As he sprints toward the finish line in the Monroe County executive’s race, Democrat Adam Bello is upbeat.
“I feel positive about the race right now,” he says.
With a rise in enrollment, Democrats could take the county executive’s office for the first time since the early 1990s.
“I haven’t seen any polling, but based on everything we know, think Bello has a slight advantage—but it will be close,” says Timothy Kneeland, head of Nazareth College’s History and Political Science Department.
The race pits Bello, county clerk and former Irondequoit supervisor, against first-term Republican incumbent Cheryl Dinolfo, who previously served as county clerk.
Bello also is running on the Working Families Party line, and Dinolfo is on the Conservative and Independence lines.
For Democrats, the path to retaking the county executive’s office has been long and steep.
The Republicans have held the top slot in Monroe County government in all but four years since the county began electing its county executive by popular vote more than three decades ago. The only Democrat elected county exe cutive was the late Tom Frey, whose one term ended in 1991. Despite a steady increase in Democratic voter registrations, the GOP has maintained an iron grip on the office.
Monroe County’s two major parties were about evenly matched back in 2000, in terms of voter enrollment. Thirty-six percent were registered as Republicans, and 35 percent as Democrats.
By the time Democratic Brighton Supervisor Sandy Frankel ran against Dinolfo in 2015, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans countywide by nearly 43,500. Even with that edge, she lost by 19,315 votes, or more than 15 percent of those cast.
Other factors influenced that race’s outcome beyond party affiliation. Poor outreach hampered Frankel’s ability to gain voters’ support. Plus, off-year elections—those held on odd-numbered years—usually have low turnout.
“A lower voter turnout is definitely going to help the Republicans,” Kneeland notes.
Since then, the number of registered Democrats in the county has grown even larger. By October 2017, Republicans and Democrats made up about 28 percent and 41 percent, respectively, of the county’s registered voters.
That edge might have helped local Democrats score a number of upsets that year. Todd Baxter bested longtime Republican incumbent Patrick O’Flynn in the race for Monroe County sheriff, taking an office that had been held by Republicans for decades. Democrats also beat GOP incumbents to take control of Henrietta’s town government, win the race for Clarkson supervisor, and fill two seats on the Pittsford Town Board.
Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Monroe County by 60,628 that year. Statewide, Democrats swept high-level positions in state government—governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general—and took control of the state Senate for the first time in years. Meanwhile, Assemblyman Joseph Morelle handily beat his Republican opponent to take the late Rep. Louise Slaughter’s House seat. Though many local positions remained in Republican hands, Democrats managed to unseat the incumbent mayor in the village of Fairport and one member of the village board, both of whom are Republicans, and to place a second Democrat on the board.
The fight for leadership
Bello’s platform includes a pledge to give the county better leadership. From fostering job growth to assistance in the war against opioid addiction to providing assistance to families and children, Bello believes county government should make a difference and impact in people’s lives.
If elected, Bello wants to reform how the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency, which operates as Imagine Monroe, hands out tax incentives. The tax breaks are designed to spur job creation, but Bello asserts that the financial assistance has not always been awarded appropriately. As an example, he points to Imagine Monroe granting a large tax exemption to the Midtown Athletic Club, to help the business undertake a $10.3 million renovation project.
“It’s a high-end, luxury athletic club,” Bello says. “They received a half-million-dollar tax incentive for a project that, when questioned, they said they would largely do most of the project without the tax incentive.”
Morelle and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, also a Democrat, have endorsed Bello. Before television cameras at a café on Rochester’s West Main Street, Warren praised the Democrat as someone who could bring “new leadership” to Monroe County, and restore the city-county partnership that existed in the 1980s.
A number of unions also have endorsed Bello, including the Monroe County Sheriff’s Association and the state chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The Committee for a Strong Economy, the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce’s political action arm, has endorsed him as well. In the most recent campaign finance filing, for Oct. 1 through Oct. 21, the Adam Bello for Supervisor campaign committee reported an opening balance of $210,320, total receipts of $118,097, total expenses of $252,587 and a closing balance of $75,830.
Requests to interview Dinolfo for this article, including one made face-to-face, were unsuccessful. Her campaign slogan is “She gets it done,” and on the stump she plays up her accomplishments in office.
Dinolfo talks about securing 20,000 jobs for Monroe County since taking office. She also speaks of lowering county property tax rates, and of having saved the county money. Dinolfo asserts that her elimination of the county’s local development corporations alone saved taxpayers $30 million.
Dinolfo’s reelection Facebook page and campaign website do not identify any endorsements. Her campaign did not respond to a request for a list of endorsements. In its most recent filing, covering the first three weeks of October, the Friends of Cheryl Dinolfo campaign committee showed an opening balance of $370,959, total receipts of $125,822, total expenses of $458,904, and a closing balance of $37,877.
In a comparison of all registered voters in the parties that support each candidate for county executive, Bello has an edge over Dinolfo of nearly 40,000. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans countywide by 66,540, but the Conservative and Independence parties contribute 28,300 to Dinolfo, while the Working Families Party adds only 1,564 to Bello’s tally.
While that might leave local Democrats optimistic, turnout will be a key factor again this year.
“I think you’re going to see a turnout that’s going to be much more similar to four years ago,” Kneeland predicts. “Two out of three people who are registered to vote probably won’t even bother.”
Early voting, which began on Oct. 26, probably won’t boost the number of people who head to the polls by much, he says.
“There is some marginal growth in voting—a single-digit percent where they’ve done it,” Kneeland says. “Most experts do not see a significant increase.”
Early voting edge
In Monroe County, early voting could benefit Republicans. Except for one location in Rochester, all the early polling sites are in suburbs, many of which tend to go the GOP at election time.
Low turnout could particularly affect the Democratic Party, which tends to attract younger voters. These voters often are less economically secure and more transient than those who are older. Their attention might be more on their college studies or first jobs than elections, particularly those at the local level, Kneeland says.
“They don’t know the candidates,” he says. “The issues don’t seem salient to them, because many of them don’t have the economic stake that middle-class people do, in terms of property taxes.”
Voters affiliated with the GOP, on the other hand, tend to be older, and go to the polls in greater numbers.
“They tend to come out more faithfully, irrespective of whether it’s a presidential election, mid-term election or an off-year election, like the county exec and DA races,” Kneeland explains.
While older county residents are in the majority, more than 21 percent of county residents are aged 20 to 34. Given that, the Bello campaign might need to reach out to that group.
Those who left the space on the registration form for party affiliation empty—sometimes called “blanks”—also could play an important role in November.
“Even though they’re not officially affiliated with one party or another, they tend to vote like Democrats or Republicans,” Kneeland says.
This year, 110,388 county residents, or 24 percent of registered voters, are unaffiliated. That’s more than enough to secure a win for either candidate for county executive.
“The blanks are critical to success, particularly for the Republicans, who are down in numbers,” Kneeland observes.
Both candidates need to get the blanks out on Election Day. That’s not easy.
“People who are not affiliated with one of the major parties, they’re less likely to vote than people who are enrolled in one of the major parties,” Kneeland says.
The race factor
Monroe County’s largest minority group could give Bello clout at the polls. An estimated 114,344 African Americans live here, or 15 percent of all county residents. About 41 percent of that group lives in Rochester.
“Nationally and locally, African Americans are going to be affiliated with the Democratic Party,” Kneeland says.
Ninety percent of African-American voters pulled the lever for Democratic candidates around the country in 2018, according to a Pew Research Center report.
Many local African Americans might not see the county executive’s race as worth their attention, however.
“I don’t think that the Monroe County executive’s role is a role that many African Americans believe … directly benefits them,” says Rochester resident Melissa Parrish, an African American and longtime community activist.
If Bello is to bring all who might cast their ballots for him to the polls, outreach will be essential—and the personal touch is important.
“Door-to-door canvassing—any kind of personal contact between the candidate and the voter—increases the likelihood that … people will vote, and by extension, that they’re going to cast the ballot for you,” Kneeland says.
One way for Bello to reach out to African Americans is through visiting their churches.
“There are a lot of people in Rochester that are attending churches on a regular basis, and who take their marching steps from their community, and their church and their pastor,” Parrish says.
Warren’s endorsement could be a significant advantage for Bello.
“She is considered one of our own, and if she supports a candidate, that candidate is likely to receive the general support of those African Americans not otherwise aligned with other candidates for that same race,” Parrish explains.
Bello says the mayor has been actively stumping for him.
“She’s knocking on doors, phone calling,” Bello says. “A couple weeks ago, I visited a couple churches with the mayor.”
Getting voters to the polls
Even with the increase in Democratic voter registrations, the Bello campaign has remained focused on getting out the vote.
“A big piece of our campaign is getting people out to vote and identifying who our supporters are,” Bello explains. “We’re using traditional campaign methods, television, digital advertising, door-to-door canvassing, phone calls. We have a huge team knocking on doors.”
Aaron Gallant, communications director of the AFSCME Council 66, says the council plans to engage in outreach for Bello, some of it on the streets.
“We believe that he will support workers, not just county workers but workers across various sectors and public-sector workers,” says Gallant, who also coordinates political activities for Council 66.
Council 66 represents 80 union locals spread across Upstate New York and down into the Hudson Valley, and has 3,000 members in Monroe County. The organization had planned to send as many as 30 members to Greece this week to knock on doors for Bello and Dan Maloney, a Democratic candidate for the Monroe County Legislature. Council 66 has also donated $2,100 to Bello’s campaign.
Bello’s advantage, in terms of registered voters, doesn’t worry Timothy Splain, a staunch Dinolfo supporter and family friend who has donated to her campaign.
“I think it has made the race more competitive for her, given the enrollment numbers, but I’m confident that many voters are like me, that cross party lines for the candidate,” says the founder and principal of the Law Office of Thomas M. Splain, P.C.
Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.