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Here is a quick look at the people who want to be mayor of Rochester.
Brian Sharp, Carlos Ortiz

Outside the spotlight consumed by the city’s contentious mayoral race, there is another political skirmish afoot in a crowded campaign for Rochester City Council.

The underlying ties between both contests betray the political division that perpetuates among local Democrats.

And while Mayor Lovely Warren has called for unifying the party, her campaign has not done so — instead aligning with a mixed slate of Council candidates running with and without party support. The differing camps blame one another for the split. But party leaders downplay its importance, saying the time to unify will come after the primary.

“People are being stretched thin in wanting to support people,” said Democratic Party chairwoman Jamie Romeo. “We have got to start stepping up to make sure we are setting an example. But we have to go through the primary process. There is no heavy-handedness here where we are forcing people (to fall in line).”

Sixteen candidates are vying for five at-large seats on the nine-member City Council. Thirteen are Democrats, setting up the Sept. 12 primary. Only three are incumbents. 

More: Warren shows commanding cash lead over other mayoral candidates

More: Warren releases list of ‘missing’ donors

First-time candidate Mitch Gruber has raised and spent the most, according to financial disclosure reports filed with the state last week. And the nearly $16,150 he had on hand also led the field.

“Not bad for a new guy,” Gruber said.

Fellow first-timer Mary Lupien was a close second, and carries nearly $15,000 into the final weeks of the primary campaign, records show.

Neither secured the party nomination. Gruber hasn’t gone it alone, however.

In the all-important petitioning process to secure a ballot spot for the primary, he jointly passed petitions with Warren, Council President Loretta Scott and Vice President Dana Miller, and Council challengers Malik Evans and Willie Lightfoot. Lightfoot was the only other non-nominee on the list. A perennial petition challenger aligned with Warren since has challenged all Council candidates in the Democratic field, save for these five.

The two party nominees for City Council who were left out, or defected — incumbent Jackie Ortiz and newcomer Matt Juda — have aligned with mayoral challenger and Monroe County Legislator James Sheppard and his team.

“Clearly there is a little bit of a separation, and I think it all boils down to who you are supporting for mayor,” said Miller, adding the divide among party designated candidates is the first in his four Council campaigns. “It’s unfortunate but that’s the way it is.”

Gruber has not staked a public position on the mayoral race, and intently refocuses any question about the matter to his City Council campaign. 

“Look at my (financial disclosure) filing, look where the dollars come from,” he said. “You go through line by line, you will see I am still a very independent candidate.”

Warren’s political action committee contributed to Miller and Lightfoot. Gruber declined to say whether any contribution was offered or refused. His campaign filing shows no corporate, union and PAC donations. Individual cash contributions average less than $100 each. He rejects talk of a slate or camp.

“People who were so hell bent on getting the party endorsement, jumped on another petition,” Lightfoot said, countering allegations that it was Warren who split the party ticket. “They didn’t have much faith on the party’s ability to produce.”

Juda said he still only carried petitions for the designated slate. The split doesn’t end with petitions, however, as the separate pairings are jointly distributing campaign literature and coordinating in other ways. 

“If I had the designation, I would support the party’s designated candidates,” Sheppard said. “That is my responsibility. Obviously I am not in a position to do that, I am the candidate choosing to take it to a primary. … (But) I think celebrating and working with the designated candidates is part of bringing the party together.”

Messages left with Warren and her campaign, as well as with Ortiz were not immediately returned Sunday. 

More: Democratic leaders pick Juda over Lightfoot

More: New candidates face challenges breaking in

Ortiz’s campaign filings show contributions from Sheppard along with his supporters, including former mayor Thomas Richards, and the campaign committees for Council members Elaine Spaull and Molly Clifford. 

But this isn’t a clear division.

Clifford’s committee also backed Gruber, along with Juda. Mayoral candidate Rachel Barnhart, meanwhile, gave $50 to Council candidate Shawn Dunwoody. Spaull also gave to Lupien, records show.

Juda and Scott have yet to file financial disclosure reports that were due July 17. Juda blamed a typographical error, and said he re-filed on Friday. Reports filed by the rest of the Democratic field showed the remaining Council candidates had less than $25,800 on hand.

BDSHARP@Gannett.com

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