The coronavirus pandemic has made normal campaigning impossible, but Bill Napier’s mission is the same as it was before the virus struck: to make sure the GOP’s local candidates win their races this fall.
“The commitment to getting our message out remains unchanged,” says the Monroe County Republican Committee’s newest chair.
Napier has his work cut out for him. The GOP’s five-seat majority in the Monroe County Legislature dropped to just one seat last November. At the same time, Democratic County Clerk Adam Bello defeated incumbent Cheryl Dinolfo to take the county executive’s office, the first time the GOP lost that key position in three decades. Adding to Napier’s burden, COVID-19—which forced a lockdown, leading to high unemployment rates and a weakened economy—remains a threat in Monroe County.
The county GOP has 21 candidates on the ballot for local, state and federal offices this year, including those who are running for county clerk, for seats in the state Assembly and Senate, and for New York’s 25th and 27th congressional districts. Of those running for office, 17 are in competitive races. Though New York has gone Democratic in every presidential race since 1984, the GOP also will be working to get out the vote for President Donald Trump.
When I met with Napier in late February, November’s results didn’t appear to bother him. The coronavirus pandemic had yet to ravage Monroe County.
Red, white and blue
Sitting at a table in the Monroe County GOP’s headquarters on Rochester’s State Street, the party’s chair seemed relaxed and friendly. As a local conservative news station flashed its chyrons across a television screen, Napier recounted a personal political history that reflected a longtime dedication to the GOP. His wristwatch’s band was in the style of an American flag, and when the time came to take his picture, Napier offered to pose hugging the American flag in the room.
Every election can involve a lot of work for local party machines, but Napier should be used to the grind of running one by now. He has worked on two presidential bids, a run for the 25th Congressional District seat and two campaigns for the bench of state Supreme Court, as well as other efforts to put Republicans in office. Greece Town Supervisor Bill Reilich appointed Napier acting vice chair of the county GOP in June 2019, then stepped down as local party leader. Napier took the party’s helm in an acting capacity until he was elected chair. The 53-year-old Brighton resident has also held a number of important positions in county government—he was assistant county executive twice.
Napier was born in Henrietta, the oldest of two children. As a young child, he moved to Brighton with his family. Napier’s father, the late William J. Napier, a co-founder of Manning & Napier, a financial services firm, was largely apolitical.
“I asked him one time who he wanted to get elected in a race,” Napier said. “He said he wanted whoever was going to make the stock market go up.”
Nonetheless, the elder Napier took his son to a Brighton church when the boy was about 6 years old and introduced him to the act of voting.
“My father picked me up in one of the old voting machines in the basement of the Our Lady of Lourdes church and had me pull the lever for Nixon,” Napier recalled. “I think he may have regretted it after the fact. He grew to dislike Nixon.”
It wasn’t until he entered Georgetown Preparatory School that Napier caught the political bug. He attended the Jesuit high school, which is located in a Washington, D.C., suburb, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
“I met a number of people who were involved in politics,” Napier said. “My friend Neil’s mother was the head of the EPA under Reagan.”
Anne Gorsuch Burford, the mother of Neil Gorsuch, headed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency back then. Napier maintained his friendship with Gorsuch, his Georgetown Prep classmate, after they left the school. He watched his friend U.S. Supreme Court chief justice in the first year of Trump’s presidency.
Other Georgetown Prep alumni have achieved high federal office as well, including Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell and Associate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whom Trump nominated for that position amid much controversy in 2018. Napier and a large number of the private school’s alumni signed letters in support of Kavanaugh’s and Gorsuch’s elevation to the Supreme Court.
After graduating from Georgetown Prep, Napier obtained a B.S. in politics and history from Curry College, in Milton, Mass. He then went on to work on two unsuccessful presidential campaigns: President George H.W. Bush’s 1992 re-election bid, and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole’s 1996 run for the office. When then-Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks made an unsuccessful run for the seat of Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter in the 25th District in 2012, Napier was her deputy campaign manager.
The campaigns Napier managed for Brighton Town Justice John Ark were more fruitful. Ark was elected to the state Supreme Court in the 7th District in 1993, and re-elected in 2007. In 2010, Napier managed the successful re-election bid of former Rep. Chris Lee in the 26th Congressional District.
While participating in political campaigns, Napier has also held a number of important positions in county government. These include two stints as assistant county executive—one under Brooks and the second under former County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo. He has also served as the county’s director of communications, and as the chief of staff for the County Legislature’s Republican caucus. For nearly 23 years, he was the managing trustee for a foundation that his family started, the Napier Family Trust, which closed in 2015.
When asked about last November’s vote tallies, Napier noted that Bello rode a slim margin into the county executive’s office—just 3 percent of all votes cast. He blamed some of the GOP’s electoral losses on high turnout in Rochester. That, in turn, may have been due to the presence on the ballot of a popular referendum on the establishment of a Police Accountability Board, which passed by a wide margin.
“There was a significant uptick in the number of people who voted in the city of Rochester last year, although there was relatively little on the ballot to otherwise get them out to vote,” Napier explained. “Votes in the city typically go to 70 to 75 percent Democratic.”
Earlier this year, Napier said that the GOP’s losses in the County Legislature wouldn’t lead to more compromising with those across the aisle.
“Nearly everything that’s done at the county level flows through the County Legislature,” he said. “The county executive can do little to nothing without reaching across the aisle and getting support from the Republican majority.”
Timothy Kneeland, professor and chairperson in history and political science at Nazareth College, also did not believe the new balance in the Legislature would lead to more intraparty cooperation.
“A slim majority, because of the way that elections generally evolve in the United States, there’s really no benefit to crossing the aisles,” Kneeland said. “It tends to irritate your most faithful voters, who want a more clear articulation of their ideology.”
That’s the kind of situation that could result in more partisan infighting, not less.
“Sometimes it even gets nastier, as parties are struggling to regain the majority that they lost,” Kneeland said. “The other party, which is trying to gain the majority, has little incentive to do anything bipartisan which might keep themselves in the minority.”
Acting County Clerk Jamie Romeo was more optimistic about the possibilities of bipartisanship in the reconstituted Legislature. The Democrat has worked on the staffs of a number of Democratic legislators, and represented the 136th state Assembly District. Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed Romeo to her current job in February. She recently won the Democratic primary.
“I’ve been very encouraged and very optimistic, with the conversations we’ve seen in the beginning of this year,” she said. “Both sides are coming together … and working together to make smart decisions, to make good policy decisions on behalf of this entire community.”
Since November, Napier says Republican county legislators have joined with Democrats a number of times.
“They funded new positions and added more resources to the Board of Elections,” he says. “The county executive vetoed that, and the bipartisan, veto-proof majority of 20 voted to override the county executive’s veto.”
In a pandemic’s shadow
Nearly every part of the current election cycle has fallen under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. No more rallies for candidates or knocking on doors to gain voters’ support—at least, for now. Citing the health risks posed by the virus, Trump announced on July 23 that he had canceled the part of the Republican National Convention that was going to be held in Jacksonville, Fla., a coronavirus hotspot. Monroe County hasn’t suffered as deeply from the pandemic as other parts of the country, but as of August 12, 4,818 people had tested positive for the coronavirus and 289 had died.
To reduce the risk of contracting or transmitting the disease, Napier and his staff conduct most party business by telephone and over the internet. Candidates and party volunteers also reach out to voters by telephone, through social media and by other means.
“There hasn’t been a lot of traditional door-knocking and ringing of doorbells,” Napier says. “When they have gone door to door, they primarily have been leaving literature.”
The pandemic appears to be receding from Monroe County, but people are still feeling its economic effects. Unemployment was 11.3 percent in metropolitan Rochester in June, up from 3.9 percent a year before. Napier says the GOP will offer business owners clear guidelines for restarting their operations.
“We need a clear, unambiguous path towards getting people back to work, opening up the economy,” he says. “As of yet, we don’t seem to be getting that from the leadership in Albany.”
Monroe County Republican Committee Secretary Larry Staub, who has known Napier since 2012, said Napier was up to helping the GOP’s candidates win their races.
“(He’s) very smart, very energized, and really someone who is a great strategist,” Staub said. “There might be some positions that some candidates might take that sound really good at this point, but a good party chairman is able to say, ‘Yeah, that sounds good today, but that could bite you in the ass in six months or two years.’”
As Election Day draws closer, Napier expects his days and weeks to grow longer, until he’s working without break from the early morning until late at night. Napier’s wife, Beth Anne, his 13-year-old son and his 12-year-old daughter have helped him get through many an election cycle.
“I try to make the effort to do as much family stuff as I can,” he says.
But now, though he loves his job, he must deal with stresses that he hasn’t had before.
“The challenges that our current environment has created make me wake up in the morning with a game plan,” he says. “That may last (until) around breakfast time, and (I) totally have to revamp and scramble and set off in a new direction.”
Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.