeks introduced a bill to enact that policy. Under his proposal, a person would pay increasingly more taxes to the state depending on their income, with a higher percentage taken out of the income earned above each tax bracket. That bill is currently held in committee.

“Those who make $25 million-plus a year have more disposable income than everyday working people,” Meeks said. “I think those are things we can be intentional in, in passing those types of laws and that type of legislation to affect changes for the masses.”

Willie Lightfoot

Rochester Councilmember and barber, Willie Lightfoot, gives long time customer, Jimmy McCann, a hair cut at his shop, New Creations, on Jefferson Ave.
Max Schulte
/
WXXI News
Rochester Councilmember and barber, Willie Lightfoot, gives long time customer, Jimmy McCann, a hair cut at his shop, New Creations, on Jefferson Ave.

Walking through his Jefferson Avenue neighborhood, everyone seems to know Willie Lightfoot. About every passerby on the sidewalk reaches out for a handshake. Folks driving down that westside strip shout “Hey Willie!” from their car windows.

The Lightfoot name is well-known in Rochester politics. Lightfoot’s father, the late Willie W. Lightfoot, served as a county legislator representing the Jefferson Avenue area for nearly 20 years. His cousin, John Lightfoot, also served in the Legislature, representing the 25th Legislative District from 2012 until his resignation in 2020. Prior to his time in the Legislature, Lightfoot served as a member of Rochester City Council from 2006 through 2009.

Lightfoot looks at Jefferson Avenue as an apt example of Rochester’s issues. Corners once boasting vibrant local businesses, including his father's, are now vacant lots.

“It was normal to me as a kid to see Black and brown people owning stuff,” Lightfoot said. “Ownership was no new thing for me, it was no new idea, it was a common thing. All of those empty lots used to be businesses.”

Lightfoot attributes much of his drive for public office to the initiative given by his father. But he also sees his run for office as rallying for opportunity in his own neighborhood.

“People think all roads lead to the city, but really, a lot of those roads lead to the state, state law,” Lightfoot said.

In his time on Council, Lightfoot has served as a relatively moderate figure, with his largest critiques focused on things like the Rochester City School District budgeting and the Rochester Police Accountability Board.

But after his campaign launch, Lightfoot aligned more strongly with the Council's progressive faction, made up of members Mary Lupien, Kim Smith, and Stanley Martin. Among the causes he has since trumpeted are “pausing” the city’s reassessment process, adopting a resolution calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas War, and opposing a downtown business improvement district.

Lightfoot has three main issues he's focusing on during his campaign.

“Public safety, mental health, and jobs,” Lightfoot said. “That’s something, to me, the state should have direct impact on.”

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.