Last November, Democratic challenger Adam Bello defeated incumbent Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, a power shift that could be described as years in the making—or even years overdue.
Over two decades, the county’s Republican Party had lost its enrollment edge, a profound change—yet one so gradual that it went unrecognized by many who did not follow local politics closely. Helping to obscure it was the Democrats’ failure to wrest the county executive’s office from the GOP.
In 2019, that changed. For only the second time in the nearly four decades since Monroe County began electing its county executive by popular vote, the Democratic candidate was victorious.
The question now is whether the Democrats can continue to ride the blue wave here, using their momentum to consolidate their gains. The 2020 election—already under way with early voting that started Oct. 24—could provide the answer.
The GOP’s lost edge
The Republicans began this century with a slight edge in registered voters—roughly 36 percent to 35 percent for the Democrats, Monroe County Board of Elections records show. Blanks, or those who did not enroll in a political party, made up 24 percent of registered voters. The Conservative and Independence parties each accounted for roughly 2 percent.
The two major parties remained neck and neck for a couple of years. Then the Democrats gained the advantage—initially due to a decline in the Republicans’ ranks but then boosted by a big jump in Democratic enrollment when Barack Obama ran against John McCain in the 2008 presidential contest. The gap has widened since then.
The shift in the political landscape has occurred both in the city of Rochester and its suburbs. In fact, some of the Democrats’ biggest gains have taken place in the towns surrounding the city—long GOP strongholds. Suburban Democratic enrollment has increased by some 43,700 (49 percent), while the Republicans’ ranks have declined by 10,680 (more than 8 percent). As a result, since 2000 the GOP has gone from a suburban advantage of nearly 39,000 voters to a deficit of more than 15,570 voters.
In 2003, when the two parties were closely matched in enrollment, former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson was a 28-point loser to Republican Maggie Brooks in their county executive contest. By 2015, the Democrats had built a sizable enrollment edge, but Republican Cheryl Dinolfo, the former county clerk, still beat former Brighton Supervisor Sandy Frankel by 15 points. Four years later, then County Clerk Bello flipped the script, defeating Dinolfo by 3 points.
While a number of factors surely played into the Democrats’ failure to win the county’s top elective office before 2019, operational performance clearly had been lacking. Take 2015. It was a low-turnout election—31 percent of registered voters overall—but fewer than one in three Democrats went to the polls. In terms of turning out the vote, the Republicans outperformed the Democrats by 10 points. In 2019, 41 percent of registered Democrats voted, and the GOP’s turnout advantage narrowed to fewer than 7 points.
Factoring in the presidential race
The coronavirus pandemic makes predictions about turnout this year a tricky business. However, presidential races typically cause vote totals to jump—in no presidential year since 2000 has Monroe County turnout been less than 76 percent—and in the highly polarized race between Republican President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger, the down-ballot impact here could be decidedly in the Democrats’ favor.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton beat Trump in Monroe County by 52,010 votes. Since then, the Democrats have increased their share of registered voters to 42 percent from 40 percent while the Republicans’ share has declined to 27 percent from 28 percent. (The Independence Party, which often cross-endorses with the GOP in local races, also lost ground, from 5 percent to 4 percent; the Conservatives were unchanged at 2 percent, as were unaffiliated voters at 24 percent.)
Since 2016, the Democrats’ ranks in the city have grown by 4 percent; in the towns, the gain was even larger—4.8 percent—for a total increase of 4.6 percent. By contrast, the Republicans continued to lose ground in the city (down 8 percent) and in the suburbs (down 1.1 percent) alike, for a countywide decrease of 1.7 percent.
The chief countywide election this year is the clerk’s race in which GOP county lawmaker Karla Boyce is running on the Republican and Conservative lines against Democrat Jamie Romeo, whom Gov. Andrew Cuomo named to the position after Bello—who himself was named clerk after Dinolfo defeated Frankel in 2015—took office as county executive. Romeo is also on the Working Families and Independence lines.
In 2016, Bello beat Greece Town Clerk Cheryl Rozzi 58 percent to 42 percent in the county clerk’s race, winning an office long held by Republicans. Will Romeo keep the office in Democrats’ hands? The odds seem to favor her. Along with the Democrats’ enrollment advantage in the county, Romeo has a clear edge in campaign contributions. Since Jan. 1, her campaign committee has raised more than $72,000, the state Board of Elections financial disclosure database shows. Boyce has raised less than half—$33,680.
Two other races for offices long held by Republicans—the 55th and 56th District state Senate seats—have attracted more attention and considerably more money from contributors. The 56th District is entirely in Monroe County; in the 55thDistrict, some 88 percent of registered voters are in the county, with the rest in Ontario County.
In the 56th District, Sen. Joseph Robach won re-election in 2018 over Democratic challenger Jeremy Cooney, 56 percent to 44 percent. Though a comfortable margin, his victory was narrower than two years earlier, when he defeated Ann Lewis, 63 percent to 37 percent.
Robach did not seek re-election this year. One likely factor was his diminished influence in Albany since the Democrats gained control of the Senate. But he also couldn’t ignore the enrollment shift in the district. Since 2016, the Democrats’ ranks have grown by 3.6 percent; in contrast, the GOP enrollment has decreased by 2.1 percent, and the Conservative and Independence parties shed 4 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively. Democrats now account for 43.6 percent of the district’s registered voters, while the Republicans can claim only 25.5 percent.
In the contest to be decided Nov. 3, Cooney is back for a second try; his Republican opponent is David Michael Barry. While Barry has Robach’s support, he trails Cooney in campaign contributions by a large margin: Through Oct. 23, Barry had raised $32,600 in contributions this year versus $481,945 for Cooney. The Democrat also has benefited from $401,948 in NYS Senate Democratic Campaign Committee expenditures, and he has loaned his campaign more than $52,000.
Cooney is one of a handful of Democrats endorsed this year by the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, which typically favors Republicans. Another candidate backed by the chamber PAC: Samra Brouk, the Democrat running against Republican Christopher Missick in the 55th District.
Like Robach, Republican Sen. Rich Funke decided against a re-election bid. In 2016, Funke ran unopposed. Two years later, he faced a stiff challenge from Democrat Jen Lunsford. Although Funke also was backed by the Conservative, Independence and Reform parties, he managed only a four-point margin—a difference of fewer than 5,000 votes out of more than 127,000 votes cast.
Since 2016, Democratic enrollment in the 55th District has jumped more than 9 percent, increasing from 38.4 percent of all voters to 41.3 percent. The GOP ranks have declined 4.4 percent, to 27.8 percent from 29.5 percent. Enrollment for the Conservative and Independence parties also slid, as did the number of unaffiliated voters.
Missick’s campaign has raised more than fellow Republican Barry. As of Oct. 27, contributions to Friends of Chris Missick totaled $221,037 and the NYS Senate Republican Campaign Committee reported spending $71,273 on his behalf. The state Board of Elections database also shows $220,365 in outstanding loans by Missick to his campaign. But Brouk has outpaced Missick. Contributions to Samra Brouk for State Senate top $501,074, and NYS Democratic Senate Campaign Committee expenditures on her behalf total more than $352,447.
The race has grown more heated as Election Day nears, with each side accusing the other of deceptive, polarizing tactics. During Monday evening’s Voice of the Voter debate, Missick was asked about a door-handle flier that says: “Sorry I missed you! I will call again.” The flier has a photo of Tyquan Rivera captioned “Shot Rochester Police Officer,” and this closing line: “Thanks to Samra Brouk’s bail reform plan I could visit you!” Rivera, who was 14 years old in 2009 when he shot RPD officer Anthony DiPonzio, was convicted of attempted second-degree murder and first-degree assault and spent roughly a decade behind bars.
In response to the question, Missick said: “Listen, it is the message I’ve been trying to bring, that this is dangerous, that we’ve had a 55 percent increase in crime. And I imagine some overzealous members of the community who support me wanted to prove a point.”
However, Missick’s campaign itself has turned to negative campaigning. A series of robocalls includes one that labels Brouk a “carpetbagger” —even though she was born in Rochester and attended public schools in the city and Pittsford—and another that claims “one of her biggest contributors” is a “close associate” of the late New York City financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. (The “close associate” named is LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, whose “few interactions” with Epstein came when he was asked to help raise funds for the MIT Media Lab. Hoffman has written that “the abuse described by Jeffery Epstein’s survivors is abhorrent, horrific, and disgusting.”)
Missick claims he was not the first to launch personal attacks. “I do know that a lot of this started with the negative campaigns that came out from my opponent. Hundreds of thousands of dollars from New York City funneled into negative mailings, attacking not my issues but attacking me personally, my 3-year-old son, my family business, all blatant lies.”
Brouk opted not to respond in kind during Monday’s debate. Instead, she said: “I talk a lot about bringing folks together and I think that’s really important, and not just for this campaign. That’s really been a mandate my entire life.
“When you grow up in the city of Rochester and yet you’ve got this experience of living in the suburbs, which is different, and then you spend every weekend going to church and your cousins’ basketball games in Bloomfield, in a more rural part of the district, you learn a lot about how to bring people together. Even across geographies, even across political ideologies, incomes, professions. And it’s been really important to me that I do the same throughout this campaign and reach out to people and talk about the issues that matter to them.”
A new majority?
The ongoing blue wave in Monroe County could spell the end of the Republicans’ longtime control of the county Legislature. The GOP majority has dwindled from 18-11 after the 2017 election to a one-seat advantage following last year’s vote.
Most of the 15 seats currently held by Republican county lawmakers appear to be safe in next year’s election (though redistricting—if it happens—is a wild card). But in the 5th, 9th and 11th districts, the Republicans won by four points or fewer in 2019—and the Democrats have been narrowing the party enrollment gap. (In the 16th District in Irondequoit, represented by Republican Legislature President Joe Carbone, the Democrats already have a sizable enrollment advantage.)
In Perinton, 11th District lawmaker Sean Delehanty prevailed by only 237 votes of more than 8,500 votes cast, or 50 percent to 47 percent. Four years ago, the district had 6,451 enrolled Republicans versus 5,623 Democrats; now, there are 6,683 Democrats compared with 6,278 Republicans. The GOP’s ability to hold on to the district could hang on support from Conservative, Independence and unaffiliated voters.
To gain the Legislature majority, the Democrats probably will need to retain all of the seats they currently hold. But playing defense may be easier for them: Only one seat that ended up in the Democratic column last year, District 13 in Pittsford and Henrietta, was won by a narrow margin. In 10 races, the Democratic candidate had no GOP opponent.
With current trend lines, then, it’s very possible that come Jan. 1, 2022, Monroe County’s executive, clerk, sheriff and Legislature majority all will be Democrats. It would mark a stunning reversal of fortunes in local politics—and one that could last for years.
If that happens, the biggest challenge facing the county Democrats might not be Republican opposition but mending divisions in their own ranks that have been on display since last November. It’s a price of success that they probably can live with, though.
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.