The Nov. 2 election could mark a critical turning point in local politics, giving Democrats control of the Monroe County Legislature for the first time in decades.
The election might be a squeaker, however, and either side could prevail.
Except for a four-year interlude more than three decades ago, when Democrats held the county executive’s office and a Legislature majority, Monroe County government has been the Republican Party’s bailiwick. Democrats wrested control of county government from the GOP in 1987, when Tom Frey defeated GOP County Manager Lucien Morin in Monroe County’s first county executive race.
Morin had served as county manager for 16 years, while the GOP controlled the Legislature. With Frey’s victory, Democrats also won a majority of Legislature seats. But their reign was brief, a four-year interruption of Republican control of county government that preceded and followed the Frey administration until two years ago.
In 2019, the GOP majority in the Legislature was cut from 18-11 to a one-seat edge. And Democrat Adam Bello defeated incumbent Republican County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo.
Now, citing rising Democratic Party registration in key Rochester suburbs, Monroe County Democratic Committee chair Zach King rates the likelihood of his party regaining control of the Legislature as high.
Until a few months ago, the GOP’s advantage in the Legislature was bolstered by a five-member group of Democratic lawmakers calling itself the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, which voted with the Republican majority.
King says he remains puzzled over what moved that group to align itself with the GOP. But the defeat of four caucus members in the June primary by candidates aligned with the rest of the Legislature’s Democrats defanged the breakaway group.
The numbers edge
Party enrollment today would indeed appear to signal a Democratic advantage in the upcoming Legislature contests. Monroe County now has substantially more registered Democrats than Republicans—an edge of slightly more than 79,000. But unaffiliated voters—numbering more than 122,000—and those enrolled in third parties often can play a decisive role in county elections.
On Nov. 2, all 29 Legislature seats are on the ballot. Five Democrats face no opponent. In a sixth district, the race is between two progressives. One is running on the Democratic line; the other is on the Working Families Party line. Each would caucus with Democrats.
Only two Republican county lawmakers are running unopposed.
Still, county Republican chair Bernie Iacovangelo says he is confident his party will retain control. Party registration will play less of a role than the quality of each candidate, a factor that favors his party’s candidates, Iacovangelo insists. The race, he adds, will turn on local issues, an area in which the GOP slate shines.
If local issues are what matters to voters, it is news to Sean Delehanty, an incumbent Fairport Republican who is on the stump in hopes of keeping his 11th District Legislature seat. Unlike past races in which he felt reasonably certain of the result, the outcome of this election is an inscrutable black box, Delehanty says. He blames his inability to read the electorate almost entirely the rise of extreme partisanship.
“It used to be the focus was on candidates and not so much on the party,” Delehanty laments. “Now you hear people say: ‘I’ll never vote for a Republican’ or ‘I’ll never vote for a Democrat.’”
Two years ago, Delehanty narrowly defeated Democratic challenger Josh Foladare, 4,262 to 4,025. In voting on the Republican and Democratic lines, Foladare had an edge of more than 500 votes—even though in the district registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats, 6,231 to 6,180. Delehanty’s advantage on other lines—including 677 Conservative votes—delivered his victory. As of Oct. 1 this year, Democrats in the district outnumbered Republicans, 6,784 to 6,074, a big swing that could boost Foladare’s chances.
Foladare’s take on this year’s race is not much different than his opponent’s.
“It’s been interesting at the doors,” he says. “There is definitely more polarization. But I think more people just want to see good government. I’ve talked to Republicans who say they will support me. I’ve talked to Democrats who seem cagey. I don’t know what to make of it.”
What will the race’s outcome be?
“My best read is that it’s 50-50,” says Foladare. “I can’t say how it will come out.”
The Democrats’ King professes certainty equal to Iacovangelo’s that the race will turn on local issues and that his party’s slate will appeal most to voters on that basis.
Nevertheless, says political scientist Timothy Kneeland, a factor not likely to become clear before the election’s results are tallied is what role each party’s national story line plays as an already yawning chasm between the polarized parties increasingly widens.
Voters are more polarized than in any recent election, says Kneeland, professor of history, politics and law at Nazareth College. Partisanship is high and each party’s national positioning is likely to play a more significant role in local elections than the party chairs are willing to concede.
How exactly the parties’ partisan narratives will play in Monroe County’s Legislature contests is not an easy read, however.
“A year ago, I would have said the Democrats will finally get control of the Legislature,” Kneeland says.
Now, he is less sure.
If local Democrats’ chances are indeed flagging, Kneeland believes, the party’s increasingly troubled national profile is at least partly to blame. As prices continue to rise and the pandemic refuses to go away, President Joe Biden’s poll numbers are sinking. Meanwhile, congressional Democrats continue to squabble over Biden’s agenda, stalling reforms Biden promised to pass.
Current polls now give Biden an average approval in the low 40s. A recent Gallup poll had the president at 42 percent, down from a high of 57 percent, while a Grinnell College poll put Biden’s approval rating at 37 percent.
Republicans blame Biden for stubbornly rising inflation while characterizing the object of congressional Democrats’ squabbles—Biden’s Build Back Better agenda—as packed with costly “socialist” giveaways like free community college and free dental and vision care for seniors on Medicare.
Many Democrats are equally scornful of Republicans, citing the party’s attempts to downplay the Jan. 6 riot in which a mob encouraged by former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol, threatening lawmakers and vandalizing the building in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s election victory.
Many Democrats likewise see the GOP’s increasing acceptance of Trump’s false narrative of a “stolen” election and the party’s relentless purge of members who deviate from those claims as additional reasons to hold the Republicans in contempt. But polls indicate some are losing heart.
“The local races are not national,” County Democratic chair King insists. Factors like Biden’s stalled agenda as well as anger over the Jan. 6 riot will “have no impact” on the Legislature races. Democratic candidates in suburban districts are going door-to-door and mostly finding enthusiastic support while discussing entirely local issues, he maintains.
The GOP’s Iacovangelo takes a similar line but is ready to bring in national issues he sees as favoring his party. Pointedly mentioning Biden’s low approval ratings, Iacovangelo blames inflation entirely on the president. The GOP chair specifically cites rising gas prices, blaming their spike on Biden’s decision to kill the Keystone pipeline.
Intended to bring Canadian shale oil to the United States, the controversial pipeline drew fierce opposition from environmentalists and Native American groups. It remains uncompleted. Experts see spiking gas prices as due to a complex range of factors behind slumping crude oil production and supply as drillers and distributors face largely pandemic-related challenges.
Immediately after the Jan. 6 riot, Iacovangelo condemned the mob’s actions, triggering heavy criticism from some fellow party members. Now, he declines to discuss the riot and likewise declines comment on Trump’s stolen-election narrative. It has no bearing on local races, Iacovangelo asserts.
An issue Iacovangelo is happy to mention is rising local crime, a trend he lays at Bello’s feet, particularly citing the county executive’s recent veto of a county Legislature initiative that would have had local scrap yards document any purchases of automobile catalytic converters.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, catalytic converter thefts along with vehicle thefts, car jackings and burglaries have risen nationally during the pandemic. Thieves cut the catalytic converters out of vehicle exhaust systems and sell them to scrap yards, which pay high prices for the valuable metals the anti-pollution devices contain.
Bello defends killing the local measure by saying that the paperwork it would have required would be burdensome for Monroe County scrap dealers but would have done little or nothing to curb thefts. Thieves could easily sell stolen convertors to scrap dealers in adjoining counties that do not impose such rules, he argues.
Whatever the actual merits of tying such issues as crime, inflation, rising gas prices or the GOP’s stance on the Jan. 6 riot to local races, voters’ reaction to the parties’ national narratives might tip the balance in some local races, Kneeland believes.
Perceptions of increased crime and the fact of rising gas prices could help Republicans overcome the Democrats’ enrollment advantage, he says. Democrats’ disgust with the Republican Party’s bow to Trump’s false election narrative is also likely to motivate some Democrats. But at the moment, gas prices are a more immediate concern for most.
How much of a factor such issues weigh on local races will likely depend on who turns out to vote, Kneeland believes. Older voters are more likely to be moved by the GOP’s inflation and crime narrative, while younger voters are more likely to sympathize with a Democratic story line.
Typically, older voters have turned out in greater numbers for elections in which no national races are on the ballot, a trend that would seem to favor Republicans, Kneeland says. But the numbers still favor Democrats and you never know, he adds. This race could see a surge of younger voters.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.