Over the three and half decades since Monroe County began electing its county executive by popular vote, the position has been held by a Republican in all but four years. GOP dominance was interrupted only when Democrat Tom Frey served a single term that ended in December 1991.
It’s been even longer since a Republican occupied the mayor’s office in Rochester. The last one left office in 1973, more than a decade before Rochester reverted to the strong-mayor system that the city had abandoned in the 1920s.
The fact this city/county political split has lasted so long suggests to many people it’s immutable. The strength of the Democrats’ hold on the mayor’s office is matched by the Republicans’ grip on the county executive’s office.
But this political division belies another fact that few seem to recognize: Monroe County has been undergoing a major shift in party enrollment that clearly favors the Democrats. In fact, the Democrats’ inability to reclaim the county executive’s post in recent years is striking.
At the start of this century, Monroe County Board of Elections records show, the Republican Party had a narrow lead in registered voters. Nearly 36 percent of county voters were enrolled as members of the GOP, compared with 35 percent for the Democrats. Blanks, or those who did not enroll in a political party, accounted for just shy of 24 percent. The Conservative or Independence parties each accounted for roughly 2 percent of registered voters.
Today, the Democrats have a nearly 13 percentage point edge over the Republicans—41 percent to 28 percent. The share of unaffiliated voters remains at 24.1 percent.
The Democrats’ gains in the city is part of the story. They’ve added nearly 14,000 voters since 2000, while the ranks of GOP voters in the city dropped by roughly 7,500, or more than 70 percent. For Republicans, the city is an increasingly lonely place to be—they’re outnumbered by more than 55,000 registered voters.
The even bigger factor, however, is the changing political landscape outside the city limits. Democratic enrollment in the towns has jumped by more than 31,000 (26 percent). And the Republicans? Their numbers are down by nearly 10,500 (9 percent). In 2000, the GOP advantage in the towns totaled nearly 39,000 voters; today, the Democrats have an advantage of almost 3,000 voters.
To be sure, the GOP has held its ground in parts of the county and even outpaced the Democrats’ gains in some towns. But the more significant shift has been in the other direction. For example, Republican enrollment in Irondequoit has slid by more than 4,000—a drop of 45 percent—while the Democrats added more than 3,000, up 28 percent. The Democrats also have posted big gains in Greece, Henrietta, Penfield and Webster; meanwhile, the GOP in two of those four towns has had negligible gains—and in another saw a double-digit decline.
It’s possible some registered Republicans opted to become unaffiliated or switched to the Independence Party, which countywide has added nearly 12,400 voters since 2000, almost doubling its enrollment. But the Conservative Party, which typically cross-endorses with the GOP, has not been a beneficiary; it has gained only 24 voters in the suburbs and overall lost nearly 500.
In the 2015 county executive race, the Democrats ran former Brighton Supervisor Sandy Frankel—one of the local party’s best-known elected officials—against Republican Cheryl Dinolfo, the former county clerk. Frankel lost by 15 points. True, she did better than former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, who was a 28-point loser to Republican Maggie Brooks in their high-profile 2003 race, back when the GOP still had a party-enrollment edge countywide. But still…
What explains the Democrats’ lack of success in county executive races despite the dramatic enrollment shift in their favor? In 2015, poor performance in getting voters to the polls clearly was a factor. Turnout was down overall—it was 31 percent, compared with 56 percent in 2003—but the Republicans outperformed the Democrats by 10 points. Fewer than one in three Democrats voted in the election.
To be competitive, the Democrats need to up their operational game. At the same time, they must do more to field candidates who can both energize party members and woo independents. (In presidential contests, Monroe County has voted blue in every election since 1992.)
What are the odds this will happen before next year’s county executive race? And if it did, would Democratic control of the county executive’s office as well as City Hall be a good thing? I’ll take a pass on both questions.
However, I’m certain about this: If the countywide blue wave continues, it’s only a matter of time before the local Democrats learn how to ride it.