How the Democrats Lost the Council Majority

Two years ago, Democrats in Yonkers knew City Council President Chuck Lesnick would be term-limited from running for re-election in 2013, and knew they had to find a Democratic candidate who could win a citywide election for council president. Former City Councilman and mayoral candidate Dennis Robertson was the primary Democratic candidate for council President and took the lead last year in lining up Democratic support in the city.

But in April, Robertson dropped out of the race, citing his desire to spend more time with his family. That left Yonkers Democratic Party Chairwoman Symra Brandon two months to find a candidate for City Council president, and either considered, or should have considered, these eight qualified possibilities – including herself:

1 – Ivy Reeves
2 – Terry Joshi
3 – Councilman Christopher Johnson
4 – Councilman Michael Sabatino
5 – County Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins
6 – Yonkers Democratic ChairwomaN Symra Brandon (herself)
7 – Former Yonkers Democratic Chairwoman Ann Muro
8 – Assemblymember Shelley Mayer

County Board Chairman Ken Jenkins, fresh off having the Democratic nomination for county executive taken away from him, had no desire to run for council president; Assemblymember Shelley Mayer also had no interest in leaving her position in Albany to run for the seat.

Both Jenkins and Mayer could be future candidates for mayor.

Terry Joshi considered a run for council president, and may have been the preferred choice of Lesnick to replace him – but Joshi also decided not to run.

The two first-term Democrats on the City Council, Christopher Johnson and Michael Sabatino, were both deemed “not ready,” or that it wasn’t their time to run for council president.

Former Democratic Chairwoman Ann Muro would have been a good fall back option for council president, but was neither contacted or encouraged to run.

Ivy Reeves and Symra Brandon are the two remaining candidates on our list.

Reeves was a logical choice for Democrats to back for council president once the “A list” of candidates decided not to run. Knowledgeable on the issues and progressive in her views, Reeves could have been Yonkers’ first African-American council president.

But the leadership in the Democratic Party did not support, and tried to hinder, Reeves’ run, to the point of supporting an unqualified candidate – Michael Rotanelli – to be the Democratic nominee.

Many Democrats we spoke to disagreed with the decision by Brandon, Jenkins and Johnson not to support Reeves. “Why would anyone want our nominee to be Rotanelli? Couldn’t they see that he was a disaster waiting to happen, and we would lose the majority on the City Council?” said one Democrat.

“Ivy Reeves might not have been able to beat Liam McLaughlin in the general election, but she would have fared a hell of a lot better than Rotanelli, who hurt all Democrats by being on the ballot, including Tim Theotokatos in the Fourth District, and Noam Bramson for county executive,” said another prominent Democrat. “Rotanelli was an embarrassment and somebody should have done something to stop him from representing the Democratic Party.”

“The job of a party leader is to get everyone in a room and make one of the qualified candidates run for council president,” added a Democratic ward leader. “If nobody still decides not to run, then the party leader should step up and run. You can criticize Ivy Reeves and Frank Spotorno and Terry Joshi as not being good council president candidates, but in the end you need to have your own candidate to run for the highest citywide office this year if you are the party leader.”

“In a city of 70,000 Democrats, I find it hard to believe that the leadership of the Democratic Party could not find a qualified candidate to support for council president,” said a former Democratic elected official. “Their silence resulted in Rotanelli winning the primary, and that turned into a train wreck that Democrats were running away from him.”

“Our city leader needs to be out there meeting and recruiting new Democrats to join our party and run for office,” said another Democratic leader. “Our chairperson also needs to be making sure our ward and district leaders circulate petitions for our candidates and gather enthusiasm for the November election. None of this happened this year.”

In the end, Liam McLaughlin was elected council president, and with victories by incumbent Republican Councilmen John Larkin and Dennis Shepherd, Republicans will now hold a 4-3 majority on the council for the next two years.

Yonkers Democrats will select their next chairperson of the city committee in 2014. Will anyone step forward to challenge Brandon, who is now co-chairperson with Ken Jenkins? 

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