For Monroe County Democrats and Republicans, the Nov. 7 election is pivotal. At stake are the county executive office and all 29 Legislature seats. The leaders of both parties say they see their chances of winning as good.
In 2019, Democrat Adam Bello was elected county executive and the party won a single-seat majority in the Legislature, ending a nearly 30-year streak of Republican domination of the executive office and the lawmaking body.
The Legislature win proved to be illusory, however. Internal Democratic strife let Republicans maintain control despite the Democrats’ one-seat majority.
The Democrats’ victories in Monroe County came after years in which their enrollment has grown and ultimately surpassed the long-dominant GOP. At last count, the county’s 217,959 registered Democrats outnumbered the 131,860 registered Republicans by a margin of more than 86,000.
Because of his party’s registration advantage, Monroe County Democratic Party chair Stephen DeVay sees this year’s election as an opportunity to finally cement his party’s control of county government.
Over the past two years, the party has quelled the rebellious element in the Legislature majority. And, says DeVay, if the Democrats just manage to hold on to the Legislature seats it already has, the party will win control of the body. If it picks up one more seat, “I’ll be ecstatic.”
Bello, meanwhile, should coast to victory, DeVay believes.
GOP county chair Pat Reilly doesn’t share that view. He thinks the Nov. 7 vote is a chance to put his party back in total control of county government.
Elected to the chairmanship in a contested race with only weeks left before the November election, Reilly has been working overtime to get out the GOP vote.
Top of the ticket
In the county executive race, Bello faces Mark Assini, a former county lawmaker and Gates supervisor.
In a recent televised debate, the candidates traded barbs, with Assini seeking to blame Bello for recent upticks in crime and Bello accusing Assini of voting for the largest tax increase in the county’s history.
DeVay scoffs at Assini’s claim that Bello has failed to address public safety issues, noting that the Bello administration has increased funding for the Monroe County sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices.
For most voters, Reilly believes, issues are not as key as some take them to be.
“Most people don’t understand the intricacies of how the Legislature and the county executive interact,” he says. Among voters, he sees “a general feeling that things are not better than they were four years ago.”
So, while incumbency is generally seen as an advantage, in Bello’s case, Reilly posits, it will be a disadvantage. Blaming Bello for their malaise, voters will see Assini, who once came close to unseating the former highly popular Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter, as the cure for what they see as ailing the county. Issues that Reilly believes are troubling voters and will weigh against Bello are crime, inflation and immigration.
Still, Reilly concedes, given the Democrats’ registration advantage, the election is “an uphill struggle” for the GOP.
The October campaign disclosure reports, which tally contributions from late July to early October, showed Bello with a nearly $300,000 advantage in cash on hand.
The independents factor
In early voting for the Nov. 7 poll, turnout has so far been low and will likely stay low, particularly in the city of Rochester, a Democratic bastion, Reilly says. That could give a deciding role to independents, who he believes are likely to lean Republican.
At last count, independent voters–those who are not registered in any party–numbered some 135,000, making them a slightly larger force than the county’s registered Republicans.
DeVay also thinks independents could play a decisive role. How much and what kind of a role they will play in the county executive or Legislature races will be clear only after Nov. 7.
Whether Republicans’ recent chaotic ouster of Speaker Kevin McCarthy in the U.S. House of Representatives and the three-week battle among GOP factions to replace him will hurt local Republicans or benefit local Democratic candidates is a matter of debate.
“I don’t see how it wouldn’t benefit us,” says DeVay.
McCarthy, a California Republican, was ousted by a small, hard-right faction of his own caucus. The fractured House GOP’s ensuing internecine battle to choose a new speaker left the House leaderless and Congress unable to function while a deadline for funding the government loomed and war broke out in Israel.
In an interview while the battle over the Speakership raged, even House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, called his GOP colleagues’ conduct “dangerous and embarrassing.”
The imbroglio ended with the battle-weary House GOP unanimously handing the speaker’s gavel to Mike Johnson, a low-profile Louisiana House member.
“I don’t get the sense that people are paying a lot of attention to national politics,” says Reilly, who believes the House leadership crisis is already quickly fading from voters’ minds, “especially since they’ve already chosen someone.”
DeVay disagrees. Johnson, he notes, figured prominently in former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. He also is staunchly anti-abortion, opposes same-sex marriage and questions whether human activity is causing climate change.
Johnson’s hard-right views are likely to incline some suburban independents to vote against other Republicans, DeVay believes.
For Democrats, the Legislature majority has so far been problematic. For the first two years of Bello’s term, a five-member coalition of Democrats calling themselves the Black & Asian Democratic Caucus, voted with Republicans, leading the Legislature’s then president, Irondequoit Republican Joe Carbone, to boast that the rogue Democratic faction gave Republicans a veto-proof majority to block Bello initiatives.
In 2021, Carbone lost his seat to Democrat Dave Long, while four of the five-member Black & Asian Democratic Caucus’ members lost their seats to Democrats who voted with their own party. The lone remaining member, Sabrina LaMar, struck a deal with Republicans to caucus with the GOP in exchange for making her Legislature president. That deal again handed control of the Legislature to Republicans.
Last June, LeMar lost a Democratic primary to Rose Bonnick, an aide to Democratic state Sen. Jeremy Cooney, who ran on a platform of returning the seat to “a real Democrat.”
In the County Legislature races, there are contested races in 13 districts. Whether the outcome in two contested districts would alter the Legislature’s balance of power is not clear.
In the 4th District, which covers parts of Gates and Ogden, Republican Virginia McIntyre faces Conservative Rita Pettinaro, while in Rochester’s 21st District, Democrat Santos Cruz faces Working Families Party candidate Oscar Brewer Jr.
While neither outcome is a given, one might expect that whoever wins in the 4th District would caucus with the GOP and whoever wins in the 21st would caucus with the Democrats.
Meanwhile, Bonnick faces Republican David Ferris in the 27th district, which covers the city and a sliver of Gates. DeVay sees Bonnick as favored in the heavily Democratic district. Reilly does not disagree.
This is the first major general election since the redistricting of the County Legislature map. While much of the conflict surrounding the map was focused on Black voting age population in the city of Rochester, suburban districts have slight, but significant changes to their boundary lines.
The district most clearly a coin toss based on enrollment numbers alone is Webster’s 8th District. Republicans hold an advantage of only 61 registered voters versus enrolled Democrats. The area is split nearly evenly with Republican, Democratic, and unaffiliated voters each making up about one-third of total registered voters.
The Webster district features a rematch between incumbent Republican Mark Johns and Democrat Michael DiTullio, who met in a very close election last year. That election saw Johns carry the day thanks to a strong showing from unaffiliated voters and those voting on the Conservative Party line.
Enrollment data from the New York Board of Elections also points to a potentially close race in Chili’s 3rd District. While Democratic challenger Marvin Stephenson lost in 2021 by a sizable margin to Republican Incumbent Tracy DiFlorio, the new boundary lines could make a difference this time.
Currently, Democrats have a 391 registered-voter advantage over Republicans, which means the race should be competitive, but the enrollment shift gives the challenging party an edge it did not have previously. Similar to the 8th District, unaffiliated voters make up almost a third of those enrolled in the district.
While voter registration numbers have increased, voting rates for off-cycle elections have been declining. In the last off-cycle election, in 2021, only 30 percent of eligible voters turned out, the lowest rate in 50 years.
So, regardless of party affiliation, candidates will likely be contending with low voter turnout this year. For districts where the two major parties are separated by only a few hundred registered voters, turnout could make a big difference.
Other contested districts include:
■ The 3rd District in Chili, in which incumbent Republican Tracy DiFlorio faces Democrat Marvin Stepherson;
■ The 5th District, which covers parts of Henrietta, Pittsford, Rush and Mendon, in which Democrat Terry Daniele squares off against Republican Richard Milne and where neither candidate is an incumbent;
■ Webster’s 8th district, where incumbent Republican Mark Johns faces Democratic challenger Michael DiTullio;
■ The 9th District in Penfield, where Democrat Democrat Mel Callan is challenging incumbent Republican Paul Dondorfer;
■ The 10th District, which covers parts of Brighton, Pittsford and East Rochester, where GOP challenger Nancy Lewis is running against incumbent Democrat Howard Maffucci; and
■ The 13th District, which covers parts of Pittsford and Henrietta, where incumbent Democrat Michael Yudelson faces a challenge from Republican Ethan Greene.
■ The 18th legislative district, covering parts of Fairport and Perinton, Democrat Lystra
McCoy is challenging incumbent Republican Sean Delahanty;
■ The 20th legislative district covering parts of Greece, Ogden and Sweden, Democrat
Jaime Erskine-Petit is challenging incumbent Republican Robert Colby
Also contested are the 16th District in Irondequoit, where former GOP Legislature President Carbone seeks to regain the seat he lost two years ago to Democrat Long, who enjoys a nearly 3,000 registered-voter advantage over his opponent. Unaffiliated registered voters also outnumber Republicans. In 2019, independents and third-party voters helped Carbone across the finish line in a contest against Lorie Lachiusa Barnum.
Reilly sees Carbone’s chances as good. DeVay thinks Long will retain the seat.
The final contested county Legislature race is for the 14th District seat, which covers parts of Brighton and Henrietta. GOP county chair Reilly is taking on incumbent Democrat Susan Hughes-Smith.
Reilly, who previously lost a bid for the seat, does not give himself much of a chance in the heavily Democratic district. He says he entered the race before pursuing the GOP party leadership post and stopped actively campaigning after he won the chairmanship. If he should win the Legislature seat, Reilly says, he will not serve.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. Jacob Schermerhorn, Beacon contributing writer, created the data visualizations for this article. 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].