The passing of the torch from one Monroe County Republican Committee chair to a successor more often than not has been an undisputed handoff. Not this time.
In a race slated to be decided at a Sept. 23 party convention, three hopefuls are vying for the position: Larry Staub, Patrick Reilly and Laureen Oliver.
Staub is a longtime Republican operative who has held numerous GOP staff positions at the county and state level.
Reilly is a telecommunications executive who chairs the Brighton Republican Committee.
Oliver is longtime political operative who left the Republican Party in the 1990s to co-found and chair the libertarian-leaning New York Independence Party. After spending some two decades in Nevada and Florida, she returned to Monroe County in 2020 and has now rejoined the Republican Party.
The race comes as the once locally dominant GOP has seen its ranks and its share of local elected offices noticeably shrink in recent decades.
Each of the three candidates cites the local GOP’s diminished prospects as their reason for seeking the county leadership position. Their diagnosis of what ails the party and their prescriptions for curing the party’s malaise differ.
For much of the past four decades Republicans firmly held the reins of county government, controlling both the Monroe County Legislature and the county executive’s office. Over that span, however, the county GOP has steadily lost membership while the county Democratic Party’s enrollment grew.
According to state Board of Election figures, in 1996 the 153,265 registered Republicans in Monroe County outnumbered the 141,164 registered Democrats by more than 10,000. By early this year, the county’s 217,959 registered Democrats outnumbered the 131,860 registered Republicans by a margin of more than 86,000.
Still, as local GOP registration shrank, between 1992 and 2020 the Monroe County executive office stayed in Republican hands. With the election of Democratic County Executive Adam Bello in 2020, that changed.
So far during Bello’s term, Republicans have kept control of the County Legislature despite Democrats’ gaining a slim one-seat majority of the 29-member body.
For two years after they lost the majority, Republicans maintained control with support of a five-member rogue Democratic faction calling itself the Black & Asian Democratic Caucus that consistently voted with Republicans.
In 2021, the Legislature’s then president, Irondequoit Republican Joe Carbone, boasted that notwithstanding the Democrats’ majority, thanks to the BADC his party had “a supermajority” capable of thwarting any Bello initiative.
Last year, the BADC was reduced to a single lawmaker when all members but the current Legislature president, Rochester Democrat Sabrina LaMarr, lost their seats to other Democrats who did not vote with the GOP.
This year, in exchange for being named president, LaMar agreed to caucus with the GOP, allowing Republicans to hang on to their majority despite being a seat shy of an actual majority.
In June, LaMar lost in the Democratic primary to challenger Rose Bonnick, who ran on a platform of returning “a true Democrat” to the seat. Bonnick is considered likely to win a November race for the seat, raising the possibility that Democrats could win true control of the Legislature and, if Bello wins re-election in November, shut Republicans out of any county-government majority.
Rebuilding the party
To the problem of how to rebuild the ailing county GOP, Staub offers a build-it-and-they-will-come solution. The key to restoring his party’s dulled sheen lies simply in winning elections.
The other candidates see the local party’s slide as a failure of leadership by a contingent of insiders who lost touch with ordinary voters. Both see Staub as a longtime member in good standing of that contingent. Both say that as a first order of business they would restructure the local party, completely retooling its rusting machinery.
Oliver complains that factions within the county GOP for years have vied to control the party apparatus and, in the process, have lost touch with ordinary voters.
She cites organizing work she has done with the Independence Party, and in Florida and Nevada.
“I’ve been hired as a petition-drive director. I know how to build a party,” Oliver says. Her challengers have no comparable experience, she asserts. The local GOP, says Oliver, “has lost steam.”
Reilly also believes the local GOP is out of touch. He sees a chance for a local GOP renaissance in less reliance on stalwarts like Staub and more outreach to local volunteers like himself. Citing his experience as a telecommunications executive, Reilly proposes to update what he sees as the local party’s neglected and sorely lacking digital infrastructure.
“Technology has changed how campaigns should be run. Online presence, data management, digital communications, and online fundraising have all improved dramatically, yet we don’t use any of it in our party locally,” Reilly argues in a letter outlining his platform sent to GOP committee members in late August.
“Some people have grandiose ideas, but it really comes down to winning,” counters Staub.
He blames the local party’s slide less on local leaders’ failures than on demographics. Distraught by New York’s increasing leftward turn, Republican voters across the state have departed for more GOP-friendly states, he asserts.
As interim county GOP chair, Staub has something of an incumbent’s sheen. He was named to the position in late August by outgoing chair David Dunning, who made the appointment virtually simultaneously with his own departure.
Citing the difficulty of juggling the county leadership position with his duties as Chili supervisor, Dunning, who had served as county chair for the past year, strongly urged fellow Republicans to accept Staub as his successor.
“I wholeheartedly endorse Larry Staub as our new chairman. We should all thank Larry for stepping up to the plate,” Dunning said in a statement.
Oliver and Reilly see Dunning’s endorsement as an attempt by a member of a local GOP establishment responsible for the party’s decades-long slide to crown fellow insider.
Over a 40-year career as a local GOP operative, Staub has served in positions including deputy county clerk, county director of parks, communications director for former GOP County Executive Maggie Brooks, and chief of staff for Monroe County Republican legislators and GOP state Sen. Jim Alesi.
Still, Staub disputes his challengers’ portrait of him as an establishment figure, arguing that as someone who never held elected office, he is as a much of an outsider as Reilly or Oliver. Since being named interim chair, he notes, he has worked without pay and will continue to do so. If elected, Staub says, he plans to appoint a presumably paid executive director.
Given the increasingly lopsided registration advantage enjoyed by Monroe County Democrats, much of the local GOP’s chances of regaining its lost clout arguably lies in the party’s ability to sway voters not registered in either party.
As of February, the state Board of Elections counted 167,445 of Monroe County’s 517,264 registered voters as neither Democrats nor Republicans.
Of that number, 8,610 are registered Conservative Party members who would presumably favor Republican candidates; 2,042 are Workers Family Party members who would seem more likely to align with Democrats. Of the remaining 156,793, most—135,710—are blank or independent. Another 21,083 are registered in unnamed parties.
All three candidates concede the necessity of convincing blanks to vote for Republicans in upcoming elections.
Oliver and Reilly see a more concerted outreach to grassroots voters as key to winning blanks over and a ground-up restructuring of the local GOP’s machinery as key to effectively kicking off such outreach.
Staub, who views regaining electoral ascendancy as the first step needed to rebuild the local party, believes messaging is the route to retaking seats. He sees two races in particular as winnable: the county executive race in which Mark Assini, the former Gates town supervisor who lost a close contest with Rep. Louise Slaughter in a 2014 congressional race, is challenging Bello; and the race for an Irondequoit seat in the Legislature in which Carbone is challenging Democrat Dave Long, who narrowly defeated him for the seat in 2020.
Winning votes in both races, Staub believes, will require stressing the time-tested Republican issues of crime and taxes. Democrats remain vulnerable on both scores, he asserts.
How their platforms will play with the local GOP committee members who will choose the party’s next leader on Saturday remains to be seen.
I asked one longtime East Side GOP committee member how he thinks the county chair vote might play out. Asking not be identified by name or town, he said, “I don’t know. I don’t know who any of these people are. I’ve kind of lost interest. I’m not even sure if I will vote.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].