For the first time in three decades, voters in a small corner of upstate New York are about to choose someone new to send to Congress.
The 25th District, which includes Rochester and its suburbs, had appeared set to re-elect Democrat Louise M. Slaughter to her 17th consecutive term in November, until the iconic congresswoman’s unexpected death in March.
To area Democratic voters, Slaughter was a legislative heavyweight who made sure Rochester got its fair share from Washington, as the Rust Belt city struggled with a flagging economy and a decline in manufacturing jobs.
And ahead of Tuesday’s primary, her legacy looms large.
“Everyone still thinks of the seat as Louise’s,” said Jamie Romeo, chairwoman of the Monroe County Democratic Committee. “People knew her, they would see her in Wegmans, they would talk to her. She was a very effective lawmaker and a very effective advocate.”
The governor has yet to call a special election for the seat (and it is unclear if he will). In the meantime, four candidates are running for the Democratic nod on the November ballot, each pitching themselves as worthy successors to Slaughter. The winner will be highly favored in the general election, with Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rating the race Solid Democratic. Hillary Clinton carried the district by nearly 17 points in 2016.
Joe Morelle, the New York State Assembly majority leader, is the presumptive front-runner and touts his experience as an asset.
“I’ve met with members of leadership [in Congress] and I think what they have expressed to me is, ‘It’s not every day a majority leader from a big state like New York runs for the House, and when that happens we try to find ways to make use of that’,” he said.
Also in the race are Rachel Barnhart, a former broadcast journalist; Adam McFadden, vice president of the Rochester City Council; and Robin Wilt, a member of the town board of Brighton.
Morelle reported raising almost $630,000 through June 6, outspending his Democratic opponents 3-to-1. Since launching his bid in March, he’s racked up key endorsements from the New York Democratic establishment, including prominent allies of Slaughter and organized labor.
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One challenge facing the Democrats in the district is making sure voters know an election is actually happening.
“Many, many people are completely oblivious of this campaign,” said Timothy Kneeland, a political science professor at Nazareth College.
In part, that’s because area Democrats aren’t accustomed to congressional primaries. Slaughter faced one insignificant intraparty challenge over her 30 years in Washington. And New York’s congressional primaries were in September, not June, for most of that period.
Campaign observers widely expect turnout to be low, so stronger get-out-the-vote operations will likely make a difference.
And with only three months to reach voters, hardly a quarter the length of a typical congressional election, the less-established candidates have had to run their campaigns door-to-door.
Few significant policy difference separate the four Democrats running, but Barnhart, McFadden and Wilt claim more authentic progressive bonafides. All three have raised only a fraction of Morelle’s campaign cash, and favor overhauling campaign finance laws.
Barnhart, the former journalist, said she was a “crusader for ethics and integrity” and framed Morelle as the face of the New York state Legislature’s reputation for corruption and dysfunction. She has run twice in the area unsuccessfully — in 2017 for mayor of Rochester, and in 2016 for an Assembly seat.
“I covered Joe Morelle for twenty years. He inspired me to get into government, and not in a good way,” Barnhart said. “The voters do not want to send Albany to Washington.”
Barnhart received the endorsement last month of Elizabeth Crothers, a former Assembly staffer who accused a top Democratic aide of rape in 2001. Morelle told reporters at the time he did not believe the allegation against the aide, who was later convicted of a similar offense.
Morelle apologized last month for his 2001 remarks after Crothers endorsed his opponent, saying in a statement that he spoke “without full knowledge of the situation” and he “cannot imagine the pain” Crothers and other victims of such abuse are experiencing.
McFadden, a Rochester official, has centered his campaign on local issues, particularly improving education to prepare young people for emerging technology-based job markets. He is hoping to eke out a win by turning out his base in the city and banking on low overall turnout.
There are stark splits among Democrats in the district — between the more diverse and often progressive activists in Rochester and Brighton, and the wealthier, white suburbanites with more conservative positions about the state’s budget, Kneeland said. Liberals are favored in Rochester and Brighton, but moderate campaigns work better in the suburbs.
Wilt, like Barnhart, frames herself as a grass-roots progressive, contrasting herself with Morelle’s establishment support and political connections.
But voters are inclined to pick someone who can win in November and beyond, a local Democratic strategist said. That attitude could benefit Morelle, a veteran legislator whom Slaughter herself first recruited to run for a county seat when he was 24.
“Honestly, the campaign hasn’t been about issues, it’s been about who can step up to the job,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity to discuss the race freely. “We don’t have time for someone to learn the ropes.”
Eye on November
While Morelle’s many friends at high levels of New York politics have been integral to his political assent, a few of them are becoming political liabilities as he aims to take his career south to Washington.
The sole Republican running for the seat, neurosurgeon Jim Maxwell, is expected to run against Morelle’s ties to Alabany in the fall, should he win, according to a national GOP official familiar with the race.
Republicans are also planning to draw attention to Morelle’s relationship with two now-disgraced past colleagues, former state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, according to the official, who described the strategy as “guilt by association.”
Morelle dismissed that strategy as “a logical fallacy” and said Republicans are stooping to tie him to other lawmakers because his own ethical record is clean.
Meanwhile, Maxwell, an outsider with no political baggage, has a campaign war chest to match Morelle’s and a compelling personal biography tied to the community.
“He’s a neurosurgeon; he’s saved lives and operated on people in this district,” the Republican official said. “And we’ve seen outsiders do better and better in the past few election cycles.”
Campaign rhetoric aside, national Republicans don’t regard the 25th District as within their reach this cycle. Slaughter almost lost the seat in 2014, winning by less than a point. But she won a rematch by 12 points in 2016, and the district is not on the National Republican Congressional Committee’s target list of 36 Democratic seats.
Morelle said he expects Maxwell to distance himself from President Donald Trump in the Democratic-leaning district.
“I think the Republican candidate is so embarrassed by President Trump that he’s going to try to pretend he’s a Democrat,” Morelle said.
A spokesman for Maxwell’s campaign said the contrast between the GOP hopeful and Morelle “could not be clearer.”
“Morelle will attack our campaign to divert attention from his role as king of the Albany swamp, but voters will see the truth,” the spokesman said in an email.
Morelle said he’s “taking nothing for granted,” either on Tuesday or in November, if he wins. But he said voters in the district know his record well, and noted that he and the woman he hopes to succeed “shared many of the same values.”
“Louise was in many ways unique in that she was able to rise to a position of influence and importance in Washington, and yet at the same time remain incredibly devoted to people in Rochester,” Morelle said. “That has been something I’ve tried to model in my career.”